After 11 hours, a House committee’s questioning of Hillary Rodham Clinton provided few new details about the 2012 attacks on American installations in Benghazi, Libya – and no clear victory for Republicans seeking to trap Clinton in an admission of bad judgment.
The marathon hearing of the House Select Committee on Benghazi concluded at 9 p.m. with a whimper. As the hours passed, Republican lines of questioning became increasingly opaque and partisan conflict riled members on both sides of the aisle.
Clinton, maintaining calm throughout the hearing, received ample opportunity to defend her record and describe her commitment to the safety of U.S. personnel while serving as secretary of state. Only a handful of times did Republicans succeed in putting her on the spot, more often engaging Clinton on topics that seemed tangential to understanding the 2012 attacks that killed four Americans.
Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), an ardent defender of the impartiality of his investigation, insisted the time was being put to good use.
“Learning about the four people who died ... is worth whatever amount of political badgering that may come my way. I’ve seen the personification of courage and public service. I’m a better person for it,” he said late in the evening.
Clinton only obliquely mentioned the conflict surrounding Gowdy’s panel, which two Republican lawmakers have suggested is politically motivated. “I recognize that there are many currents at work in this committee, but I can only hope that the statesmanship overcomes the partisanship,” she said.
Republicans on the committee through the day had repeatedly asked Clinton about the special access she gave longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal, who sent reports about Libya to the private e-mail address that Clinton used for government business while she was secretary of state. They have contrasted that with the treatment of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, whose requests for greater security measures went through official channels and never bubbled up to Clinton’s desk.
“Help us understand how Sidney Blumenthal had that kind of access to you, Madam Secretary, but the ambassador did not,” said Gowdy.
The sharpest questions of the day came from Republicans Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Mike Pompeo (Kan.). Jordan accused Clinton of misleading the public about the 2012 attacks in order to help President Obama’s reelection prospects.
“You picked the [account] with no evidence. You did it because Libya was supposed to be . . . this great success for the White House,” said Jordan, who charged that Clinton had blamed the attacks on reaction to an anti-Muslim video, while knowing that was false. “And now you have a terrorist attack. It’s a terrorist attack in Libya. And it’s just 56 days before an election.”
Jordan was the first Republican in this hearing to spell out the alternate history of the Benghazi episode that many on the right believe is the correct one. He spoke rapidly, interrupting Clinton at times, and personally accusing her of falsehoods.
“Where did the false narrative start? It started with you, madam secretary,” Jordan said. After his questioning period ended, Gowdy gave Clinton a chance to respond.
“I wrote a whole chapter about this in my book, ‘Hard Choices.’ I’d be glad to send it to you,” Clinton said. “I think that the insinuations that you are making do a grave disservice” to those in government.
Clinton said she had not intended to mislead, but instead had sought to make sense of confusing intelligence reports from Libya and other places where protesters had overrun American diplomatic installations. After that — prompted by a friendly Democratic congressman — Clinton told the committee that she had felt the loss of four Americans in Benghazi deeply.
“It’s a very personally painful accusation” that she had misled the public, Clinton said. “Having it continued to be bandied around is deeply distressing to me. I would imagine that I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together. I’ve been wracking my brain about what could have been done, or should have been done.”
In the next round, Jordan returned to the line of questioning. It became a parsing of a statement Clinton had issued about the attack afterward, with Clinton and Jordan arguing about whether Clinton had blamed an anti-Islam video as the cause of the Benghazi attacks. Jordan became animated as he asked the questions, repeating and re-stating his case in fast bursts.
Clinton, on camera, smiled a small smile that indicated amused tolerance. Her answer was slow and utterly forgettable, which was the victory she wanted.
“The gentleman yields back,” Gowdy said, ending Jordan’s time.
Pompeo pressed Clinton about why no one at the State Department had been fired in the aftermath of attacks.
“Why don’t you fire someone?” Pompeo said. “How come no one has been held accountable to date?”
Clinton responded that she had relied on inquiries into the attacks, which found that State Department officials had made mistakes but no misconduct rose to the level of a firing offense. “In the absence of finding dereliction or breach of duty, there could not be immediate action taken,” Clinton said.
“The folks in Kansas don’t think that was accountability,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also asked Clinton a question related to her unusual e-mail arrangement, in which she used a private e-mail account — and a private e-mail server housed at her home in New York — to conduct State Department business. That meant that people with her e-mail address, including longtime friend Blumenthal, could reach her directly. Why, Pompeo asked, had she not been made aware of requests for greater security at U.S. outposts in Libya — passed through official State Department channels — but Blumenthal’s ideas about Libya got to her inbox?
“He’s a friend of mine. He sent me information that he thought might be of interest,” Clinton said of Blumenthal. “He had no official position in the government, and he was not at all my adviser on Libya.”
Republicans asked relatively few questions about the issue that has dogged Clinton’s presidential campaign — her use of a private e-mail account to conduct public business as secretary of state.
They did not delve into Clinton’s e-mail practices until more than 9½ hours of the hearing had passed. At that point, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) aggressively said that Clinton has shifted her story on the topic and questioned whether she has now turned over all her work-related e-mails.
Clinton merely repeated what she has said on the topic many times before — she said using a private account was a mistake but the State Department now has all of her work correspondence.
Pompeo’s questions put Clinton on the defensive for the first time on Thursday, after other Republicans misfired with questions that strayed — in time or in subject matter — from the attacks that were supposed to be the hearing’s focus. It was damaging enough that the next Democratic questioner, Rep. Linda Sanchez (Calif.), played a video clip designed to attack Pompeo himself, in which TV journalist Andrea Mitchell told Pompeo that he was wrong to say Blumenthal was a major adviser for Clinton on Libya.
But by 5:15 p.m., the hearing seemed to have lost steam.
Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) was no longer pressing Clinton about whether she’d fulfilled her duties as secretary of state – instead, she asked whether she had owed Stevens a personal phone call, because he was her friend.
“Why did it not occur to you to pick up the phone and call your friend?” Roby asked. “I just want to hear from you why, with all this information…did it not occur to you to pick up the phone and call your friend, Ambassador Stevens, and ask him what he needed?”
Clinton replied again that Stevens had been given the chance to make those requests through official channels.
After an evening break, around 6:30 p.m., Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) sought to bring new vigor to the questioning. In a choreographed gesture, he tore a sheet of paper meant to symbolize Stevens’s requests for additional security in Benghazi. “You created an environment, Madam Secretary, where [requests] didn’t get through. They didn’t get through to you, they didn’t get through to your inner circle ... [the State Department] breached [its] fundamental duty to secure his safety,” he said.
“I think it’s a disservice for you to make that statement,” Clinton replied.
Democrats, as expected, have used their time to toss Clinton softballs — or to attack the existence of the committee itself. “The questions are increasingly badgering, I would even say increasingly vicious,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told Clinton late in the evening. “It seems to me that really, the majority simply wish to wear you down. It is clear that they are trying to attack you personally.”
As the second round of questions came toward a close, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee’s ranking Democrat, asked Clinton about an allegation that has circulated among conservatives for years: that she or somebody else in the Obama administration had told U.S. military personnel to “stand down,” and not rush to the rescue of those in Benghazi.
“Of course not,” Clinton told the Maryland congressman. “Everybody in the military scrambled to see what they could do . . . logistics and distance made it unlikely that they could be anywhere near Benghazi in any kind of reasonable time.”
Republicans – including Gowdy – seemed to hurt their own cause at times. Several spent their 10-minute periods on oddball lines of questioning: One pressed Clinton repeatedly about an e-mail exchange between two State Department staffers that Clinton said she did not know. Others loudly remarked that Clinton was reading notes passed from aides, a common practice at Washington hearings. Another spent several minutes trying to prod Clinton into saying she’d done something even more common than hearings: A politician taking credit for something.
And, repeatedly, the Republicans were baited by Democrats into a time-wasting fight over whether this committee was a partisan tool, and if any of them should be there at all. Just before lunch break, Gowdy and several Democrats got into a loud argument about whether to release Blumenthal’s interview transcripts, while cameras showed Clinton shuffling papers.
“I don’t know what this line of questioning does to help us get to the bottom of deaths of four Americans,” Clinton said to Gowdy, before the intra-legislator bickering began.
For Clinton, her performance at the hearing was the continuation of a remarkable turnabout. As of several weeks ago, a revelation from this very committee – the existence of that private e-mail account – had put her on the defensive, and threatened to undermine her presidential campaign.
But since then, she’s gotten help from another Democratic candidate: Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who said in the Democratic debate that he, like many Americans, was tired of hearing about the e-mails. A Republican, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) seemed to validate Clinton’s longtime contention that the committee was a partisan tool, not a real investigation.
In her opening statement, Clinton sought to portray herself as above political questions and to portray the panel as second-guessing the necessary risks taken by U.S. diplomats abroad.
She began her testimony by naming the four dead. She said she’d known Stevens, recommended him for the job, and met his casket when it returned to American soil after the 2012 attacks.
“Nobody knew the dangers of Libya better [than Stevens]. A weak government. Extremist groups. Rampant instability,” Clinton said. “But Chris chose to go to Benghazi because he knew that America had to be represented there at this critical time.”
In her statement, Clinton sought to get in front of the day’s questions, which are likely to focus on the security precautions at the two American facilities where the four died. It was a “pre-buttal,” to use the political term, in which Clinton portrayed that kind of question as contrary to the spirit of diplomatic work.
“Retreat from the world is not an option,” Clinton said. “America cannot shrink from our responsibility to lead.”
Clinton ended her opening statement with an admonition to the committee itself, to ask questions that were not intended to undermine her politically.
“I’m here. Despite all the previous investigations, and all the talk about partisan agendas, I’m here to honor those we lost,” Clinton said. “My challenge to you, members of this committee, is the same challenge I put to myself. Let’s be worthy of the trust the American people have bestowed upon us.”
The committee’s chairman opened the hearing with a long defense of its right to exist. Gowdy began by talking about his own work — defending his committee from allegations that it is a partisan effort disguise as a fact-finding panel. That suggestion was made by a top member of the House GOP, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), a few weeks earlier. McCarthy, pressed to say what results the Republican majority had produced, noted that Clinton’s presidential poll numbers had declined after the House investigation began its work.
“There are people — frankly in both parties — that have suggested that this investigation is about you. It is not,” said Gowdy, a former prosecutor elected to Congress in 2010. “It is about what happened before, during and after the attacks that killed them. It is about what this country owes to those who risk their lives to serve it. And it is about the fundamental responsibility of government to tell the truth.”
Gowdy, in his opening statement, listed what he said were flaws in past investigations, saying they were either incomplete or too close to the Obama administration. He said that his committee was the first to discover valuable facts, including that Clinton had used a private e-mail server to conduct government business at the time of the attacks.
He said that Clinton had not been interviewed on the Hill until now because of Clinton’s own e-mail arrangement, which meant she took valuable e-mails with her when she left office.
“You kept the public record to yourself for almost two years,” Gowdy said. “And it was you and your attorneys who decided what to turn in and what to delete.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, followed Gowdy with his own opening statement — an attack on his own panel’s credibility. Cummings charged that the committee had passed up chances to interview other government officials, in order to focus on Clinton herself.
“They set up this select committee with no rules, no deadline, and an unlimited budget. And they set them loose, madam secretary, because you’re running for president,” the Maryland congressman said. “Republicans are squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on this abusive effort to derail Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”
Cummings noted comments from McCarthy and others that he said indicated the partisan nature of the committee’s work, under Gowdy’s leadership. He called the committee “this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition.”
Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.