Hillary Clinton fought off Republican accusations on Thursday that she was more interested in getting advice from Sidney Blumenthal than protecting diplomats — and offered an emotional account of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, aiming to highlight the panel’s investigation as a misguided partisan attack.
In a contentious hearing that veered between partisan fisticuffs and technical discussions of the State Department's chain of command, Republicans pressed Clinton with questions about why she wasn’t aware of numerous pleas for additional security at the Benghazi compound before the attacks. That wasn’t her job, she argued — but should Stevens have asked her for help, he would have gotten it, she added.
The discussions often turned to Blumenthal — a longtime Clinton ally who encouraged her to be bold in Libya — with Republicans noting that while security requests from Stevens never reached her inbox, her old friend’s unsubstantiated Libya intelligence and policy advice did.
“Help us understand how Sidney Blumenthal had that kind of access to you, Madame Secretary, but the ambassador did not,” Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) demanded.
Clinton, for her part, maintained a calm demeanor, although she couldn't conceal her apparent enjoyment when Gowdy and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) broke into a shouting match over how much information should be made public from the panel’s closed-door interviews.
And with the panel members busy taking shots at each other early in the day, Clinton had space to remind lawmakers and viewers that she had "lost more sleep than all of you put together" over the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks that killed Stevens and three other Americans.
“I don’t want anything that is said to me or about me to take away from the heroic efforts that the diplomatic security officers exhibited,” Clinton said, before delivering a somber account of that night in Benghazi when Stevens and the security officers lost their lives.
Republicans scored some points as well, reminding Clinton over and over again about the number of security requests State received and the relative lack of attention they got.
In a dramatic moment late in the evening, Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) held up a piece of paper and ripped it in half to demonstrate, he said, what happened.
“Here’s what is what happened to their requests,” he said, tearing the paper in half with a loud rip. “They were torn up.”
Earlier in the evening Clinton said many at State who agreed with her Libya policy, but at the end of the day it was Obama’s decision to intervene. She said she supported it because U.S. allies did too, and they wanted to prevent Qadhafi from perpetrating a massacre.
Clinton reiterated at several points that no one ever told her they needed to withdraw from Libya.
“There was never a recommendation … to shut down Benghazi even after the two attacks that the compound suffered,” she said. “And perhaps you’d wonder why, but I can tell you it was thought that mission in Benghazi… was vital to our national interests…No one ever came to me and said: We should shut down our compound in Benghazi.”
Republicans’ didn’t accept that answer.
Benghazi Chairman Gowdy called up a series of June 2012 emails that he says show State’s Washington headquarters was not prioritizing the security needs of diplomats in the field.
In the emails — sent around the time an improvised explosive device exploded outside the Benghazi compound and a rocket-propelled grenade hit the British ambassador’s convoy, triggering the United Kingdom to shutter its consulate — Stevens requested more protection.
At the same time, Clinton’s top policy aide, Jake Sullivan, was emailing Stevens for his take on a Libya memo from Blumethal, who Republicans believe may have personally pushed Clinton toward an aggressive Libya posture in hopes of furthering his business interests there.
Gowdy asked why Blumenthal’s emails reached her but Stevens’ didn’t.
Clinton said Stevens could have reached out and he would have been “immediately responded” to — but he did not.
“You know, Mr. Chairman, I’ve said it before, I will say it again: … I communicated with him about certain issues. He did not raise security with me,” she said. “He raised the issue with security professionals. Now I know that’s not the answer you want to hear … but those are the facts.”
Gowdy also questioned her on another email around that time from State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, asking Stevens for his advice on how to publicly “message” the violence in Libya.
“Having to stop and provide public messaging advice to your [press shop]” is not what Stevens needed, Gowdy said. “He didn’t need help messaging the violence. He needed help actually with the violence."
The two also tussled on whether Blumenthal’s emails were really “unsolicited,” with Gowdy asking her if she knew the definition of the word. When she said she did, Gowdy read a number of Clinton responses to Blumenthal, suggesting they weren’t: “Another keeper, thanks and please keep them coming” or “any other info about it?”
Clinton then tweaked her statement slightly, saying: “They started out unsolicited.”
Gowdy pounced: “You didn't say they started off unsolicited. You said they were unsolicited.”
“Well they were unsolicited, but obviously I did respond to some of them,” she shot back.
Clinton repeated herself a number of times for emphasis: “Sid Blumenthal was not my adviser, official or unofficial, on Libya.”
Republicans have accused Blumenthal, who was trying to start a business venture in Libya, of using his close position to Clinton to influence policy there. Clinton would forward on his advice and unsubstantiated intelligence to her top aides.
Democrats have said Blumenthal is irrelevant and an attempt byt the GOP to target her political allies.
California Democrat Adam Schiff said the GOP is obsessed with Blumenthal and Clinton politics, and said the GOP used the bulk of their interview with Blumenthal this spring to ask questions far afield of Benghazi.
“Republicans asked more than 160 questions about Mr. Blumenthal’s relationship and communications with the Clintons but less than 20 questions about the Benghazi attacks,” he said, launching into a bunch of comparisons. “Republicans asked more than 270 questions about Mr. Blumenthal’s alleged business activities in Libya but no questions about the U.S. presence in Benghazi.”
At times, Clinton appeared to get emotional, especially when asked how it felt to be the subject of an investigation that one Democrat said indirectly blamed her for the death of Stevens and three other Americans in the attacks.
“It’s a very personally painful accusation,” Clinton said, her voice shaking. “It has been rejected and disproven by non-partisan, dispassionate investigators but, nevertheless, having it continue to be bandied around is deeply distressing to me. I would imagine I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together.”
But she fired back in kind if Republican questions got pointed. When Roskam accused Clinton of taking credit for the 2011 Libyan revolution when times were good, but disappearing the next year when things got sour, Clinton — looking annoyed — got the last word in.
“Well, congressman, that is only a political statement which you well understand, and I don’t understand what that has anything to do with what we were supposed to be talking about today,” she said.
Before the hearing began, the hundreds of public seats were entirely filled by people who had been in line for hours to get access to the room, anticipating Clinton's entrance and clamoring for pictures with smartphones.
By late morning, during some of the more technical lines of questioning, many of the public seats had emptied out. Several members of the public had fallen asleep, and former Rep. Tom Davis, seated in the front row of the public seating, had his eyes closed and hand over his head.
But while the audience may have been bored, there were several tense moments when Clinton faced off with Republicans — or when the Democrats jumped in to defend her.
Cummings blasted the committee as a partisan witch hunt out to get Clinton, saying Republicans formed the panel because they “did not like the answers they got” in previous probes — “so they set up this select committee with no rules, no deadlines and an unlimited budget.”
“They set them loose because you’re running for president,” Cummings said, raising his voice before calling for the panel to disband. “It is time for Republicans to end this … fishing expedition.”
It took Cummings only a few minutes into the hearing to highlight a number of embarrassing moments for Gowdy in recent weeks, including comments by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and a fired GOP Benghazi investigator who all suggested the panel was either out to hurt Clinton or increasingly focused on investigating her.
Gowdy — who opened the hearing by responding to recent criticism that his panel is a waste of taxpayer money — assured Clinton that was not the case. He pushed back against recent claims that his panel is just a re-tread of a half-dozen committee investigations and State’s own internal investigation, calling them too “narrow” and “not thorough.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) pressed Clinton on why her top State officials blamed the attack on demonstrations incited by an anti-Muslim video in public — an assertion later proved false — when evidence suggested, according to Jordan, there was no protest and the available information hinted at a terrorist attack.
"You knew the truth,” Jordan said. “That’s not what the American people got. The American people want to know why. Why did you tell the American people exactly what you told the Egyptian prime minister?”
“There was a lot of conflicting information that we were trying to make sense of," Clinton responded, saying they were not trying to mislead anyone.
Jordan accused her of picking the protest narrative to protect President Barack Obama’s reelection bid: “You did it because Libya was supposed to be this great success story for the Obama White House … and now you have a terrorist attack, and it’s just 56 days before the election.”
Clinton shot back: “The innuendos you are making do a great disservice to the State Department … during some difficult days. There is no doubt in my mind that we did the best we could with the information we had at the time.”
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) grilled Clinton on a 1999 report after the East African embassy bombings that recommended that the secretary of state take a “personal and active role” in security issues. He asked her if she complied with that requirement. She replied, essentially, that times had changed due to heightened security.
“By the time I became secretary, having succeeded two secretaries who served during very dangerous … times … there was an assessment made … that we had to look at how best to professionalize the security and the expert advice that we were receiving,” she said, saying she even went “further” to create a new position to head up that post.
In that regard she said she took a personal role, because “I had established a process, and as I said earlier today, State Department and our security professionals have to be 100 percent right.”
Clinton said the security requests under Stevens went to the right place: to personnel who handled security. And Stevens did not have her personal email. “I did have an opportunity to talk to him about the substance of the policy, but with request to security, he took those requests where they belonged: to security professionals,” she said.
Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Indiana), at one point, pulled out a large stack of Clinton emails on Libya in 2011 and compared them to a much smaller stack from 2012, pressing Clinton on why she wasn’t getting more updates on the worsening security situation in Libya in 2012.
“I can only conclude by your own records that there was a lack of interest in Libya in 2012,” Brooks said, noting that there were no Clinton emails about two attacks on the Benghazi mission that happened in April and then June of 2012. “There was a lot of communication to you or from you in 2011, and that is when [Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi] fell, but then when we go to 2012, Libya, Benghazi, Chris Stevens, they seem to fall off your radar — but it was getting much worse.”
Clinton noted that email was not her primary mode of communicating, so they didn’t show the full picture of how often she was getting briefed: “Most of my work was not done on emails with my closest aides, with officials in the State Department, officials in the rest of the government as well as the White House and people around the world,” she explained.