The Benghazi Show
Republicans wanted to grill Hillary Clinton on the death of four Americans in Libya. They blew it.
Every time Clinton got the question, she could repeat herself: There was an ongoing investigation, the attack occurred while protests were building outside other embassies, and she was not a fan of Sunday shows. Idaho Sen. Jim Risch complimented her, oddly, for saying that the attack was the work of “armed militants”—hadn’t Republicans been complaining that this wasn’t enough and that she needed to call them terrorists? Only Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson got anywhere with the but-seriously-what-about-Susan-Rice query, and this was because Clinton found him so irritating.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” she said. “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?”
Johnson left the hearing crowing that he’d “got under” Clinton’s skin and that she probably hadn’t “rehearsed for that type of question.” Obviously she had—she got it dozens of times. But both she and Rice were saying that the situation outside the consulate—the State Department’s report refers to “dozens of individuals, many armed” breaching the gates—was followed by a coordinated attack from extremists.
There were many equally pointless exchanges. Rep. Adam Kinzinger asked why F-16s hadn’t been scrambled to fly over Benghazi, as “there are nonviolent things that F-16s can do to disperse crowds.” House Republicans asked Clinton, repeatedly, why three State Department officials who took the fall for Benghazi had merely been reassigned. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who’d been banging the table about this for a month, asked Clinton for an answer. “No significant action has occurred!” she said. “There’s just been a shuffling of the deck chairs!”
Clinton’s answer: “Under federal statute and regulations, unsatisfactory leadership is not grounds for finding breach of duty. The ARB did not find that these four individuals breached their duty.” No arguing with that. California Rep. Ed Royce, the committee chairman, grabbed his microphone and promised that “we’ll be working on legislation to fix that problem.” Why not point that out before shaming her?
Democrats had an easy time of it, moaning at Republicans for cutting funding for the State Department and its embassies, offering Clinton louder and louder high-fives. Freshman Rep. Joe Kennedy looked “forward to what the future holds for you.” Freshman Rep. Ami Bera awkwardly hoped he’d work with Clinton “in the future” when she was president. Nonvoting, bolo-tie-wearing American Samoa Delegate Eni Faleomavaega, who had actually tried to become the committee’s ranking member, wished her “success in 2016.”
But the hearing wasn’t supposed to be about her. It was the Republicans’ chance to get answers. Even McCain mostly muffed the chance, using his time with Clinton to recite a litany of questions, giving her time for one evasive response. “When were you made aware of the attack on the British ambassador?” he asked. “What was the president’s activities during that seven-hour period?”
He repeated that “the answers that were given to the American people on Sept. 16 by the U.N. ambassador were false”; reminded Clinton that he, too, had appeared on the Sunday shows; and reminded her how well he knew murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens. “On July 7, he expressed to me his deep and grave concerns, especially about Benghazi. He continued to communicate with the State Department—and I don’t know who was privy to those cables—his concerns.”
“Senator,” said Clinton, “I understand your very strong feelings.” Lucky for her, he had more feelings than questions.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.