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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Romney Gets It Backward

Mitt Romney claims the Obama administration issued an “apology for American values” after U.S. embassies were attacked. Not true. Romney refers to a statement issued before mobs attacked either in Egypt or Libya, and faults U.S. diplomats for failing to condemn actions that hadn’t yet happened.

Furthermore, the word “sorry” or “apologize” doesn’t appear in the statement. Under the headline, “U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement,” the embassy in Cairo said, “Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy.”

Romney has falsely accused Obama of “apologizing for America” many times before. The line has been a dependable applause-getter with conservative audiences. But we found no basis for this claim in Obama’s previous speeches and remarks. And other fact-checkers came to similar conclusions.

Getting Things Backward

This time Romney has gone beyond putting his own unwarranted spin on the president’s statements. He has just gotten his basic facts in the wrong order.

Romney appeared on national television the morning of Sept. 12 and said:

Romney, Sept. 12: I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.

In response to reporters’ questions, he added:

Romney: The embassy in Cairo put out a statement after their grounds had been breached. Protesters were inside the grounds. They reiterated that statement after the breach. … I think it’s a — a — a terrible course to — for America to — to stand in apology for our values. That instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. An apology for America’s values is never the right course. …

The statement that came from the administration was — was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a — a severe miscalculation.

The fact is, however, that Romney got his sequence of events backward.

A Timeline

Contrary to multiple reports from Fox News, the U.S. embassy in Cairo — not the State Department in Washington — put out the statement on Sept. 11 several hours before a mob of protesters breached the wall of the embassy, took down an American flag and replaced it with a black flag.

At 6:11 a.m. Eastern time (around noon Cairo time), the U.S. embassy in Cairo tweeted: “U.S. Embassy condemns religious incitement,” with a link to its full statement. (The tweet was later deleted and the link to the statement was taken down.) A senior administration official who spoke to reporters on a conference call confirmed that the statement was released at about noon Cairo time, which would have been at about 6 a.m. EDT. That places the release of the statement several hours before the protest.

So Romney was wrong about the statement from the embassy coming in response to the protest. Nor do we see any basis for Romney’s claim that the embassy statement was “apologizing for free speech” and “appeared to be an apology for American principles.”

Here is the statement in its entirety:

U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement

September 11, 2012

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

The “incitement” to which the statement refers is an obscure U.S. movie that was getting widespread attention in Egypt and the Arab world because of a 14-minute trailer posted on YouTube in early July. According to Max Fisher, an editor at The Atlantic, the movie accuses the prophet Mohammed and other Islamic figures of “homosexuality and child molestation” among other things.

It so happened that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was giving a daily press briefing in Washington, D.C., at 1:05 p.m. Eastern time shortly after the protest and was asked about it.

Nuland, Sept. 11, 1:05 p.m. EDT: So obviously, one of the things about the new Egypt is that protest is possible. Obviously we all want to see peaceful protest, which is not what happened outside the U.S. mission, so we’re trying to restore calm now. But I think the bigger picture is one of the United States supporting Egypt’s democratic transition and the Egyptian government very much welcoming and working with us on the support that we have to offer.

No apology there.

More important, the statement from the embassy in Cairo was released some 10 hours before another mob attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. According to senior U.S. officials, the attack in Libya began around 4 p.m EDT and continued for several hours.

In the late afternoon on Sept. 11, Nuland confirmed that the U.S. consulate in Libya was under attack, but she did not say if anyone had been killed. In her statement — the first official statement we could find from the State Department in Washington — Nuland said: “We condemn in strongest terms this attack on our diplomatic mission.” There was no sympathizing with the attackers. The statement was issued before the deaths were confirmed.

At 10:08 p.m. EDT, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement on the attack, confirming the deaths of three Americans.

Clinton, Sept. 11, 10:08 p.m. EDT: I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. … Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.

At 10:25 p.m., the Romney campaign released a statement saying, “I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

At 11:04 p.m. ABC’s Jake Tapper reported, “An administration official tells ABC News that ‘no one in Washington approved that statement before it was released and it doesn’t reflect the views of the U.S. government.’ ”

On the morning of Sept. 12, Romney doubled-down on his attacks, claiming that after the grounds in Cairo had been breached, the embassy released a statement that amounted to “an apology for America’s values.”

In a statement from the Rose Garden that same morning, Obama — with Clinton at his side — also added his voice to the chorus condemning the attacks and called them “outrageous and shocking.”

Again, neither Obama, Clinton nor the State Department spokeswoman issued an “apology for American values,” as Romney described it. All unequivocally condemned the attacks and called them unjustified. And the embassy statement upon which Romney’s claim rests was issued hours before the protest in Cairo.

Asked to explain Romney’s comments, spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom acknowledged that the embassy in Cairo released its statement before the protests occurred. But he said Romney was referring to a deleted tweet from @USEmbassyCairo after the protest that reaffirmed the embassy’s earlier statement. That tweet said, “This morning’s condemnation (issued before protests began) still stands. As does our condemnation of the unjustified breach of the Embassy.”

That does not, however, explain all of Romney’s comments — including the one in which he claims “the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions.” The deleted tweet does not necessarily sympathize with the mob, and it does condemn their actions.

Apology Tour

Romney’s claims about the administration “apologizing for American values” fits an ongoing theme of his campaign: accusing Obama of beginning his presidency on an “apology tour” in foreign countries. In fact, that meme informed the title of Romney’s book “No Apology.”

We looked into the Obama speeches that Romney cited as evidence and concluded that nowhere did we see that the president “apologized” for America. In some speeches, Obama was drawing a distinction between his policies and those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In other instances, Obama appeared to be employing a bit of diplomacy, criticizing past actions of both the U.S. and the host nation, and calling for the two sides to move forward.

Then, as now, Romney’s claim of Obama “apologies” falls flat.

— Brooks Jackson, Robert Farley and Eugene Kiely