Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte are pressing the White House for more information about President Obama's handling of the Benghazi attacks and his whereabouts as the deadly assaults on the U.S. compounds were unfolding.
The three GOP senators, the most vocal in the Senate on the Benghazi attack, want Obama to confirm a statement National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor made Thursday night during an interview on Fox News that the president never visited the White House Situation Room to monitor events the afternoon and night of Sept. 11, 2012.
“Over a year and a half has passed since the terrorist attacks, and the American people still do not have an accounting of your activities during the attack,” the senators wrote in a letter to Obama. “Mr. President, can you now confirm that Mr. Vietor's account of your absence in the White House Situation Room is accurate?”
Vietor, who serves as NSC communications director, said he was in the White House Situation Room the night of the attack but Obama wasn't.
Responding to a questions about whether the attack sprang from a protest or was planned by terrorists, Vietor said he was in the Situation Room that night and a U.S. official didn't know where the ambassador was “definitively.”
Baier then asked whether Obama was in the Situation Room.
Vietor replied, “No,” and tried to add that Fox News had inaccurately reported at one point that Obama “watched video feed of the attack as it was ongoing in part of what I think is a pattern of inaccurate —”
Baier interjected again to ask where Obama was that night, to which Vietor replied he was in the White House.
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told the Washington Examiner that the president's advisers kept him updated throughout the evening, and forwarded a photo of Obama being briefed by his senior advisers in the Oval Office the night of Sept. 11, 2012. She did not respond to a question about what time in the evening the photo was taken.
She also pointed to a White House read-out released the next day of a phone call Obama had with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the night of Sept. 11, 2012, as well as one that he told reporters he was informed that night that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was unaccounted for and then notified again about his death as proof that the president's activities that night are "well-documented."
The White House and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have offered differing accounts of Obama's decision-making the night of the attack and have never provided a timeline on his activities that night.
Before retiring, Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in early February 2013 that he personally broke the news to Obama that the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi was under attack then never spoke to the president again that night. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he too did not speak to Obama again that day or evening but White House staffers were "engaged with the National Military Command Center and pretty constantly through the period, which is -- which is the way it would normally work."
A month earlier, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama learned of the attack from Panetta that afternoon and the president was "routinely updated" by his national security team, including Panetta, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“The president spoke to the secretary of Defense, who was in the Oval Office when the president learned about initial reports about the attack, to do everything possible to ensure that assistance -- whatever assistance can be provided was provided, and that action was taken to secure our facilities in the region and around the world, because as you know, there was unrest taking place in a variety of places at the time,” Carney said.
“So I think we’ve been very clear about that. And as is the case with developments of this kind, he is routinely updated by his national security team, Tom Donilon and Denis McDonough, John Brennan and others, as well as Secretaries Clinton, Secretary Panetta — and Panetta. And that was certainly the case here.”
During the same Fox News interview on Thursday, Vietor also said he doesn't remember his role in the editing of the Benghazi talking points, saying, “Dude, this was like two years ago.”
He was downplaying the revelation of a new email linking White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and other members of the White House communications team to former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice's controversial Sunday show statements emphasizing that the Benghazi attack stemmed from a protest to an anti-Islamic film.
Fox News' Brett Baier asked Vietor whether he changed the word “attack” to “demonstrations” in the talking points that helped prepare Rice for her Sunday show interviews.
“Maybe, I don't remember,” Vietor responded.
When pressed, Vietor said: “Dude, this was like two years ago. We're still talking about the most mundane process.”
Baier then responded: “Dude — it is the thing everybody's talking about.”