White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest on Wednesday called it a “shame” that so much attention had been paid to controversies surrounding a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, saying the focus should remain on the legacy of the South African leader.
President Obama spoke at a memorial service for Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
However, much of the focus has been on a "selfie" photo Obama took with other leaders during the event, the president shaking hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro and reports that an interpreter standing next to speakers during the service wasn't actually using sign language.
“It would be a shame if a distraction about an individual who was on stage in any way distracted from the importance of the event and Nelson Mandela’s legacy,” Earnest said of the sign-language episode, during the daily White House press briefing.
But some in the hearing-impaired community are angry about the apparent fake sign-language, saying it was disrespectful and should not be tolerated.
Earnest referred all questions about the incident to the South African government.
Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt were caught snapping a picture during the service at the Johannesburg soccer stadium. Some have accused the president of being insensitive to Mandela's memory, saying it wasn't the proper forum to take a playful photo.
On the handshake with Castro, the White House insists the embrace wasn’t planned and that it doesn’t portend any change in U.S. policy.
Earnest said it was “unfortunate” that Republicans had chosen to criticize the president while he was on a trip abroad.
This story was published at 2:01 p.m. and has been updated.