Senators Distance Themselves From Saying John Kerry Wants to Arm Syrian Rebels

Sen. John McCain speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, Sept. 2, 2013, following a closed-door meeting with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and President Barack Obama to discuss the situation with Syria. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Two key senators on foreign policy issues distanced themselves today from assertions they made earlier that Secretary of State Kerry told them during a closed-door meeting that he had lost faith in the United States' Syria strategy and wanted to arm the rebels there.

Asked by ABC News whether Kerry had proposed specific alternatives to the current U.S. strategy, including arming the loosely affiliated rebels there, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was in the room with Kerry during the meeting, responded, "No, but I think that was obviously a conclusion you could draw. … I don't know how you could do more without increasing assistance to the rebels but he didn't say it specifically."

McCain, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gave his impressions of the meeting, which took place on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, to three reporters traveling back on the plane with them.

In several articles, Graham is quoted as saying of Kerry, "He openly talked about supporting arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a coalition against al Qaeda because it's a direct threat."

When Graham was asked again this evening about his recollections of the Sunday meeting, he did not mention arming the rebels, but noted several other factors Kerry mentioned, some of which Kerry has addressed publicly.

"The things that stood out to me is he said the Russians are not being helpful when it comes to the chemical weapons issue, and the Syrians are slow-rolling the chemical weapons agreement and the Russians are still supplying them arms and they're not being helpful and that al Qaeda is becoming a threat to us," Graham said.

Graham also reiterated that the secretary "confirmed basically what Clapper had said about al Qaeda," referring to a Senate hearing last week in which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said al Qaeda groups in Syria were a threat to homeland security.

Two Democratic senators in the meeting, Sheldon Whitehouse and Chris Murphy, said in a statement that McCain and Graham's recounting of the meetings were inaccurate. "Neither of us recall the Secretary saying the policy of the administration in Syria was failing, nor proposing new lethal assistance for Syrian opposition groups."

Earlier today, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied that Kerry said that he wanted to arm the Syrian rebels, saying that might have been senators "projecting" their desires onto him.