How Republicans Blew Their Chance To Grill Hillary Clinton

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Jan. 23 2013 8:25 PM

The Benghazi Show

Republicans wanted to grill Hillary Clinton on the death of four Americans in Libya. They blew it.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 23, 2013, about the security failures at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Republicans wanted answers about Benghazi. They wanted them yesterday. They wanted them now. “Why was security at the consulate so inadequate?” asked four Republican senators in an October op-ed. “Did anyone order U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Benghazi or nearby in the region who offered help to stand down?” One week ago, three of those senators published 14 more questions about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed four Americans. Why was the FBI investigating an “act of terrorism?” Why wasn’t a military response ready in a hurry, when the consulate came under attack? And “what were the secretary of State's activities during this time?”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

They were supposed to find out today. Hillary Clinton, who’s leaving the State Department as soon as she can toss the baton to Sen. John Kerry, spent the morning with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the afternoon with the House. She would have come in December, but events got away from her: an unexplained illness, a pack of Republicans speculating that she had “Benghazi flu,” the revelation that she’d had a blood clot, followed by some furtive Republican apologies.

Still, Republicans would get their hearing. It wasn’t the Joint Committee on Benghazi that Sen. John McCain wanted, but it would be a chance to break into cable programming, all day, and to put the magnifying glass on Barack Obama’s foreign policy until it caught fire. And they’d have an extra month to come up with questions!

They blew it. All congressional hearings are invitations for preening, showboating, and not-a-question-but-a-comment speeches. The grilling of Hillary Clinton was worse: a repetitive series of losing rematches, of Republicans asking questions that had been asked and answered and asked and answered. They coaxed one new piece of information from her, but they didn’t seem to notice, as their press offices once again tried to shame her for ever suggesting that the Benghazi attack grew out of protests against an anti-Islam video.

What was the one good question? Rep. Tom Cotton, one of the most-hyped members of the GOP’s freshman class, reminded Clinton that a Benghazi suspect had been let go by Tunisia. The United States provided intelligence that helped lead to Ali Harzi; the new regime in Tunisia let him go. Cotton asked Clinton whether that concerned her; she said it didn’t. He’d touched on something primal about the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

Vanishingly few Republicans decided to pick up that thread. In the Senate and the House, most Republicans asked Clinton to explain—one more time, please—why the administration didn’t respond quickly to the attacks, why it hadn’t fired the State officials who screwed up, and why Susan Rice had gone on five Sunday shows and “blamed a video” for the attacks.

If you were a cynic, you wondered whether the inquisitors were basing this on the internal investigation or on the juiciest media reports from last year. Rice “went on TV talking about a demonstration that never happened,” according to Texas Rep. Michael McCaul. “Susan Rice said,” according to Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, “and I quote, ‘What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.’ ” But that wasn’t the full quote. Brooks excised Rice’s caveat that this was the “best information that we have available to us today,” and her conclusion that “what we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding.”

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.

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