The White House on Monday failed to address President Barack Obama’s whereabouts the previous day, when more than 40 world leaders and millions of marchers gathered at solidarity rallies in France to unite against terrorism in the wake of multiple murders that rocked Paris last week.
Press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters during a briefing on Monday that he had not spoken to Obama about “what he did” on Sunday. Earnest, who was pummeled by the media on the administration’s lack of representation in France, said U.S. officials were absent from the scene because of security concerns and the reality that the rallies were scheduled in less than 36 hours. The White House, he added, didn’t want Obama’s presence to disrupt the gatherings.
It was “fair to say we should have sent someone with a higher profile” to France,” he said Monday, adding there should be “no doubt” Americans stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the French in fighting terrorism and standing up for the freedoms of speech and of the press.
On Sunday, more than 3.5 million people joined together in solidarity throughout France, in the largest-ever rally in the European country’s history. And at least 40 presidents and prime ministers were present, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, as governments across the globe continue attempts to stop the threat of domestic terrorism. British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, close American allies, took part in the march.
Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris during the weekend for discussions about counter-terrorism. But he was replaced in the marches by U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley. The White House quickly issued a statement that Holder’s schedule, which included interviews with four of America’s five major Sunday news shows, did not allow him to participate. The Obama administration added the U.S. government continues to support France, which the president last week continually referred to as one of America’s oldest allies. But Americans questioned the whereabouts of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, on Monday told msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell: “From the French side, there is absolutely no hard feelings.”
Earnest’s comments came as some Republicans condemned the Obama administration for not joining dozens of presidents and prime ministers set aside their differences and joined together at solidarity rallies Sunday.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said the U.S. government must never hesitate to stand with its allies nor to speak the truth. “The absence is symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage, and it is dangerous,” he wrote Monday in an op-ed published in TIME magazine, adding that the attacks weren’t just on France, but on the countries’ shared values.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said the French are experiencing a similar trauma as Americans did following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On Monday, he said he understands Obama might have chosen not to attend because he brings with him an “intense” security and communications package when he travels. But, he said, other people from the administration should have represented Americans.
“I thought it was a mistake not to send someone,” Rubio, who is a member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, said Monday on “CBS This Morning.” “In hindsight, I would hope that they would do it differently.”
Meanwhile, many social media users and several media personalities also criticized the White House for its absence at the events.
French leaders on Monday vowed to continue searching for potential terror accomplices in the attacks that disturbed Paris for 54 hours last week. Starting on Wednesday, brothers Chérif and Säid Kouachi allegedly stormed the offices of French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and killed 12 people. The next day, a gunman killed a policewoman and wounded a street sweeper across from a Jewish school in the neighborhood of Montrouge in Paris. Then on Friday, officials killed the Kouachi brothers after a standoff at a printing shop north of the country’s capital. Simultaneously, an associate of the brothers, Amedy Coulibaly, seized a kosher supermarket in Paris, killing four hostages before police stormed the market. Coulibaly was identified as a suspect in the Thursday shooting of the policewoman.
Authorities confirmed that a fourth suspect still at-large, Hayat Boumeddiene, crossed the Turkish border into Syria on Thursday, the same day Coulibaly is believed to have killed the police officer.
Many of the marchers over the weekend raised pencils in the air, an image that has become a symbol of free expression in the aftermath of the multiple murders.