WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is firing back at a pair of Republican senators who have launched a preemptive attack against his potential nominee for secretary of state, saying that "to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
In a series of media appearances on Wednesday, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pledged they would do everything in their power to block the possible nomination of Susan Rice, the current ambassador to the United Nations, as secretary of state.
The senators have based their objection on Rice's role in disseminating the White House's version of events in the days immediately after the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. At the time, Rice told several television stations that the attack, which left four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya dead, was not believed to be related to terrorism.
Administration officials later acknowledged that this was incorrect, and said the misleading information was the product of incomplete "talking points" from the intelligence community, although Republicans on Capitol Hill believe the White House knew the truth sooner.
To McCain, Graham, and a small cadre of colleagues, this is enough to disqualify Rice from a cabinet-level job.
"Susan Rice should have known better, and if she didn't know better, she's not qualified," McCain said Wednesday during an appearance on Fox News. "I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States secretary of state."
In his press conference Wednesday afternoon, Obama took umbrage with this line of attack.
"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after someone, they should go after me," he said. "And I'm happy to have that discussion with them. But for them to go after the United Nations ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intel she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous."
Obama also said Rice never had a choice about whether to appear on the talk shows to discuss Benghazi.
"She made an appearance at the request of the White House in which she gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her," he said.
An Obama administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Huffington Post that Rice was chosen to make the appearances because of her job as a top diplomat in the administration, not because of any specific knowledge of the incident.
"The administration asked her to [make the appearances]," the official said. "And here's why: we had lost a senior diplomat, and it made sense that a senior diplomat would go out to speak to that, and contextualize it."
Although several other Republican senators have indicated that they were concerned by Rice's statements, it remains unclear whether McCain and his allies have the necessary support to prevent her from being confirmed along those lines alone.
Perhaps aware of this limitation, Republicans on Capitol Hill expanded their criticism of Rice Wednesday, saying that as U.N. ambassador she had failed to bend the will of Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council over intervention in Syria. Russia and China have remained steadfast in their opposition to such action, and have vetoed proposals to intervene on multiple occasions.
"I don't think we're doing very well in the U.N., quite frankly," Graham said at a Capitol Hill press conference earlier in the afternoon. "You know, they did a pretty good job in Libya, but since then Russia and China has been walking all over us. I'm not so sure she's the strongest advocate."
Some Democrats have said that the Benghazi-related attack on Rice brings to mind another secretary of state nominee, Condoleezza Rice: Her appointment by the Bush administration was opposed by those who felt her advancement of the mistaken notion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq similarly disqualified her from the office.
During a 2002 appearance on CNN, Condoleezza Rice had said that while "there will always be some uncertainty" about the intelligence, "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
When she was later nominated for secretary of state, by which point it had become clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, both McCain and Graham publicly defended her appointment despite the misstatements.
Graham and his allies denounced this comparison, saying that Condoleezza Rice's statements at the time reflected the widely agreed upon understanding of the intelligence community, while Susan Rice should have opted not to speak on the subject without more certainty.
"When it comes to Condoleezza Rice, we're not the only country that thought he was trying to get weapons of mass destruction," Graham said.
"You don't end up on every single major Sunday show without affirmatively putting yourself out there of wanting to carry forward a message on behalf of the administration," Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) added during the news conference. "I think there is a certain responsibility with the current position that she has to ask proper questions about what we did and didn't know at that point before she goes on."