Obama administration officials dug the President into a deeper hole Tuesday in trying to clarify his comments that an attack on a Kosher deli in Paris were “random,” opening him up to criticism from the right.
The comments, coming as anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere, gave Republicans ammunition that Obama is out of touch with the threats facing the nation — an issue they plan to highlight in their pitch for the White House in 2016.
President Barack Obama made the comments in an interview with Vox published Monday, acknowledging that it’s “entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.”
The referenced attack was committed by a man claiming allegiance to ISIS at a Kosher deli in early January. The man killed four Jews and took over a dozen others in the deli hostage, and said in an interview with BFM-TV he wanted to defend Palestinians and target Jews, according to Reuters.
Pressed on the remarks on Tuesday, both White House spokesman Josh Earnest and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki gave muddy and meandering defenses of the President’s comments, both refusing to characterize the attack as one aimed at the Jewish community.
“It is clear from the terrorists and the writings that they put out afterward what their motivation was,” Earnest said during the Tuesday briefing with reporters, in response to a question on whether the President had “any doubt” that the attacks were targeted at Jews.
“The adverb that the president chose was used to indicate that the individuals who were killed in that terrible, tragic incident were killed not because of who they were but because of where they randomly happened to be.”
Psaki offered a similar argument.
“Well, as you know, I believe if I remember the victims specifically, they were not all victims of one background or one nationality,” she said, asked about Obama’s comments.
Asked again, directly, whether the administration thought it was an attack on a Jewish community in Paris, Psaki demurred, refusing to “speak on behalf of French authorities and what they believe was the situation at play here.”
Both Psaki and Earnest tweeted clarifications of their comments later.
And on Wednesday, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a potential 2016 presidential contender, seized on Obama’s comments, declaring in a statement he’s “appalled that President Obama has chosen to deny the vicious anti-Semitic motivation of the attack.” “What he called a ‘random’ attack was obviously meant to kill Jews – which is precisely what happened. The individual victims may have been those unlucky enough to be in the grocery that day, but it was far from random,” he said.
Perry noted that anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe, and argued Obama had “failed” in not acknowledging the problem. It’s a critique similar to what other Republicans have said about Obama refusing to use the words “Islamic extremism” in addressing the threat posed by Islamic militants.
“While there is no easy solution to this terrible problem, our response must begin with acknowledging exactly what’s going on – and that is the test Mr. Obama failed. It’s time to tell the truth,” Perry said.