SEOUL — A defensive President Obama said Tuesday that he wasn’t guilty of “hiding the ball” when an open microphone caught him pleading with the president of Russia to delay missile-shield talks until after this year’s U.S. elections.
Mr. Obama was responding to a stateside political furor Monday, though his remarks Tuesday did not quell Republicans’ specific criticism that he is waiting until he is politically invulnerable to sell out U.S. interests to the Kremlin.
“The only way I get this stuff done is if I’m consulting with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve got bipartisan support and, frankly, the current environment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations,” Mr. Obama told reporters at a nuclear security summit here. “This is not a matter of hiding the ball.”
A day earlier, Mr. Obama was caught on tape telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he needed “space” this year to put his re-election campaign behind him before taking up missile-defense negotiations with the Russians.
“After my election, I have more flexibility,” he told Mr. Medvedev, unaware that their conversation was being recorded by a journalist.
Republicans in Washington reacted angrily Monday, accusing Mr. Obama of hiding his true intentions and fearing that he might give in to Russian demands after the elections. GOP presidential candidates, foreign policy mavens and political strategists focused on what the episode may say about Mr. Obama’s candor and trustworthiness.
“This isn’t about politics. This is about the president’s real agenda,” presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said while campaigning Tuesday in Beaver Dam, Wis. “The president’s real agenda is to withdraw, to allow — whether it’s the Russians or the Chinese or whoever it is, the Iranians — let them have their run of the table because America’s no longer in the business of protecting ourselves and our allies.”
In an opinion piece at Fox News, Karl Rove, who was President Bush’s top political adviser and the architect of his 2004 re-election bid, said Mr. Obama’s words “go beyond foreign affairs” and could hurt his chances in November.
“Mr. Obama’s private turned public remarks [may] confirm doubts that he’s not shooting straight with the American people. It may also contribute to a belief that he holds voters in thinly disguised contempt. Is Mr. Obama also concealing unpopular domestic policies he’ll spring on the country in a second term?” Mr. Rove said. “What the president calls ‘flexibility’ with Russian autocrats, American voters will likely view as a lack of candor with them.”
One outlier in the political wrangling Tuesday was House Speaker John Boehner. The Ohio Republican declined an invitation from reporters to comment on the president’s remarks.
“While the president is overseas,” Mr. Boehner said, “I think it´s appropriate that we not be critical of him or of our country.”
The episode overshadowed the nuclear summit, a conference of 54 heads of state and government that wrapped up Tuesday. Clearly eager to put the controversy to rest before leaving South Korea on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama jumped at the chance when a reporter asked him to clarify his comments. He began by asking reporters, “Are the mics on?
“What I said yesterday — is something that I think everyone in this room understands,” the president said. “Arms control is extraordinarily complex, very technical, and the only way it gets done is if you can consult and build a strong understanding, both between countries and within countries.”
Mr. Obama said he is committed to nuclear disarmament and confirmed that he sees American missile defense as secondary to the goal of building trust with the Kremlin on disarmament.
“I think everybody understands — if they don’t, they haven’t been listening to my speeches — that I want to reduce nuclear stockpiles,” Mr. Obama said. “And one of the barriers to doing that is building trust and cooperation around missile-defense issues. I’m on record, I made a speech about it to a whole bunch of Korean university students [Monday]. I want to see us over time gradually, systematically reduce reliance on nuclear weapons.”
Although the president spoke to Mr. Medvedev only in terms of his own election, Mr. Obama said Tuesday that congressional elections and Russia’s just-completed presidential vote also influenced his thinking on the matter.
He said the New START agreement that he and Mr. Medvedev signed in 2010 required “a painstaking two-year process.”
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that you can’t start that a few months before presidential and congressional elections in the United States, and at a time when they just completed elections in Russia, and they’re in the process of a presidential transition where a new president’s going to be coming in, in a little less than two months,” Mr. Obama said.
The Russian leader backed Mr. Obama on Tuesday by saying, “It’s not surprising that a number of issues are better solved in a specific political situation.
“There are good and bad periods for solving things,” he said. “It’s quite obvious that the situation when all political forces are stable is the best time for that.”
Mr. Medvedev also injected himself into U.S. politics in a more pointed way, chastising Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney and saying the former Massachusetts governor should “rely on reason” and not try to act like a movie star.
In the context of criticizing Mr. Obama about the previous day’s whispered exchange, Mr. Romney called Russia the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the U.S., words that Mr. Medvedev said “smacked of Hollywood” and sounded as if they came from the Cold War.
“It’s 2012, not the mid-1970s, and whatever party he belongs to, he must take the existing realities into account,” the Russian leader said.
The U.S. and NATO are pursuing a missile-defense shield in Europe, a project that Russia says will compromise its security. U.S. officials want Russia to proceed with negotiations on various technical matters related to the shield while they seek common ground on the overall system.
Leaders at the summit that wrapped up Tuesday agreed to work on securing and accounting for all nuclear material by 2014, including completed weapons, bomb material and the skills to build them.
Although Mr. Obama also met Tuesday with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the White House was tight-lipped about an Associated Press report that U.S. officials offered key concessions to Islamabad’s spy chief on the CIA’s drone campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan.
The report said the U.S. offered to provide advance notice of missile attacks and respect limits on the types of targets. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said only that the two men “discussed ways in which we can ensure that we have an ongoing dialogue at all levels of our government.”
As Mr. Obama gave reporters his explanation of the whispered exchange, Mr. Medvedev and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan stood at his side with an interpreter. As soon as Mr. Obama finished speaking, he began to walk out of the room, but Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Nazarbayev were clearly waiting for the interpreter to tell them what the American president had said.
Realizing that his counterparts hadn’t received the translation, Mr. Obama began to usher them out of the room anyway, saying “we’re going to leave” and that the other two world leaders would “get the translation later.”