Republicans grilled former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton through more than 8 hours Thursday in a long-awaited hearing of the House Benghazi committee that by late in the day had produced little if any new information, but ample partisan argument.
WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers spent more than 8 hours aggressively questioning Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday, seeking to build a case that the former secretary of state had been derelict in her duty to secure the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in the months before the 2012 terrorist attacks that killed four Americans.
Billed by Republicans leaders of the select House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks as a critical moment in its inquiry, the long-awaited appearance by the leading Democratic presidential candidate served largely as a replay of highly contested arguments from previous congressional hearings, press examinations and Sunday-morning talk shows.
The hearing provided an extraordinary spectacle, starting in the morning and stretching well into the night, far longer than such sessions typically last, even with multiple witnesses.
Through the lengthy session, Clinton maintained a calm and smiling demeanor, showing few visible signs of fatigue other than a hoarse throat that began to develop in the 10th hour.
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If one of Clinton’s goals was to convey an image of being more composed and serious than her inquisitors, members of the committee often appeared to help, engaging in one high-decibel shouting match and numerous partisan jabs.
The committee’s seven Republicans and five Democrats squabbled over the cost to taxpayers of the multiple investigations, the conduct of the State Department in responding to those inquiries, even the length of the hearing, itself.
“We’ve been here for 9½ hours, and the questions are increasingly badgering … increasingly vicious,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said as the evening wore on and Republican members turned from questions about the attack to inquiries about Clinton’s use of a private server for her emails while she headed the State Department.
“They simply wish to wear you down.”
The hearing has been eagerly anticipated for its potential impact on next year’s election. Partisans on both sides anticipate that if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, mobilizing each party’s supporters will be a higher priority than finding or converting the relative handful of voters who remain undecided about her.
Both parties think the committee proceedings could help in the mobilization effort.
The marathon hearing provided Republicans with a national audience as they grilled Clinton, often using her own words from thousands of pages of emails obtained by the committee. But it also gave Clinton her first opportunity since early 2013 to respond directly to her fiercest critics, and she used the platform to offer lengthy explanations of her diplomatic efforts around the world and her actions before and after the Benghazi attacks.
“Why were there so many requests for security equipment and personnel and why were those requests denied in Washington?” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the committee chairman, demanded to know as he opened the hearing Thursday morning “What did our leaders in Washington do or not do, and when?”
Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, portrayed the investigation as focused on the facts and insisted the Republicans’ efforts were not a prosecution.
Contradicting him, Smith said the committee exists solely to hound Clinton.
“The purpose of this committee is to prosecute you,” he told Clinton. “There will be plenty of time for that next year.
“I don’t think this committee should have been founded in the first place,” said Smith, according to The Hill’s political news blog. “The one thing that’s been said during this hearing that’s furthest from the truth is that this isn’t a prosecution. It most certainly is that.”
Republican lawmakers on the panel, for the most part, avoided mention of Clinton’s use of a private email server. Still, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, did raise the issue late in the hearing, accusing her of repeatedly changing her account of the server and why she had used it.
In a heated exchange, Clinton repeated that she had made a mistake in using a private email account but insisted that she never sent or received anything marked classified and had sought to be transparent by publicly releasing her emails.
Shortly before the committee broke for lunch, a shouting match erupted between Gowdy and two Democrats — Reps. Adam Schiff and Elijah Cummings — about the committee’s focus on Clinton’s email exchanges with Sidney Blumenthal, a former aide to her husband and a personal friend.
As the hearing went on into the evening, exasperated Democrats said they might end their participation on the committee.
“Imagining what it would be like if we weren’t present is a strong reason to participate, but at the same time I hate to give them any patina of respectability,” said Schiff, D-Calif.
Late in the evening, Clinton, hoarse and visibly tired, responded testily to comments by Gowdy questioning the independence of a Benghazi review led by Thomas Pickering, a retired diplomat, and Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I will not sit here and hear that,” she snapped, accusing Gowdy of impugning their reputations.
But during most of her testimony, Clinton sought to project an image of composure and authority, challenging the committee in her opening statement to “reach for statesmanship” in its long-running inquiry. Alternately bemused and disdainful but seldom showing anger, Clinton recalled on several occasions the courage of J. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, and the three others who died at the mission in Benghazi.
She again took responsibility for the attacks in which they died but insisted that as secretary of state she had never personally approved or denied requests for extra security for the facility where they were based. And she told lawmakers that the United States must not back away from an assertive diplomacy because of the episode.
“Retreat from the world is not an option,” Clinton told lawmakers. She called accusations that she had contributed to the death of Stevens, a personal friend, “personally painful” and “deeply distressing.”
Clinton added: “I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been wracking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done.”
Chiding the committee
Clinton, at times, used her hours in the witness chair to chide the Republican-led panel for what she called a failure to pursue a bipartisan search for the truth. In her opening statement, and later, in response to prodding by Democratic lawmakers, she said investigations of previous tragedies were handled cooperatively by both parties.
“That’s what happened during the Reagan administration, when Hezbollah attacked our embassy,” Clinton said, citing similar bipartisanship around investigations under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. “I would like us to get back to those times.”
In the course of the hearing, Republicans did reveal some new evidence of contradictions in Clinton’s statements on Benghazi, such as a transcript they obtained of a call she made to the Egyptian prime minister on the day of the attack. That transcript showed that she gave a different account of its causes than the one contained in a public statement an hour earlier.
Clinton, in defending her comments, responded that the situation was “fluid” and fast-moving.
The committee repeatedly questioned Clinton’s relationship with Blumenthal, who worked in the White House during Bill Clinton’s presidency but had been barred by the Obama administration from working for her at the State Department.
Well known in Washington but not a household name outside the Beltway, Blumenthal, in some ways, became the surprise star of the lengthy hearing, his name popping up again and again.
In several instances, Republicans said that she was preoccupied with reading homemade intelligence memos from Blumenthal instead of worrying about the security at the outpost. The Republicans said that it made no sense that Blumenthal had unfettered access to Clinton, yet Stevens did not have her email address.
Republicans also suggested repeatedly that Clinton ignored requests by Americans in Benghazi for more security.
Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas quizzed Clinton about why she did not personally respond to more than 600 requests for security from State Department employees in Benghazi even though she often responded to Blumenthal.
“The folks that worked for you didn’t have the same courtesy,” Pompeo said.
Clinton responded that Blumenthal is “a friend of mine,” but she insisted that it had been proper to leave questions about security in Benghazi to the State Department officials who regularly handled security issues.
Gowdy pressed Clinton on why requests to get supplies to Libyans made their way to her, yet emails requesting more security from Stevens never reached her inbox. Clinton repeatedly told Gowdy that Stevens had communicated with her staff, including a senior policy aide, Jake Sullivan, and security personnel in the State Department.
“He did not raise security with the members of my staff,” she said. “He raised security with the security professionals.”
She added: “I know that’s not the answer you want to hear. But those are the facts.”
“If he had raised it with me,” she continued, “I would be here telling you he had.”
As the evening wore on, Democratic Party spokespeople rushed to congratulate Clinton on her stamina.
Gowdy conceded after the hearing that Clinton’s lengthy testimony had broken little new ground. “I don’t know that she testified much differently today than when she previously testified,” he said.