How John McCain Forced Out Susan Rice

Elspeth Reeve
How John McCain Forced Out Susan Rice

It seemed a little strange that Sen. John McCain launched a crusade against U.N. ambassador Susan Rice for what she said about the Benghazi attacks on five Sunday talk shows September 17, but it's stranger still that he won. Rice withdrew her name from consideration to be Secretary of State Thursday afternoon, and President Obama released a statement saying he accepted it. (Stay tuned here for more updates from Rice's interview and any McCain statement.) Only a few weeks ago, Obama sounded like he was strongly behind Rice, saying, "If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me." How did he change course so fast? Not only did McCain's successful campaign to block Rice's appointment focused on an odd part of the controversy — Rice's punditry — but McCain wasn't all that good at waging it. Here's a timeline of the big moments that forced out Rice — and probably now welcome in John Kerry:

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September 11: Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, are killed in attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi.

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September 17: Rice goes on five Sunday shows and says that the best available intelligence suggests the attacks were inspired by protests in front of the American embassy in Cairo over an anti-Islam video. By then, there were reports suggesting they weren't related.

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November 15: McCain holds a press conference about Rice during a classified hearing on Benghazi.

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November 16: David Petraeus meets with lawmakers and tells them what the CIA talking points were. In a word-for-word comparison, they were quite close to what Rice said.

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November 20: McCain shifts his complaints to say he's upset the Director of National Intelligence changed Rice's talking points to remove references to terror groups.

November 25: McCain softens his tone on Rice, saying he's open to talking with Rice about Benghazi: "I think she deserves the ability and the opportunity to explain her position."

November 27: Rice meets with McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte about her talking points. She issues a statement saying her talking points were partially "incorrect." McCain isn't satisfied.

December 10: It's announced McCain will join the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is in charge of vetting Obama's Secretary of State nominee.

Rice hadn't been in the news much while Washington fixated on the fiscal cliff, so why release her withdrawal now? Why not wait until Obama nominated someone else? In Rice's letter to Obama withdrawing her name from consideration, she says, "The position of Secretary of State should never be politicized." Given recent history (Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice), she's leaning pretty heavily on the difference between "should never be" and "has never been." 

Perhaps Rice's decision had something to do with a new problem: reports that she is significantly invested in the Canadian company that wanted to build the Keystone XL pipeline, which the State Department delayed. Conservatives were looking at other Rice investments, like in Royal Dutch Shell, which buys Iranian oil. Maybe there as a sense that the Rice fight would never end?

In a statement following Rice's announcement, McCain thanked her for her service but said he'd continue to "seek the facts." There was a sense, during and after the election, that conservatives were shocked Benghazi — a terrorist attack amid worldwide protests — didn't undo the Obama campaign. But McCain certainly never doubted he would win in the long run. At a December 3 press conference, he referred to John Kerry — long seen as Obama's second choice for Secretary of State — as "Mr. Secretary." We'll see about that.