Benghazi Probe Eroded Voters' Trust in Clinton

Benghazi Probe Eroded Voters' Trust in Clinton
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Hillary Clinton says she understands how multiple investigations surrounding the 2012 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, including a new report released Tuesday, have impacted her presidential bid.

Americans don’t trust her.

While GOP-backed Benghazi probes and findings of an independent panel have never been of top importance to most Americans, according to numerous polls, the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others during terror attacks in Libya fed a narrative that Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state was marred by misjudgments and secrecy.

As an offshoot of the examination of events in Benghazi and Washington, lawmakers uncovered Clinton’s use of a private email server while she led the State Department. Suspicions about the government’s role in the terror attacks, revelations about Clinton’s email communications, and decades of unrelated subpoenas, investigations and depositions involving both Bill and Hillary Clinton have damaged her standing with voters, including Republicans and liberal Democrats.

In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent of respondents surveyed June 19-23 said they have very or somewhat negative views of Clinton. Of those who raised concerns about electing the former secretary of state, 43 percent of registered voters said they view her as “dishonest and not trustworthy.” Her GOP adversary Donald Trump was assessed as honest and straightforward by 41 percent in the survey, while 25 percent viewed Clinton that way.

“I personally know that I have work to do on this front. A lot of people tell pollsters they don't trust me," Clinton said Monday during an appearance in Chicago. She said that "25 years' worth of wild accusations" eroded her reputation, and she pledged to alleviate voters’ suspicions by earning their confidence.

"It's certainly true. I've made mistakes. I don't know anyone who hasn't. So I understand people have some questions," Clinton said during a Rainbow/PUSH Coalition luncheon. "You can't just talk someone into trusting you. You've got to earn it.”

The former first lady and ex-New York senator, addressing criticisms that she is overly scripted and rehearsed, said her cautious speaking style and deliberative presentations as a candidate were not meant to conceal anything. “It’s just that I’m careful with my words,” she said.

If elected president, her restraint and reflexive caution would be a virtue, Clinton maintained, drawing a contrast with the improvisational Trump.

"I believe what you say actually matters. I think that is true in life and it is especially true if you are president,” Clinton said Monday. “So I do think before I speak."

Trump has repeatedly branded Clinton a liar and “crooked.” This week his campaign began email fundraising using a pledge to “indict” his Democratic adversary.

An 800-page “proposed” report presented Tuesday by Republican members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi offered no new or conclusive bombshell revelations but concluded that the deaths of four American “heroes” were “eminently avoidable.” 

The panel’s probe took two years, $7 million and encompassed 100 witness interviews, including nine hours of Capitol Hill testimony by Clinton in October, during which she and Democratic lawmakers cast the GOP probe as purely partisan heading into a presidential election year.

Asked if he believed Clinton lied about what took place in Libya, panel chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said the investigation was not about the former secretary, and Americans could read the findings and judge for themselves. “That’s a word you couldn’t use in a courtroom,” the former federal prosecutor told reporters.

Reacting to the report, the Clinton campaign said in a detailed statement of rebuttals: “Republican efforts to exploit the Benghazi tragedy to score political points against Hillary Clinton [have] been both disturbing and fruitless.”

Trump, during a speech describing his opposition to multilateral trade pacts Tuesday, urged voters to reject “Hillary Clinton’s politics of fear, futility and incompetence.” Last week, he repeated his charge that Ambassador Stevens “was left helpless to die as Hillary Clinton soundly slept in her bed,” an assertion independently fact-checked as false.

Reacting via Twitter to the House GOP report, Trump turned the lawmakers’ conclusions into an indictment of the presumptive Democratic nominee’s judgment: “Benghazi is just another Hillary Clinton failure. It just never seems to work the way it's supposed to with Clinton.”

Trump’s son, Eric, joined in: “Today's Benghazi report shows Hillary failed to answer repeated calls, refused to send any help and then lied about the attack ... What a gem.”

As the general election begins, the Clinton campaign has worked to undercut Trump’s credibility when it comes to steering the U.S. economy as president, his temperament to be commander-in-chief, and his vision to address the needs of middle- and lower-income families. For his part, Trump hopes to expand his base of primarily white, male GOP supporters to attract independents and possibly admirers of Bernie Sanders by faulting Clinton’s judgment, motives and achievements as a member of Washington’s political establishment.

The tragedy in Benghazi, which sparked accusations of a political cover-up among critics of the administration as President Obama campaigned for re-election in 2012, gained traction among some conservatives in combination with continued disclosures about Clinton’s emails and critiques of her international policy advice to the president. While the Benghazi probes may have concluded, the email inquiries continue.

On Tuesday evening, as Trump prepared for a campaign rally, he turned his attention to the contested Clinton emails via a text to supporters. “Crooked Hillary got caught! Take a look at the top secret emails they found on her server,” he wrote, linking to a separate campaign website devoted to attacks on Clinton and a solicitation for donations to the Trump campaign.

The challenges involving trust and veracity tied to Clinton show no signs of abating. She embraced independent recommendations for security and other management improvements in the wake of the Benghazi attacks, and has conceded she set up a personal email server for “convenience” and should have handled communications differently in retrospect. She denies she sent or received information that was classified at the time she was secretary.

The FBI has yet to conclude its investigation of Clinton’s email issues, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch was forced this month to assure the public of the Justice Department’s impartiality. The State Department inspector general issued a scathing report in May about the department’s control and management of emails. And previously undisclosed official State Department email communications formerly under Clinton’s control and on her personal server continue to erupt into public view as a result of ongoing litigation.

James Arkin, congressional reporter, and Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political correspondent, contributed to this report.  

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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