Aside from being the most intense moment of Tuesday's debate, the question about the situation in Benghazi mirrored the larger controversy, prompting a heated argument, confusion over what actually happened, and finally accusations that one side is trying to spin the facts. In a follow-up to a question about Libya from an audience member, moderator Candy Crowley asked the president if, as Hillary Clinton said on Monday, the buck stops with the secretary of state. "I’m the president and I’m always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do," he replied. Obama went on to direct some harsh criticism at Romney, saying the suggestion that "anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive." However, the part of the president's response that got the biggest reaction from Romney and audience members was a remark about when exactly he first described the attack as an act of terrorism.
Obama said during his response, "The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime."
Thinking he'd found a gotcha moment, Romney repeated the line twice:
ROMNEY: I — I think interesting the president just said something which — which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror.
OBAMA: That’s what I said.
ROMNEY: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?
OBAMA: Please proceed governor.
ROMNEY: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president fourteen days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.
OBAMA: Get the transcript.
At this point, Crowley fact-checked one of the candidates for the first time in the debate, stammering, "He did in fact, sir." As the audience applauded, Obama asked, "Can you say that a little louder, Candy?" "He — he did call it an act of terror," she said. "It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that." However, when Romney protested that at first the administration said it was a "spontaneous reaction" to a YouTube video, she added, "It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group."
The dispute hinges on this line from Obama's Rose Garden address: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for." While technically the president did use the word "terror," his critics have dismissed the line as a vague remark that failed to accurately describe the situation in Libya as an act of "terrorism" — which may explain why Romney missed the comment during his rigorous debate prep.
Following the debate, Romney supporters pointed to the moment as evidence that Crowley was biased. RNC chairman Reince Priebus said the president flat out lied and, “I think the moderator might have helped that along.” Conservatives are also citing a post-debate interview, in which Crowley says Romney was "right in the main" but picked the wrong word to harp on, as evidence that she "backtracked." Crowley's fact-check of Romney was the more attention-grabbing moment, but she did say during the debate that in a way they were both right.
Obama said at the end of the exchange that he'd be "happy to have a longer conversation about foreign policy," and he'll almost certainly be revisiting the issue in next week's debate.