Under fire for seemingly snubbing one of its closest allies, the White House conceded Monday that it should have sent a high-ranking U.S. official to Paris over the weekend to demonstrate U.S. support in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest admitted the mistake, siding with critics who assailed President Barack Obama for not attending the rally or sending a high ranking representative such as Vice President Joe Biden in his stead.
“It’s fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile to be there,” Earnest said at the White House daily news briefing.
Earnest noted that sending a “high-level, highly visible” senior administration official would have demonstrated “that the American people stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies in France.”
He said there should be “no doubting” U.S. support for France, noting that Obama had offered assistance to President Francois Hollande during a call immediately after the attacks and that the U.S. and France were cooperating on counterterrorism measures.
While as many as 2 million people marched through the streets of Paris in a show of unity and defiance, about 50 world leaders marched with Hollande. Although U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary of homeland security, were in Paris for meetings with French officials, only the U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, joined the demonstration.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called it a “mistake” for a high-ranking U.S. official not to participate, likening the attacks in France to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
“The French are going through a similar trauma,” he said on CBS’s “This Morning.” “I thought it would have been important to have someone there.”
The New York tabloids took it a step further, with a front page Daily News headline that blazed, “You Let the World Down.”
Earnest refused to provide any details on who’d made the decision not to send a higher-ranking official, but said it was the White House’s responsibility.
“We here at the White House should’ve made a different decision,” he said.
He said the call did not rise to Obama’s level, saying it was “not a decision that was made by the president.”
Obama and Biden were at their homes over the weekend, Earnest acknowledged, but he wouldn’t say what the president was doing Sunday and said he hadn’t talked to him about any “personal regret” or whether he’d watched the march.
He did say he thought that Obama “himself would have liked to have had the opportunity to be there,” but noted that planning for the event began only Friday and the security arrangements for a presidential visit would have been considerable.
“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,” Earnest said.
The Secret Service was not asked or notified about planning for a potential presidential trip to Paris, a Secret Service official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity to discuss security arrangements.
And Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary said the event "would have been a challenging advance . . . based on what we know."
Secretary of State John Kerry, who’s scheduled to visit Paris on Thursday and meet with French officials Friday, dismissed talk of the low-level U.S. attendance as “quibbling” and said he looked forward to visiting France “to make it crystal clear how passionately we feel about the events that have taken place there.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said internal discussions continued until the day of the rally about how best to represent the United States.
She said security was among the factors in the decision against sending Obama or Biden. Holder was in meetings, and Kerry was “never an option” because of a prior commitment to high-level talks in India. She added, if “he could’ve been in Paris, he would’ve been.”
Harf said planning for Kerry’s trip to Paris later this week was under way before Sunday and was “in no way in response” to the criticism.
While the White House struck a conciliatory tone Monday, Harf called the criticism unfair and mused aloud whether reporters would spend as much time asking about deadly attacks by the Boko Haram militant group as about “a march.”
She added that the U.S.-French relationship is “much broader than a short march.”
French ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud told MSNBC on Monday that “from the French side,” there were no hard feelings. He noted that Obama had signed a book of condolences Thursday at the French embassy in Washington and Kerry had expressed condolences soon after the attacks in French, as well as English.
“We have been overwhelmed by the expression of solidarity, of grief, of friendship coming from all corners of the American people, from the highest level of the administration . . . to the ordinary Americans,” Araud said. “I can say Americans are compassionate people.”
Araud was to meet Monday at the White House with Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco.
The U.S. delegation wasn’t the only controversial part of the presence of world leaders at the rally Sunday, which French authorities say drew more than 3 million people to the heart of Paris.
Activists and commentators on social media raised questions about whether the leaders had participated in the march or just posed for a heavily guarded photo op, noted the presence of leaders from countries with poor track records on press freedom and spread Israeli reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had attended in defiance of French requests not to participate.
Photos emerged Monday on social media purporting to show a wider camera angle of the now-iconic images of the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Spain and other nations standing shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with the throngs of ordinary demonstrators.
The new angle appeared to show a wide security cordon separating the leaders and their security guards from rank-and-file marchers, prompting criticism that the exercise was a photo op that lasted only minutes.
Human-rights and press freedom activists also were incensed at what they deemed the hypocrisy of including representatives of countries in the bottom third of the World Press Freedom Index, an annual rating conducted by the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.
Daniel Wickham, a blogger and student at the London School of Economics, noted the presence of the Egyptian foreign minister; Egypt is ranked second in the world for jailing journalists and is embroiled in a high-profile case of three imprisoned al Jazeera journalists.
Others included were the prime minister of Turkey, another frequent jailer of journalists; the king of Jordan, which sentenced a writer to up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the monarchy’s decisions; and Ireland, which has laws deeming blasphemy a criminal offense.
There was also chatter online about Israeli reports saying that Netanyahu was not invited to attend the march but did so anyway. News reports said that once it became clear the Israeli premier would be coming, French officials hurriedly invited his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, making for the much-remarked-upon photo of the two adversaries in close proximity.