Hillary Clinton’s 11-hour appearance in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi safely puts another major hurdle behind her following last week’s first Democratic primary debate and Vice President Joe Biden dropping out of the race.
Clinton had to keep her poise in the face of tough questioning from the GOP and avoid a moment of exasperation like the one she had before a Senate panel in 2013 when she exclaimed “what difference, at this point, does it make?” about the motivation for the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans.
On that score, she performed well. Despite being in the hot seat for most of the day, Clinton didn’t implode, though some of her answers likely will make it into 2016 attack ads. Clinton only displayed irritation at the very end under questioning from Gowdy about the State Department’s internal “accountability review board” assessment of the siege, which he charged was biased.
“I really don't care what you all say about me. It doesn’t bother me a bit,” Clinton responded, defending the review and the work of its co-chair, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Adm. Mike Mullen. “I can't help it, Mr. Chairman, that you all don't like the findings” of the panel.
Meanwhile, Republicans had to justify the panel’s very existence, following damaging remarks from fellow GOP lawmakers and a Republican ex-staffer who claimed the committee was formed to derail Clinton’s presidential bid.
Panel chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC) addressed the controversy with a forceful opening statement explaining why the committee was looking into the 2012 attack despite seven previous investigations and why lawmakers expanded their purview into Clinton’s “home brew” email arrangement.
Despite having roughly 55,000 pages of emails from Clinton’s private server, the GOP spent much of the hearing going down blind alleys. The questioning yielded no new details about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound, as evidenced by Gowdy’s admission to reporters after the hearing that he didn’t know if Clinton’s testimony was all that different from her previous two appearances before Congress on Benghazi.
The panel’s seven Republicans spent much of the day trying to paint Clinton as deaf to security concerns surrounding the U.S. compound in Libya before zeroing in on her use of a private email server while in office, an arrangement the select committee uncovered earlier this year.
Gowdy pressed her about how her legal team missed 15 emails from longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal.
"Even tonight, you cannot tell us you turned over everything because you didn't turn over” those messages, he said
Clinton replied she “didn’t know” why she had some emails and Blumenthal had others.
In response to questions from Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), Clinton said she didn’t have a computer on her desk at the State Department and that email wasn’t her main means of communicating on the job. “I did not conduct most of the business that I did on behalf of our country on email,” she said. “If you were to be in my office in the State Department, I did not have a computer.”
Brooks scored another possible political when she grilled Clinton if she spoke with Stevens after he was made ambassador; Clinton said she couldn’t recall if she did.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) tried the hardest to draw blood, devoting his first two rounds of questions to the now infamous talking points the Obama administration used in the immediate aftermath of the attack that blamed the attack on an anti-Muslim video rather than extremists.
He cited emails to Clinton’s family and State Department officials that showed she thought terrorists might be behind the attack.
“We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film.... Why didn’t you just speak plain to the American people?” he asked.
Clinton replied that she did. “I am sorry it didn’t fit your narrative, congressman.”
The panel’s five Democrats used their time to either defend Clinton or pick apart comments made by the GOP, including the conspiracy theory that she had issued a “stand down” order to the Defense Department on the night of the assault.
At one point, the hearing devolved into a shouting match as ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) called for a vote to make public the deposition Blumenthal gave the panel last summer. It was defeated in 7-5 vote on party lines.
By the end of the marathon session, Cumming’s had had enough.
“I don’t know what we want from you,” he thundered, accusing Republicans of using $4.8 million in taxpayer dollars to try to destroy Clinton’s presidential campaign. “Do we want to badger you over and over again until you do get so tired so we get the gotcha moment? That's not what America is all about.… You can comment if you like, I just had to get that off my chest.”
Clinton, who’s slated to attend the famous Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa this weekend, said she hoped statesmanship could overcome partisanship.
“It is deeply unfortunate that something as serious as what happened in Benghazi could ever be used for partisan political purposes,” she said. “I’m hoping that we can move forward together.”
While Clinton emerged mostly unscathed from the marathon questioning, she isn’t off the hook. The FBI is still examining the server and investigating whether Clinton “knowingly” removed or housed classified information on it in violation of federal law. The slow, steady drip of emails being released by the State Department will also continue.