For three years, Republicans have struggled to find a political scandal in the 2012 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. First came an investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Then an investigation by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Then more probes by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the House Judiciary Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. When those inquiries failed to implicate Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state during the attack and is now the Republicans’ main target in the 2016 presidential race, the GOP created one more investigative unit: the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
The select committee, Republicans figured, would finally nail Clinton. It scrapped plans to publicly interrogate other officials. It subpoenaed Clinton’s emails and deposed her aides. Gradually, the GOP’s fixation on her became the story. Three weeks ago, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy boasted that the committee’s investigation had driven down Clinton’s poll numbers. Then a former Republican staffer on the committee said he had been fired for refusing to focus on Clinton.
Thursday was the committee’s big day. The panel called one witness, Clinton, and interrogated her for 11 hours. The committee’s Republicans promised a decisive confrontation, and they delivered it. But it wasn’t Clinton who unraveled. It was the Republicans.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, started with a defensive speech. Alluding to the seven previous investigations, he declared again and again that “this committee is the first committee” to obtain new information the others had missed. Then he turned on his Democratic colleagues:
I want you to take note during this hearing how many times congressional Democrats call on this administration to make long-awaited documents available to us. They won’t. Take note of how many witnesses congressional Democrats ask us to schedule for interview. They won’t. We would be closer to finding out what happened … if Democrats on this committee had helped us just a little bit pursue the facts.
This wasn’t a spontaneous outburst. It was a prepared statement. Thirteen minutes into the hearing, without a single Democrat having spoken, the chairman had abandoned any pretense of bipartisanship.
From there, it was all downhill. Gowdy called on Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, who grilled Clinton not about the events of Sept. 11, 2012, but about the whole 2011 military intervention in Libya, which Roskam repeatedly described as “your baby.” Roskam called it a poster child for “the Clinton doctrine” and told the secretary: “After your plan, things in Libya today are a disaster.”
Next came Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana. She pulled out two stacks of printouts and laid them in front of her. The tall stack, she explained, consisted of emails sent to or by Clinton about Libya from February to December 2011. The short stack consisted of emails on the same topic in 2012, in the months leading up to the attack. Brooks declared that the gap demonstrated Clinton’s “lack of interest in Libya in 2012.”
The stacks made a nice visual. But what they really demonstrated was the Republicans’ fixation on email. Having subpoenaed Clinton’s emails, they insisted on using them as the measure of her agenda and output at the State Department. They disregarded her testimony that she conducted most of her business in meetings, phone calls, and memos, and that she didn’t even have a computer on her desk. For each significant event, they demanded to know why she hadn’t sent any emails about it.
Soon, the email inquisition morphed into an attack on Clinton’s relationship with her old friend Sidney Blumenthal. Republicans tallied the number of messages Clinton had received from Blumenthal. They contrasted this with the absence of emails from Stevens or from other people who had been concerned about the security of U.S. diplomats in Benghazi. Clinton explained that Blumenthal was chatty and that Stevens had direct phone lines to her and other people at the State Department. Gowdy paid no heed. He told Clinton that “Mr. Blumenthal was advising you,” since he “was your most prolific emailer … on the subjects of Libya and Benghazi.”
The attack on Blumenthal, in turn, morphed into an attack on the Clinton political machine. Rep. Mike Pompeo protested that Blumenthal, but not Stevens, had Clinton’s home address. Gowdy, with disgust, recited the Clinton and pro-Clinton organizations Blumenthal had worked for, starting with Media Matters and the Clinton Foundation. He complained that Blumenthal had sent Clinton poll data and political advice. Democrats on the committee claimed that during a deposition, Republican members and staffers had asked Blumenthal 50 questions about the Clinton Foundation and only four questions about security in Benghazi. The Democrats asked their colleagues to release the transcript of that deposition. The Republicans voted the motion down.
Having subpoenaed Clinton’s emails on the pretense of investigating Benghazi, Republicans used them to paint her as caring more about her image than about terrorist attacks. Roskam went through the archive, quoting passages in which she seemed to be promoting herself. “These are your words, Madam Secretary,” he charged, before reading aloud a supposedly incriminating sentence: “ ‘It’s a great opportunity to describe all that we’ve been doing before the French try to take all the credit.’ ” The secretary’s overarching goal, he argued, was “to turn progress in Libya into a political win for Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Since the emails showed nothing new, Republicans went back to old myths. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio accused Clinton of blaming the Benghazi attack on an anti-Muslim video. Apparently, he was unaware—or didn’t care—that in previous hearings, other Republicans had acknowledged Clinton was innocent of that charge. Jordan insisted that Clinton’s statement on the night of the attack—“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet”—amounted to an attribution of motive. He ignored Clinton’s explanation that her statement—which continued, “There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind”—was a warning to rationalizers and would-be copycats. He accused Clinton of lying about the attack in public while privately telling the truth to her own family.
In the end, having failed to elicit anything damning, the Republicans switched from asking questions to reading indictments. Jordan accused Clinton of blaming the attack on the video, not terrorism, because it was “56 days before an election.” Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama chastised Clinton for going home on the night of the attack, ignoring Clinton’s testimony that she had stayed up all night monitoring the situation. Without the slightest evidence or compunction, Roby told Clinton: “You used the FBI’s inquiry as an excuse not to check in with your agents … who survived that horrible night.” Roskam, completing the farce, drafted a confession on Clinton’s behalf: “I and my colleagues were distracted by other matters and opportunities and ambitions, and we breached our fundamental duty to mitigate [the ambassador’s] danger and secure his safety.”
Eleven hours after the hearing began, Gowdy gave up. Clinton was exhausted but still in good humor. Her inquisitors, however, were furious. After all the subpoenas, emails, and testimony, the evidence had once again failed to match their beliefs. But the committee did its job. It clarified the truth about Benghazi: Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong. And Republicans can’t stand it.