The web of politics surrounding the latest congressional investigation in the 2012 assault in Benghazi, Libya, was on full display Thursday as former secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her long-awaited appearance before the panel tasked with looking into the deadly terrorist attack.
The divergent tone of the opening statements in what could prove to be a marathon, day-long testimony by the 2016 Democratic presidential frontrunner offered a glimpse of the lines of attack Republicans, Democrats and even Clinton herself might make during the historic hearing.
House Select Committee on Benghazi chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) kicked off the hearing with a full-throated defense of why the panel was voted into existence early last year, a forceful attempt to cauterize the partisan sniping that has wounded the committee’s credibility in recent weeks.
Invoking the word “truth” 21 times, the former federal prosecutor said lawmakers owe the four Americans killed in the siege, and their families, a full accounting of what happened before, during and after the incident.
Gowdy rattled off a list of the panel’s accomplishments, using the words “this committee” 14 times to stress what the 12 members had learned, including the existence of the private email server Clinton used while serving as the nation’s top diplomat.
“Not a single member of this Committee signed up for an investigation into you or your email system,” he said.
Gowdy also took a shot at his fellow Republicans, disparaging the previous seven investigations into the Benghazi attacks for not being thorough enough, an indication he is still upset over recent comments by GOP members and a former committee staffer that the inquiry is aimed at hurting Clinton’s White House bid.
The defensive statement was vastly different from the somber opening remarks Gowdy delivered at the panel’s first public hearing a little over a year ago.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (MD), the panel’s top Democrat, outdid Gowdy in terms of passion, delivering a bellowing opening statement that unleashed criticism on the GOP for its “fishing expedition” against the former first lady.
Republican leaders "set them loose, Madame Secretary, because you're running for president,” he said, to which Clinton subtly nodded.
Clinton, fully aware that she was speaking to a national audience, struck a mournful tone that lowered the temperature from the heated back and forth display put on by the committee’s leaders.
In a measured voice, Clinton spoke about each of the four Americans killed in the attack, particular Ambassador Chris Stevens, saying she “knew and admired” him, and sought to rise above the accusations surrounding the Benghazi siege.
"I took responsibility and, as part of that, before I left office I launched reforms to help protect our people in the field," Clinton said.
Her statement began with a focus on Libya, not the politics surrounding the committee, and expanded into an argument for active U.S. foreign policy, saying America must lead in a dangerous world and diplomats must continue representing the nation in dangerous places. The comments were meant to head off GOP questions about why the U.S. had a presence in Libya in the first place.
Clinton noted Benghazi wasn’t the first time U.S. diplomats were killed overseas, naming the Beirut attacks under President Reagan, the attacks in Africa during his husband’s presidency and the September 11 attacks.
She closed with a bipartisan call to members to come together on proposals that would improve security for U.S. diplomats in the future
"We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad, leadership that puts national security ahead of politics and ideology,” she said.