The doors into Room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building were completely surrounded, reporters of many nationalities pointing their cameras for glimpses of the stars of the Select Committee on Benghazi.
Tom Fitton slipped through the gantlet without a single flash going off. The president of Judicial Watch could take credit — and did — for Thursday’s circus. It was Judicial Watch that sued the State Department for e-mails that found White House aides collaborating on talking points about the attack, and it was those e-mails that had prodded the Republican majority to create the select committee.
Fitton looked upon his work — and despaired. It was a good day for Judicial Watch’s special Benghazi Snapchat filter (“This message will disappear just like Hillary Clinton’s e-mails”) but a mixed day in his battle for accountability.
“It’s disappointing that a year and a half plus after the committee was appointed, we’re finally having a significant public hearing,” Fitton said after a few hours inside the room. “I don’t think that’s what people expected when the select committee was appointed.”
The former secretary of state’s epic testimony and interrogation had been years in the making. Some conservatives, including Fitton, had been suing the Clintons for information since the 1990s. Some Republicans, including House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, had been nervous about a blue-ribbon investigation being perceived as electioneering or a vendetta.
Few hearings had been so closely watched. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina was among the Republicans who observed it from the room itself. To get there, he bypassed a line that snaked through the first floor of Longworth, filled with interns in their best suits, Clinton fans sporting buttons with her name, bearded travelers and students cutting classes.
“This looks like fun,” Mulvaney said, disappearing into the room.
To do so, he walked past Steven Arango, an intern for Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) who had arrived at 10 the night before and slept in the building to get his spot at the front of the line. He watched a monster-hunting TV show on Netflix to pass the time and ate Cheetos for dinner.
He came, he said, because many people have opinions about the committee, but the only real way to know what’s going on is to see it for yourself.
“People say it’s bipartisan,” he said. “Other people say it’s all about attacking. But I wanted to see what the truth is.”
Corrogan R. Vaughn, a Maryland Republican activist who ran against the committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings, in 2014 but lost, arrived at 7:30 a.m., 2
“It’s worth it,” he said. “It’s that important.”
Other spectators over the course of the day included the pollster Frank Luntz, wearing his trademark red, white and blue sneakers. “It’s history in the making,” he said.
Former Virginia congressman Tom Davis, a Republican who presided over House Oversight hearings on doping in baseball, stayed for as long as he could and left praising the “A-game” of both Gowdy and Clinton.
“I think the point that she had all these security warnings, didn’t know about it, but was exchanging all these e-mails with Sidney Blumenthal — that was a good point,” Davis said. “But for me, it’s entertainment. This is high drama! This is the most exciting thing since the steroids [hearings]!”
As Thursday’s hearing went on, a kind of conservative consensus emerged. The Republicans on the select committee were not bumbling through this or wasting time. They were forcing Clinton to confront scores of questions about security in Libya and the wisdom of the decision to create a no-fly zone in the first place. The only problem, some said, was whether the media would cover this fairly.
“A valiant Hillary Clinton sits alone, being interrogated by a nearly all-white Republican committee,” snarked Rush Limbaugh to his afternoon listeners. “That’s probably how this is going to be portrayed by Yahoo and Vox Media, wherever the low-information crowd goes to get their news.”
When members of the committee emerged during breaks, most headed to the nearby TV cameras. Democrats challenged the existence of the committee and speculated about quitting it. Republicans happily fielded questions about their strategy and how they could prove that something outwardly negative for Clinton was not really about politics.
“I wrote my own questions,” Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said. “I know it’s not political. If you know it’s not political, you don’t worry about that criticism. Mine are questions that I’ve gotten from my constituents and am passing on to her.”
“I hear from Kansans, when I go back home: ‘Mike, nobody’s been held accountable,’ ” said Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). “We’re going to conduct more interviews. We want to make sure we understand the whole thing.”
Shortly before 4 p.m., when the Republican committee members left for House votes, their colleagues complimented them on how well it was going. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) stopped by the House chamber to congratulate Gowdy.
“Chairman Gowdy has followed the facts where they lead,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “I didn’t personally hear anything that new, but I wasn’t in there that long.”
Fitton, for all the frustration, did hear something new.
“The e-mail disclosed by Congressman [Jim] Jordan [R-Ohio], the one Mrs. Clinton wrote on the night of the attack — where she calls it a terrorist attack — was significant,” he said. “Judicial Watch released documents yesterday and today confirming that everyone knew that. Here we had direct confirmation from Clinton, in her own words, that she allowed lies to be propagated. That was worth seeing.”