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Analysis | Susan Rice’s track record is taking a beating

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 4/10/2017 Aaron Blake
Then-national security adviser Susan Rice. © AP Photo/Evan Vucci Then-national security adviser Susan Rice.

Susan Rice may want to stop giving interviews at this point.

While Rice's ascent in Democratic foreign policy circles is the stuff of legend, she has also demonstrated a completely unhelpful tendency to say the wrong thing to the media. And it's come back to bite her twice just this month.

The most recent example was highlighted Monday by The Post's Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler. In an NPR interview three months before Syria's government allegedly used chemical weapons on its own people last week, Rice had hailed the Obama administration's success in removing such chemical weapons. “We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile,” she said.

But this was a highly questionable claim even at the time. Secretary of State John Kerry's exit memo to President Barack Obama, which was released 11 days before Rice's Jan. 16 interview, noted that “unfortunately other undeclared chemical weapons continue to be used ruthlessly on the Syrian people.”

Kessler gave Rice four Pinocchios — the highest degree of falsehood possible:

The reality is that there were continued chemical-weapons attacks by Syria — and that U.S. and international officials had good evidence that Syria had not been completely forthcoming in its declaration and possibly retained sarin and VX nerve agent. Yet Rice said: “We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapons stockpile.” She did not explain that Syria’s declaration was believed to be incomplete and thus was not fully verified — and that the Syrian government still attacked citizens with chemical weapons not covered by the 2013 agreement.

Rice's words would also retroactively look bad on another highly topical subject this month. As I wrote last week, Rice seemed to profess ignorance when it came to the idea that President Trump and his associates may have been wrapped up in incidental surveillance during the 2016 campaign — just before it was reported that she herself asked to unmask the identities of some of the Trump associates.

PBS's Judy Woodruff had asked Rice in mid-March, “Do you know anything about this?” Rice responded by saying, “I know nothing about this. I was surprised to see reports from Chairman Nunes on that count today.”

Rice argued afterward that she was referring to specific reports — not the fact that Trump associates were swept up in surveillance at all. But her comments, in retrospect, appear highly misleading at best. She should have known something about such surveillance if she unmasked Trump associates.

Rice's most infamous media comments, of course, came after the 2012 Benghazi attacks when she appeared on multiple Sunday shows to suggest that they weren't part of a pre-planned terrorist attack but were instead the result of spontaneous protests over an anti-Islam video. Those comments initially earned two Pinocchios and helped turn Benghazi into a liability for the Obama administration and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

They also undoubtedly hurt Rice's case for succeeding Clinton as secretary of state — a post for which she seemed destined but for which President Obama ultimately would choose not to nominate her.

But even then, it was part of a pattern for Rice. Those problems, in fact, date back to the 2008 campaign, when she was reportedly sidelined as a surrogate. As The Post's Dana Milbank recalled in 2012:

It was Rice's own shoot-first tendency that caused her to be benched as a spokesman for the Obama campaign for a time in 2008. She unnerved European allies when she denounced as “counterproductive” and “self-defeating” the U.N. policy that Iran suspend its nuclear program before talks can begin. She criticized President George W. Bush and McCain because they “insisted” on it. But, as The Post's Glenn Kessler pointed out at the time, European diplomats were rattled by such remarks because the precondition was their idea.

In the eight-plus years since then, it's not as if Rice has been a constant presence on TV. The PBS interview she gave last month, in fact, was her first interview since the end of the Obama administration. And yet, in both that interview and one conducted in her final days in office, she said something that later turned out to be careless and imprecise, at best.

I think Kessler said it well when he said of Rice's chemical weapons claim: “The Obama administration had a tendency to oversell what was accomplished, perhaps because Obama received so much criticism for not following through on an attack if Syria crossed what Obama had called 'a red line.'”

That defensiveness also seems to characterize her comments about incidental surveillance of Trump associates and the Benghazi situation, in which the Obama administration had failed to thwart a terrorist attack on Americans abroad.

But you can certainly go too far when you are trying to see and project the best of a set of circumstances, and Rice is now finding that out the hard way — again.

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