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Tuesday, Sept. 11, Benghazi, Libya
As the protests in Cairo were winding down, the situation in Benghazi was getting worse. At about 4:15 p.m. EDT, senior administration officials said, attackers had entered the compound, firing at officials and setting the consulate’s main building on fire. Three Americans were trapped inside, including Stevens, the ambassador. They became separated from one another other; one made it out before going back inside to search for the others.
No one could find Stevens.
They took refuge in a second, smaller building around 4:45 p.m. EDT. More shooting started at 5 p.m., and two additional U.S. personnel were killed. Two more were wounded. It wasn’t until 8:30 p.m. EDT that Libyan security forces helped the Americans regain control of the compound. Still, no one knew where Stevens was.
That was less than two hours before Romney’s initial 10:10 p.m. statement.
At midnight, Libyans told American officials that Stevens was dead. But they had to wait until dawn to identify him.
At 10:43 a.m. EDT Wednesday, Obama was standing in the White House’s Rose Garden, offering a tribute.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, Jacksonville, Fla.
Just minutes before Obama appeared in the Rose Garden, Romney spoke to reporters at a hastily arranged news conference at his Jacksonville campaign office, walking to the podium at about 10:15 a.m. What was supposed to be a small rally was abruptly turned into a statement of condolence for the deaths in Libya — and a doubling down on the previous night’s criticism of Obama.
Romney was pressed about whether he would have made his Tuesday night statement if he’d had complete information about the situation in Benghazi.
"I’m not going to take hypotheticals about what would have been known what and so forth," Romney said. "I — we responded last night to the events that happened in Egypt."
But his statement had referenced both countries, referring to "attacks on our diplomatic missions."
In Washington, Republican foreign policy veterans called Romney’s initial statement premature and rushed, with limited facts and an incomplete understanding of what was happening in Egypt and Libya. Romney’s team also was unclear about the timeline of when the Obama administration weighed in.
One Republican official advising Romney’s campaign on foreign policy and national security issues painted a picture of a Romney campaign more focused on ensuring Romney’s evening statement made it into morning news stories than on waiting for details about what had happened.
This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Romney’s campaign, said that as word of violence spread, campaign aides late Tuesday watched tweets coming out of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that were criticizing the filmmaker rather than condemning the attackers, and saw an opportunity to criticize Obama.
It wasn’t until Wednesday morning, when the U.S. confirmed the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, that Romney’s team recognized the severity of the situation — and that, the night before, it had opened itself up to criticism for politicizing a diplomatic crisis.
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