After being shown up on the world stage by Russia and the Palestinian Authority, among others, an embattled White House conceded Monday it erred by not sending more prominent U.S. officials to a historic unity rally in Paris over the weekend.
The embarrassing admission came as political pundits, lawmakers and other critics hammered the Obama administration for its almost-invisible presence at the Sunday march, which drew more than 1 million people to honor the victims of last week’s terrorist attacks and to support freedom of expression.
While Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a host of other world leaders and top government officials were able to make it to Paris, the U.S. sent only Ambassador Jane Hartley and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
Officials scrambled Monday to explain that, with less than 36 hours to prepare after the rally was announced Friday, security risks played a role in keeping President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden away from the event.
“Some have asked whether or not the United States should have sent someone with a higher profile than the ambassador to France. And I think it’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” Mr. Earnest told reporters at the outset of the daily press briefing Monday. “What’s also clear is that the security requirements around a presidential-level visit or even a vice presidential-level visit are onerous and significant. … I’m confident that the professionals at the Secret Service could overcome those challenges, but it would have been very difficult to do so without significantly impacting the ability of common citizens to participate in this march.”
“I’m not going to get into the planning or logistics that went into the decision related to the march,” he said.
When asked who made the decision not to send Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden, Mr. Earnest also ducked that question beyond saying the decision was not made by Mr. Obama himself.
Whatever the security risks, photos of world leaders linking arms on the streets of Paris and standing against terrorism lacked a recognizable American face. Some Republicans argue that lack of American presence at the event encapsulates a failure of U.S. leadership at a critical time in the global fight against terrorism.
“Sadly, no one from the White House was found among the more than 40 presidents and prime ministers who walked the streets with hundreds of thousands of French citizens demonstrating their solidarity against radical Islamic terrorists,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, wrote in a piece for Time magazine.
“The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous. The attack on Paris, just like previous assaults on Israel and other allies, is an attack on our shared values. And we are stronger when we stand together,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the White House’s mea culpa forced other administration officials to explain their own words and actions.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., for example, was in Paris on Sunday for a series of meetings with French officials but did not attend the rally. The Justice Department has said he could not attend because of scheduling conflicts, though Mr. Holder did appear on multiple Sunday political TV shows.
Mr. Earnest’s comments also seemed to put the White House at odds with the State Department. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State John F. Kerry — who was in India during the rally Sunday — had tried to explain away criticism of the administration.
“This is sort of quibbling a little bit in the sense that … Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was there and marched, our ambassador was there and marched, many people from the embassy were there and marched,” Mr. Kerry told reporters. “The U.S. has been deeply engaged with the people of France since this incident occurred.”
Later, State Department officials said that Mr. Kerry would have liked to attend the march but was unable to because of scheduling conflicts. He is scheduled to travel to Paris later in the week.
Throughout Monday’s press briefing, Mr. Earnest stressed that the U.S. has shown full and complete solidarity with France on the heels of last week’s attacks, which claimed 17 lives, including 12 killed at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
He cited the fact that U.S. officials worked closely with French officials in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and that Mr. Obama called French President Francois Hollande and made a personal visit to the French Embassy in Washington on short notice.
For their part, French officials have given no public indication they were angry or disappointed at the lack of American presence at Sunday’s event.
Instead, they have, on multiple occasions, publicly thanked both the administration and the American people for their support during a time of great tragedy.
“I am extremely grateful for the overwhelming support France has received from everybody here, from the president to the ordinary American,” Gerard Araud, French ambassador to the U.S., tweeted Monday.
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