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CBS Gets in Senator Portman's Face on Embassy Apology Dispute, Breaks Out Kid Gloves for Obama

Thursday's CBS This Morning rushed to President Obama's defense over the spat between the Democrat and opponent Mitt Romney over a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt condemning an obscure Internet video about Muhammad. Minutes after Steve Kroft tossed softballs at the President and let him speak uninterrupted for two and half minutes, the show confronted Republican Senator Rob Portman for defending Romney's attack.

Anchor Norah O'Donnell hounded Portman, interjecting five confrontational questions in just over two and half minutes, about the same amount of time that Obama spoke without any disruption. O'Donnell cried, "You're mistaken, Senator," and read statements from Peggy Noonan, Nick Burns, and Mike Rogers to emphasize that "Republicans...are saying that Governor Romney stepped in it." [audio available here; video below]

Co-anchor Charlie Rose played up the criticism of the Republican nominee in his first question to the Ohio Republican: "Many people are saying this morning...Governor Romney may have reacted too early and too critical about what he had heard about the embassy's response, characterizing it in a negative way, when he might have been able to say something positive at that time to support the President, because Americans' lives were at stake. The President characterized it as someone who shoots first and aims second."

Portman clarified that Romney made his statement "the night before we knew about the deaths of those four brave Americans in Libya. So, it was in relationship not to what happened in Libya, but, of course, what happened in Egypt, which was a statement from the U.S. government....It just said the American government ought not to be issuing an apology. "

O'Donnell then proceeded to repeatedly challenge her guest about his timeline of events related to the demonstrations outside the embassy in Cairo and its subsequent storming by the pro-Islamist protesters:

NORAH O'DONNELL: Senator, as you know, the statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo was issued before there were any attacks. They were issued because there was concern about protests. Do you know that?

PORTMAN: No, I was not aware that it was issued before there were any attacks. But I still think, Norah, you know, it implies that, somehow, these attacks could be justified by, again, a video that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, that came out in July, and I just think that's-

O'DONNELL: But Senator, forgive me, but that is – that is the point of this whole thing. As the President said, the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued that initial statement before these protests, and way before the attacks in Libya, to try and cool things down. There was – there was – the attacks had not yet occurred. There was no apology that had taken place.

PORTMAN: Well, it was an apology for a video, again, that we had nothing to do with. And Norah, if it hadn't been that video, it might have been another video or another photograph or another article that had been written that someone found offensive, and I think that's – again, the appropriate response is that the assaults - the attacks are inappropriate. Certainly, we've now seen that reaction from the White House. In fact-

O'DONNELL: Are you suggesting that President Obama – or is Mitt Romney suggesting that President Obama sympathizes with those who attacked our embassies?

PORTMAN: No. What I'm saying is, frankly, what the White House is saying now, which is that that statement was inappropriate. And I think for Governor Romney, having seen that statement, to react as he did is the reaction that most Americans would have, which is that, at a time when we have this kind of violence against American territory, the thing to do is to condemn it, and not to begin by issuing an apology, again, about a video that we had nothing to do with-

O’DONNELL: You're mistaken, Senator-

PORTMAN: And is not an American statement in any respect-

O'DONNELL: There was nothing – there was nothing – there was no – there was no condemning. The attacks had not occurred. When the attacks occurred, of course, the administration came out and condemned that.

Let me ask you about some of the criticism from Republicans. Peggy Noonan said, sometimes when really bad things happen-

PORTMAN: Well, Norah, again, I would – I would ask you – ask you to look at what the White House said about that same statement-

O'DONNELL: Sometimes – Peggy Noonan: 'Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go.' Nick Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who I know you know well - served under President George W. Bush, who you worked with as well - said, 'Frankly, the charges Romney made were not only completely untrue, but reckless and irresponsible.' Mike Rogers, Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee: 'I'm not exactly sure what Gov. Romney was talking about.' These are Republicans who are saying that Governor Romney stepped in it.

PORTMAN: Well, again, what he was talking about was in the context of the assaults, and that's when it occurred - the night before what happened in Libya, but after the assault on the U.S. embassy in Egypt - that the first statement from the U.S. government should not be making apologies. It should be, instead, condemning the attacks. It's a pretty simple statement, Norah. And again, I ask you to look what the White House said about it later, which is they thought that was not the appropriate response. So, I – you know, don't think it's all that complicated. I think he saw something that appeared to be inappropriate, because it was talking about an apology before condemning the attacks, and made a statement about it.

O'Donnell and Rose brought on CBS political John Dickerson after the Portman segment, who claimed that Romney's attack was a "high-risk move, and the question is, does breaking with protocol, which is the, kind of, old political tradition that politics stops at the water's edge, was breaking with that tradition worth the risk of the potential downside." Dickerson acknowledged that "not all Republicans have said Governor Romney was wrong here," but later stated that "it looks like Governor Romney is, kind of, on the wrong side of it at the moment. And, again, it's a tricky thing for a challenger in a moment of national crisis."

— Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.