April 19th, 2009
03:53 PM ET
11 years ago

Senator says Obama's appearance with Chavez 'irresponsible'

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/americas/04/18/U.S.venezuela.relations/art.chavez_obama.jpg caption=" Obama's appearance with Chavez has drawn some heat."]

(CNN) - Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, told CNN Sunday it was "irresponsible" for President Obama to have been seen "laughing and joking" with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas on Friday.

"This is a person who is one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world," Ensign told CNN's John King on State of The Union. "He is a brutal dictator and human rights violations are very, very prevalent in Venezuela. And you have to be careful."

"When you're talking about the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful who you're seen joking around with," he also said.

Chavez - whose anti-U.S. rhetoric has included calling former President George W. Bush the devil - announced Saturday he is considering naming an ambassador to the United States, signaling a potential shift in the tense relations between the two nations.

Speaking to reporters Sunday in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Obama brushed aside criticism of the appearance, saying, "It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

"Even with the imaginative crowd, I think that you would be hard pressed to paint a scenario where US interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela," he said.

Also appearing on CNN, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, downplayed the moment between Obama and the Venezuelan leader, saying, "all the president did was shake his hand like George Bush [did]."

"What the president is doing here at the summit of the Americas: he is reaching out to all of these countries like he did at the G20 [Summit], I think very effectively," Klobuchar also said.

In the interview with CNN, Ensign was also sharply critical of the Obama administration for releasing previously classified CIA memos outlining Bush-era interrogation techniques.

"What the president has done is he has sent a fear throughout the intelligence community that they could be prosecuted in the future," Ensign said. "And that is exactly the kind of fear that paralyzed the intelligence community prior to September 11. I think America is less safe because of the release of these memos," he said.

The memos, written by then-lawyers for the CIA and Justice Department officials, said interrogation tactics such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation and slapping did not violate laws against torture when there was no intent to cause severe pain.

Filed under: Extra • President Obama • State of the Union
soundoff (300 Responses)
  1. GeeBer

    Since when have United States Senators – especially Republicans – cared one bit about U.S. Presidents laughing it up with dictators? Every Latin American gov't was a dictatorship for decades, and virtually all of them had the support of the United States government. Get serious.

    April 19, 2009 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  2. breh/California

    Incredible... we have to move beyond seeing everyone one as our enemy or a threat to our security. People all around the world are waiting for the U.S. to reclaim its prominence and all our so called leaders can do is try to find ways to find fault with a simple overture. After the past eight years we have a lot of work to do and it all starts with a simple handshake and a smile. A new approach I know, but I have every confidence in our President, and I think the worst thing any leader in the world could do is see his kindness and sincerity as a sign of weakness.

    April 19, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  3. D in Phoenix

    Ensign is calling someone a human rights abuser on the same show he's defending waterboarding, head slapping, slamming people into a wall and confining them naked in a dark box with insects?

    And you wonder why any half wit wouldn't listen to the Republican Party?

    April 19, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  4. Jeff W.

    I, for one, am thrilled that we finally have a president who is attempting to create peace with our "enemies" rather than continue a cold war-like mentality. This is exactly what we want our president to be doing. It continues to boggle my mind that even after 8 years of incredibly damaging Bush policies that republicans continue to criticize Obama for every single thing he says and does. If you take the party line 100% of the time you don't have any credibility. Obama has done more good four our country in the past 3 months than Bush accomplish during his entire term. Keep up the non-stop criticism, republicans, and you'll all but ensure 8 years of Obama.

    April 19, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  5. Tk1

    hey how about we give the terroist all of our secrets and just let them come here and nuke us all.. you people are stupid, WAR Is HELL always will be, you cant sit down and have tea with them and say please tell us where your next target will be... give me a break..

    April 19, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  6. Brian

    Mr. Ensign's comment about the intelligence community being in fear of prosecution is purely political fabrication. Obama has said he sees no value in looking back and Paneta has specifically told those at the CIA that they won't be prosecuted for what was ordered to them.

    April 19, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  7. rch

    Mr. Ensign needs to shut up. Not engaging with the rest of the world is exactly what has led us to this disaster we have. Bush and his boss, Cheney, did more to harm U.S. relations with the world than any other president in the last 100 years. Republicans - you are no longer in charge - get over with it - your policies, economic, social and geopolitical led us to this point - the President is at least trying - Bush laid one egg after another due to his arrogance - and it has cost us thousands of American lives and the loss of our global reputation as a country of high standing. Bravo for President Obama for at least trying to dig us out of the pit the past administration buried us in.

    April 19, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  8. Slacko

    Republican criticism is always incredibly childish. It is incredibly that these people have no idea why their party is regarded as a joke.

    April 19, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  9. parker

    John Ensign of course has his head buried so far up his – – – that he does not realize the US actually has neighbors. And sometimes, you have to be sociable with the neighborhood bully to disarm him. Ensign is so bushy that this is yet again an example of Republican arrogance and antiquity. WE ARE THE USA (as he is thumping his chest like Tarzan) THE WORLD IS SUPPOSED TO BEG AT OUR FEET!!! Grow up old shoe before someone decides you are a dinosaur and need to be in a museum (or maybe you are already there).

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  10. Matthew Grossman

    I sorry to say to those who's childish fears of Obama's to talking in a nonaggressive manner with Chavez scares them, we no longer have a fear monger in the Whitehouse, no longer a single minded ideologue who's had little to say but "war on terrror, war on terror, war on...."

    Talk to Chavez and the like, face to face, and you show their people we are not single minded ideologues and you take the power out of their fist shaking rhetoric that America is about to invade and the evil empire will destroy their countries. This is the stuff they thrive on. We need to to look at Castro, Chavez, etc. for what they are, not overstate their power and undermine any good that can come from open discourse.

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  11. tea party= protest against a black president

    Truth Bomb Thrower,

    Bush administration arogance toward venezuela turned chavez is whatever you right wing racist are saying.

    President Obama understand the need the need to re-establish some solid relationship with Venezuela before Arab dictators and Russian use it as a plateform to attack the U.S.A

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  12. Brandon

    The irresponsible thing is continuing hateful relationships with foreign nations, a la Bush. The reason half the world hates America is because for the past 8 years we had a president who would put his fingers in his ears and arrogantly refuse to listen to other countries' leaders.

    It's ridiculous how many un-American fools DESIRE for Obama to fail simply to say "I told you so." What's more important, the country succeeding, or your party getting to say "I told you so!"? Get a grip, people.

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  13. jw

    Oh now the replicans are about human rights violations? About 8 years late igits.

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  14. JT

    Obama is trying to clean up the mess that GWB created. Other nations will respect the US only if we are willing to treat them with respect also, that means using diplomacy and not ignoring them or name-calling.

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  15. Flo

    What is exactly is the problem with interacting with people who don't like Americans? At work people talk and mingle with employees, employers and business rivals who don't necesary like them but understand there need to be a relationship? I'm all for talking, and if it bear some fruit then it was worth the risk? Obama bashing need to take a backseatt for awhile and take the wait adn see approach?

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  16. Shiny

    So, was President Obama supposed to snub or twist his face when he saw Chavez? The answer is NO. Pres. Obama did the right thing by shaking hands, smile, and chat. This is not the time to be adamant. It has not worked and it will never work. It is good to bring your enemies closer than pushing them away.

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  17. idealistic in NM

    Talking is never irresponsible. Had our previous administration talked to other countries and their leaders, we wouldn't be in this mess we are in now. The Republicans are just scared. Unfortunately, their cowardice is what helps divide this nation: condemn anyone whose views you do not agree with. Their self-righteousness is but one reason their party is doomed to extinction.

    btw, Sen. Ensign ought to look up the definition of "dictator" in the dictionary. Chavez may spout anti-American rhetoric (to rile up Bush, mostly), but he is NOT a dictator.

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  18. steve in k.c.

    When dictators meet, this is what they do. Some of you children need to sit and watch, and not speak...for your own benefit.

    April 19, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  19. Mark

    Isn't this the pot calling the kettle black? Our former president sanctioned torture, violated the human rights of prisoners of war hidden away in other countries and ignored the constitution. He attacked a soverign country for no reason other than some day they might try and attack us. Hugo Chavez is the head of state of a legitimate country. We should have a dialog with him, after all we are not to concerned about the brutal governments in China or Russia. It's time our government stopped pissing on any country that doesn't fall in line with our views and isn't big enough to have significant trade with. We would be much safer if we didn't export hate.

    April 19, 2009 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  20. tiered and bored

    I am so tired of the GOP scare tactics. On one hand this Senator Ensign condems President Obama for appearing with Chavez. That was due to Chevez being a " dictator and human rights violations" then Ensign attacks Obama for releasing the memos describing "waterboarding and other tactics" Are these not human rights violations? What has happened to America that people actually defend such tactics? I am so glad the GOP lost so many elections in the last year. Maybe this country can regain a reputation in the world for being a great country. I didn't leave the Republican party, it left me by chainging into a fear spreading and bullying party.

    April 19, 2009 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  21. Victor

    I'm a strong anti-socialist but I think the meeting was acceptable. Look, it's important to maintain some level of communication. I hate Chavez with a passion, but this is diplomacy. It's almost a game and it's not for everyone. It's disgusting, but that's how diplomacy works. You have to smile and joke with people you loathe. Now, I still worry that Obama is a lightweight in foreign policy and that he's doing more damage than good, but him reaching out initially is not a bad thing. We joked and laughed with the Soviets for years when we met.

    I would be more worried had Obama responded to Ortega's anti-American speech with his patented "I'm listening and yuo make good points" spiel. I find little to criticize about this trip. Much less than the European Vacation.

    April 19, 2009 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  22. videodrome

    Since when did Republicans start complaining about anyone "laughing or joking" in this country?
    Since when did "laughing and joking" become a crime?
    I thought Republicans didn't whine or complain, only libs.
    Guess I was wrong.................

    April 19, 2009 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  23. SHARON

    I'm so tired of republicans chastising everything Obama does. I find it refreshing to have a president who is willing to talk to everyone. It is not a sign of weakness. Just talking to countries who are against America does not signify we are going to become their best friends. If talking reopens dialogue that perhaps can at least bring us to civilizing our differences, I'm all for it. You always catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

    April 19, 2009 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  24. bob in LA

    Shut up, Senator! Your state sells his refined oil in gas stations. He supplies the oil to Citgo!
    I know the Republican Credo says, if you disagree with someone call them names and then bomb them. But in a civilized society, a polite conversation and discussion of differences, often times leads the way to comprimize and change. And at worse may lead to less hostility.
    I've seen you philosophy at work over the past 8 years, let's see if another appraoch will work better.

    April 19, 2009 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  25. Expat American

    Given the loss of innocent civilian life in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo among so many other poor decisions taken by his President, A Republican should not be lecturing anyone on Human Rights. They stood by and didn't stop Bush; not even when the former administration installed the Patriot Act and violated the civil liberties of American citizens!

    April 19, 2009 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
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