Hillary Rodham Clinton’s discipline and steely demeanor disarmed and irritated congressional Republicans as they questioned her handling of Libya as secretary of state, her response to the Benghazi attack and her frequent contacts with Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton adviser.
WASHINGTON — There were accusations by Republicans of a State Department cover-up. There were critiques by Democrats that the other side had spread conspiracy theories about the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, for political gain.
And in the middle of it, there was Hillary Rodham Clinton looking at her notes.
“I can pause while you’re reading your notes from your staff,” Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said as he questioned Clinton about the events surrounding the attack.
“One thing at a time, Congressman,” she replied, saying the next time he paused, “I’m waiting for a question.”
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“Go ahead, you finish reading and I’ll start talking,” the congressman replied.
Clinton’s discipline and steely demeanor — bordering on dismissive at times — disarmed and irritated congressional Republicans as they questioned her handling of Libya as secretary of state, her response to the Benghazi attack and her frequent contacts with Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton adviser who had been barred by the White House from working at the State Department.
As the Republicans on the committee grew more pointed and impassioned in their questioning, Clinton stayed the course. She used the hearing to address observers far outside the gilded assembly room, speaking in heartfelt terms about the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the three other Americans killed in Benghazi. (“You know, I would imagine I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together,” she said at one point. “I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together.”)
She took the opportunity to explain her worldview of diplomacy and the need for U.S. intervention abroad. “We have learned the hard way when America is absent, especially from unstable places, there are consequences,” she said to lawmakers skeptical of the intervention in the strife-torn nation.
And she vehemently denied that Blumenthal, a friend and former political aide, was one of her closest advisers on Libya despite being out of favor with the White House. (“I have said it before, and I will repeat it again,” Clinton said. “Sid Blumenthal was not my adviser — official or unofficial — about Libya.”)
Perhaps the only fact that emerged as abundantly clear Thursday was that the attack in Benghazi and the congressional committee investigating it have become a mirror of a country — and a Congress — fiercely divided in its opinions about Clinton.
“Those who want to believe the worst will believe the worst,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and a committee member who has been critical of the investigation into Benghazi. “Those that want to believe that this is a partisan exercise will believe it.”
In the end, Clinton’s responses probably did little to win over critics who believe she bears responsibility for the events that led to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack and its chaotic aftermath. And the pointed questions from Republicans that Clinton endured for hours did not likely convince her supporters that she had mishandled the attack.
Democrats on the committee seemed as exasperated with the Republicans as the Republicans were with Clinton. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., summed up the first five hours of testimony this way: “We have learned absolutely nothing.”
At one point, Reps. Elijah Cummings, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and Trey Gowdy, its Republican chairman, heatedly interrogated each other about whether Blumenthal’s relationship with Clinton was even relevant.
“If you think we’ve heard about Sidney Blumenthal, wait for the next round,” Gowdy said right before the first break of the daylong testimony.
Clinton stuck closely to the facts and figures she presented in her previous testimony about Benghazi, and she continued to say that security experts at the State Department, not the secretary of state, handled security at U.S. diplomatic outposts abroad.
But this time — under the glare of a presidential campaign — she was cautious not to lose her temper when questioned about what led to the attack.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, pressed Clinton on whether she had advanced the theory that a protest against an inflammatory anti-Islam video had led to the attack because it was more convenient politically than labeling it a terrorist attack. “Where did the false narrative start?” Jordan said. “It started with you, Madame Secretary.”
That line of questioning led Clinton to wave her hands in frustration in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans,” she said then, in a moment that spread quickly online. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?”
This time, she kept calm, explaining that the fast-moving and fluid situation made it difficult to know what exactly had happened. “We were in a position, Congressman, of trying to make sense of a lot of incoming information,” she said.
Jordan said characterizing it as a terrorist attack would have hurt the Obama administration in a re-election year and Clinton’s legacy in Libya and therefore Clinton tied it to spontaneous protests against the video. “You did it because Libya was supposed to be this great success story for the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department,” Jordan said.
Clinton replied, “I think the insinuations you are making do a grave disservice to the hard work” of people in the State Department and others who did their best “during the course of some very confusing and difficult days.” (She also referred the committee to a chapter in her memoir “Hard Choices.”)
During breaks, Clinton seemed chipper and relaxed. She hugged supportive Democrats who filled the leather chairs that flanked the desk where she sat on an embroidered pillow, her quilted purse at her side.
A handful of Clinton’s closest aides, including Cheryl Mills, Huma Abedin and Jake Sullivan, helped her prepare and accompanied her to the hearing.
But Clinton also brought in outside counsel, enlisting the help of Phil Schiliro, who was in charge of legislative affairs at the White House during President Obama’s first term.
As the hearing stretched into its ninth hour, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., asked Clinton if she was alone at her house the night of the attack.
“I was alone,” she said.
“The whole night?” Roby asked.
“Well, yes, the whole night,” Clinton said, letting out the first laugh in an otherwise heavy session. Roby replied that it was not a laughing matter. “I’m sorry,” Clinton said, “A little note of levity at 7:15” at night.