Romney Adviser Hammers CNN Anchor Over 'Silly Question'

After the press belittled Mitt Romney over the politics of his statements on Tuesday's embassy attacks, CNN's Don Lemon continued asking redundant questions about process to the Romney campaign's foreign policy adviser on Wednesday.

"[Y]ou want to talk about a process issue," Richard Williamson lectured Lemon. "Because the White House doesn't want to talk about substance. It wants to talk about process."

Lemon's first question was: "[L]ast night when this country was in the midst of a diplomatic crisis overseas, our people were in harm's way, is this the time for a candidate for the presidency to speak out in a way that is critical of the government? It couldn't wait?"

After Williamson answered that the statement came after the embassy attacks, Lemon repeated the same question. "That's a silly question," Williamson responded. "We look forward to talking about the substance when you're available," he quipped to Lemon at the interview's end.

Lemon's final question to Williamson, which was simply redundant because he had asked a similar question twice already and received an answer both times, was this: "Don't you think that this makes Romney look like he is trying to use a crisis to his own political advantage rather than thinking about what is best for the situation, being pragmatic about it, standing back, getting the facts, and then commenting?"

This echoes the media narrative of focusing on Romney's "gaffes" or matters of process and politics versus scrutinizing both presidential candidates on the substantive issues. In Romney's Wednesday morning press conference, the first five questions asked were all about the process of his Wednesday statements rather than what he would do in office.

"I came here to talk about the failed policies in the Middle East, which is what the American people are interested," stated Williamson to Lemon. "The failed policies of leading from behind. What you want to do is play a process getcha question. I don't want to play your game."

A transcript of the segment, which aired on CNN Newsroom on September 12 at 2:30 p.m. EDT, is as follows:

[2:30]

DON LEMON: Somehow it always comes to politics, doesn't it? And we are going to get to the politics of it now. The Romney campaign drawing fire for issuing a statement critical of the White House while U.S. diplomatic missions were under attack overseas. Richard Williamson is the Romney campaign's senior foreign policy advisor. He joins us now from Chicago. Ambassador Williamson, thank you for joining us.

Mitt Romney was reacting to a statement released earlier in the day from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo before the embassy's walls were breached. We have that statement, and it reads like this: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious freedoms [sic] of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

So, now, before we talk, I want to read part of Mitt Romney's response to the embassy statement. He said, I'm quoting here,"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."

My first question is this, last night when this country was in the midst of a diplomatic crisis overseas, our people were in harm's way, is this the time for a candidate for the presidency to speak out in a way that is critical of the government? It couldn't wait?

RICHARD WILLIAMSON, senior foreign policy adviser, Romney campaign: Well, let me make a few comments to your presentation. One, the statement issued by the U.S. Embassy on behalf of the Obama administration did apologize for the fact that we have free speech and pluralism in America, as in our Constitution, our values, our history. Second, that statement was reissued after the embassy was breached. It remained on the website. Third, when Governor Romney made his statement of concern that this apology was inappropriate, that we should stand up to our values, it was only then that the White House said well gee, we never cleared this.

So those are the first facts. Secondly, by the time the statement was issued, the breach of sovereign U.S. Territory in both Benghazi and Cairo were over. Third, it's the responsibility of our political leaders to stand up for what they think are right. And Governor Romney doesn't think it's right to apologize that we allow people the freedom of speech. He's not condoning how this movie or others might use that freedom. But that is in our Constitution, that is our values, that is our history. Those are the things brave Americans have stood for and died for.

LEMON: Okay. Okay, but ambassador –

WILLIAMSON: And of course, we have condolences and sympathies for the people that died. They served our country well. But as a candidate for President, he has the responsibility to present his views.

(Crosstalk)

LEMON: Absolutely. And that's – that's – that is the point here, instead of focusing on the people who have lost their lives and people who are in harm's way, we're talking about who should be apologizing for what when most people see that that is not the story. So my – and thank you for everything you just said, but my initial question was, it couldn't wait?

WILLIAMSON: Well, let me again reiterate. The timeline you suggest was not the same that I just went through. When the statement was made more than six hours after –

LEMON: I'm not asking about the timeline. It couldn't wait until – it couldn't wait until all of the information was found out about –

WILLIAMSON: Sir, you get to – you get to ask the questions. I have to answer them.

LEMON: Yes, you do, but you didn't answer. I gave you plenty of time. I asked you the question the first time. And you went on – and you gave me three points. So it could – you were saying it could not wait, yes or no, it couldn't wait.

WILLIAMSON: That's a silly question. Almost anything –

LEMON: It's not a silly question because now we're looking at – you're having to backtrack now – you're having to backtrack now and talk about a statement. And so – it's not a silly question. That's why you're here is to talk about that statement. Go ahead.

WILLIAMSON: I came here to talk about the failed policies in the Middle East, which is what the American people are interested. The failed policies of leading from behind. What you want to do is play a process getcha question. I don't want to play your game. But let me answer.

LEMON: I'm not playing a getcha question. All I'm asking you is to answer my question.

WILLIAMSON: The time the governor made his statement was fine. It was acceptable. It was right.

LEMON: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMSON: Did you just hear me? It was fine, it was acceptable, it was right.

LEMON: I heard you. But that's not what I asked you. But we'll move on now. I want to read to you what some high-ranking people in your party are saying. Here's what Peggy Noonan's saying. A speech writer for Ronald Reagan said on Fox, "I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours," she said. "Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go." So Peggy Noonan says your guy didn't do himself any favors for jumping out in front of this. What is your reaction?

WILLIAMSON: Well, as someone who served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Ronald Reagan in the White House and later as Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs in the White House, I think Ronald Reagan would have had no problem with Governor Romney speaking the truth and saying to the American people we shouldn't apologize for our values and we should stand up for what we believe and that the American people deserve a substantive question and discussion about failed Middle East policies, the failed policies of leading from behind.

LEMON: John Kerry is calling for Mitt Romney to apologize. What's your reaction to that?
 
WILLIAMSON: You know, it was funny. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, in his convention speech attacked Governor Romney for being like President Bush and the Iraq and Afghanistan policies, both of which he voted for. So when the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee apologizes for those votes, then he's in a position to ask for others to apologize.

LEMON: Back to sort of initial question and how you and I got off on bad footing here. Don't you think that this makes Romney look like he is trying to use a crisis to his own political advantage rather than thinking about what is best for the situation, being pragmatic about it, standing back, getting the facts, and then commenting?

WILLIAMSON: What's best in the situation is to stand up to our values and being willing to lead from the front. Whether it's in Egypt or in Libya or in Syria where 20,000 people have died gruesome deaths from atrocities, or whether it's Iran close to a nuclear breakout where there's been huge advances irrevocably or irrefutably under President Obama, whether it's the fact we have a hemorrhaged relationship with our most reliable ally in Israel, these are substantive matters that need to be discussed and the governor talked about that and welcomed that discussion and you want to talk about a process issue. Because the White House doesn't want to talk about substance. It wants to talk about process.

LEMON: I would rather not be talking about any of this, about people not dying, but because what your candidate did is releasing a statement, what I'm talking about here is timing and tone and had you – your candidate not done it, we wouldn't be talking about that. It was a very simple statement that could have said we were going to wait until the appropriate time, and you could have done that when he had the press conference today instead of overnight. I've got to run. Thank you, Ambassador Richard Wiliamson.

WILLIAMSON: We look forward to talking about the substance when you're available.

LEMON: We appreciate it. Thank you, and we'll have you back.
 

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014