Inquiry Does Little to Trip Clinton's 2016 March
By the end of a marathon 11-hour hearing Thursday, Hillary Clinton had a scratchy tickle in her throat. But Chairman Trey Gowdy, the Republican inquisitor leading a special House Benghazi panel, had something tougher to swallow. He could not point to anything gleaned by his team that refuted Democrats’ charges that Republicans took aim at the former secretary of state for political reasons.
“I don’t know that she testified any differently than previous times she testified,” he blurted out to reporters afterward. The concession by Gowdy -- appearing sweaty and exhausted at 9 p.m. -- that Clinton spent a long day telling Congress what she’d already told Congress underscored the challenge for Republicans. It was also evidence that preparations by her and committee Democrats to paint the drama as partisan had struck a nerve.
Clinton, who kept her flinty temper and impatience mostly in check, sought to project the image of a somber and sympathetic public servant who had spent “sleepless nights” grieving for the deaths of four Americans, determined to learn the lessons from a tragedy. Coming one day after Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not enter the presidential race, and a week after a strong performance in the first presidential debate against Sen. Bernie Sanders and three other Democrats, Clinton’s grilling became a nationally televised opportunity. The former first lady took her seat, softened by a lumbar pillow, in a strong position to capture the nomination early next year. And Republicans in charge of the inquiry did little to slow her momentum.
Indeed, House Republicans seemed to help her, beginning earlier this month with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who boasted the GOP’s Benghazi panel had deflated Clinton’s poll numbers over the summer by casting her as untrustworthy with news of her private email server. Gowdy, who winced at his colleague’s costly gaffe, denied his team used the deaths in Benghazi as a political take-down project. But his investigative team did little Thursday to dig the House GOP out of that ditch.
When the hearing was over, journalists asked Gowdy the 4.5-million-dollar question posed by Democrats on the panel: What important new information did his committee uncover about the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya?
After 17 months of exploration, Gowdy had no ready answer. After pausing, he said he wouldn’t reach a conclusion until he and his colleagues completed their inquiry, which has no set end date.
So eager were Democrats on the panel to discredit individual GOP members, their motives, techniques and conclusions that even Republicans grew less confident about efforts to cast Clinton as an uncaring, risk-taking, insular secretary whose delegation of diplomatic security decisions supposedly cost the U.S. ambassador and three others their lives. Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have a history of being lucky in their enemies and gifted by their friends, know how to turn a spotlight back on those training it. Thursday’s hearing was no exception.
Seated behind Clinton were a row of savvy attorneys, several of whom helped President Clinton secure Senate acquittal following House impeachment charges. The lawyers came armed with ringed binders of data; they slipped the nation’s former chief diplomat notes and coordinated strategy with Democratic lawmakers on the panel. And they kept researchers busy off-stage fact-checking lines of inquiry in real time.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the select committee, interrupted the pace of questioning by sparring with the chairman throughout the day, and he joined his Democratic colleagues in repeatedly assailing Republicans for what they claimed was an attempt to sink a presidential candidate.
“We’re better than trying to use taxpayer dollars to destroy a campaign!” Cummings bellowed.
Seated among Clinton’s team was Phil Schiliro, one of the party’s most seasoned legislative and investigative strategists, who spent years helping former California Rep. Henry Waxman conduct House inquiries. Schiliro then joined President Obama as his first-term White House legislative affairs director; he now lives in New Mexico but returned to Washington to help Clinton’s team through the hearing.
To show solidarity with Clinton, members of the Congressional Black Caucus took seats several rows behind her during the morning session, their faces visible during the day’s television coverage.
The former New York senator also was accompanied by members of her campaign staff. In Brooklyn, her political team churned out press releases, fact sheets, tweets and commentary supporting the candidate’s testimony throughout the day.
In lieu of blockbuster revelations, the GOP’s questions covered terrain familiar from earlier congressional and independent investigations, including the administration’s shifting explanations about whether protesters angered by an anti-Islamic video or terrorists attacked and burned the U.S. compound. Clinton testified once again that the administration’s explanations changed in September 2012 because intelligence and evidence evolved, not because of domestic political anxieties in the weeks leading up to Obama’s re-election. She maintained that her worries about the inflammatory impact of the video in the region proved well placed.
Republican lawmakers used Clinton’s emails, turned over to the State Department last year after it was discovered she retained work-related emails on a personal server, to build an unflattering narrative suggestive of flawed judgment and lack of transparency. Lawmakers presented no evidence and made no accusations during the hearing that Clinton violated laws, regulations or U.S. policies. Questions about her email system occurred in the final hour of the hearing and prompted familiar explanations from the former secretary, who has been questioned by the media on the subject numerous times since March. Her private email server, the security of her system, and the degree to which classified communications traveled through her private system during four years of government service are all under investigation by the FBI.
Gowdy and his GOP colleagues accused Clinton of being preoccupied by “drivel” correspondence about Libya sent to her by friend and former journalist Sidney Blumenthal. They argued that while tasking aides to weigh Blumenthal’s secondhand intelligence, Clinton simultaneously neglected multiple appeals for security improvements from U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, who died in the Benghazi attacks.
Clinton defended her longtime friendship with Blumenthal, as well as the information he fed her from sources she said she did not know. She repeatedly testified that Stevens sent his requests for increased security assistance to State Department personnel in charge of security, and not to the secretary. She said Stevens, whom she praised as heroic for comprehending and accepting hazards in Libya, never raised the topic with her.
“I was not responsible for specific security situations,” Clinton said, referring to Stevens’ appeals for more protection in Libya during a period of violence and upheaval there. “We knew what he was asking for; they went to the security professionals.”
Gowdy and his colleagues offered no documentary evidence or other testimony to refute her recollections. Without it, the hearing amounted to a tedious dissection of the witness’s assertive responses and her command of procedural minutiae, personnel names and titles, dates and history, and her storytelling.
“I know that’s not what you want to hear,” Clinton told Gowdy after he expressed amazement that diplomatic security issues did not appear in emails turned over to the government last year. “But those are the facts.”
On the campaign trail, Clinton often tells voters that her diplomatic experience and her years in the Senate make her especially qualified to collaborate with Republicans and those who hold different viewpoints from her own. It is a version of presidential leadership especially appealing to independent voters, women and moderate Republicans, more than the progressives she’s courting to win the nomination.
Perhaps with Biden’s Rose Garden admonishments Wednesday about the pettiness of partisanship in mind, or regretting her pride when including Republicans among her adversaries during last week’s debate, Clinton ended her testimony where she began it.
“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 in a voice so quiet it was mournful. “At some point we have to do this. It is deeply unfortunate that something as serious as what happened in Benghazi could ever be used for partisan political purposes. And I'm hoping that we can move forward together, we can start working together, we can start listening to each other.”