Marco Rubio speaks with confidence. That’s a big reason why Republican donors are turning away from Jeb Bush and toward Rubio: They see the Florida senator as a more forceful spokesman for conservatism. Political reporters are dazzled, too. They see Rubio as the emerging “establishment” candidate, ready to take on the know-nothings—Donald Trump and Ben Carson—and the scorched-earth ideologue, Sen. Ted Cruz.
But is Rubio really a mainstream candidate? Or is he, like Cruz, a man who says with firm conviction things that just aren’t true?
In last week’s Republican debate, Rubio blasted Clinton’s Oct. 22 testimony about the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. During the hearing, Clinton addressed criticisms that the Obama administration had blamed an anti-Muslim video for inspiring the attack. Here’s how Rubio described her testimony:
She admitted she had sent emails to her family, saying, ‘Hey, this attack on Benghazi was caused by al-Qaida–like elements.’ She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of the video. … It was the week she got exposed as a liar.
The next morning, during a round of interviews, Rubio doubled down. On CNN, he said Clinton had been “exposed as lying about Benghazi. And it’s going to be a major issue in this election.” On CBS, he repeated:
I said Hillary Clinton lied about Benghazi. There’s no doubt about that, Charlie. I mean, there are emails in which she was talking to her family, and she was telling them that there was an attack on that consulate that was due to a terrorist attack by al-Qaida elements—and then she was going around the country, talking to the families of the victims and to the American people, and saying, “No, no. This is because of some video that someone produced that led to a spontaneous uprising.” She absolutely lied about it.
Notice Rubio’s conviction. Clinton didn’t just say something inaccurate or dubious—there’s “no doubt” that she “absolutely lied.” But it isn’t Clinton who’s lying. It’s Rubio.
Let’s start with the easy part. In the CBS interview, Rubio insisted “there was never, ever any evidence that [the Benghazi attack] had anything to do with a video.” That statement contradicts eyewitness reports. According to the New York Times, witnesses in Benghazi saw a militant named Ahmed Abu Khattala “directing the swarming attackers who ultimately killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. ... Abu Khattala told fellow Islamist fighters and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him.”
The Times also reports that according to witnesses, “there was no peaceful demonstration against the video outside the compound before the attack. ... But the attackers, recognized as members of a local militant group called Ansar al-Shariah, did tell bystanders that they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video.” So the facts are more complex than Rubio lets on. Militants, while executing the attack, used the video at least as a public pretext. Rubio’s statement—that there was never any evidence that the attack had anything to do with the video—is false.
Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s scrupulous fact checker, has also debunked false statements Rubio made about CIA intelligence and assessments given shortly after the attack. But Rubio’s core allegation against Clinton is that she went “around the country” and “in front of the press for over a week,” telling “the American people” that the attack was “because of some video that someone produced that led to a spontaneous uprising.”
On right-wing websites, you’ll find plenty of affirmation for this myth. National Review, Red State, Townhall.com, the Daily Caller, and other outlets agree that Clinton “blamed the ‘awful Internet video’ for the massacre,” told “the American public that the anti-Islam video was what caused the attack,” and “was the author of the lie about what caused the attack.” But when you click their links and study their evidence, the case falls apart.
Townhall.com presents video recordings of Clinton’s remarks after the attack. One recording is titled, “Hillary Clinton Blames Youtube Video for Benghazi Terrorist Attack.” But the recording doesn’t show that. Instead, it shows Clinton addressing “the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries.” And that’s true: According to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Benghazi attack coincided with “approximately 40 protests around the globe against U.S. embassies and consulates in response to an inflammatory film.”
Another video on Townhall.com shows Clinton saying: “We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with.” Two years ago, when Clinton testified before Congress, Republican senators acknowledged that in delivering those two sentences, she was distinguishing the “heavy assault” in Benghazi from the protests at embassies elsewhere. The “post in Benghazi,” after all, wasn’t an embassy. Now the right is trying to conflate the two sentences.
Clinton did mention the video in a 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,” she said. “There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” Conspiracy theorists portray this statement as a claim that the video caused the attack. They see the statement as part of a concerted effort to boost Obama’s campaign by denying that a terrorist attack had occurred. But “some” would be an odd way to describe the attackers. Clinton’s words make more sense when you see her thinking spelled out in a longer statement two days later. As she explained at the Oct. 22 hearing, her statement, delivered in the midst of the video uproar and the protests at many U.S. embassies, was a warning to rationalizers and would-be copycats.
So, how many times did Clinton publicly blame the Benghazi attack on the video? The full timeline of her post-attack statements, compiled by Factcheck.org, shows the answer: zero. Clinton chose her words carefully because, although some reporting suggested a connection between the video and the attack, the exact relationship wasn’t clear. “There were scores of attackers that night, almost certainly with differing motives,” she later wrote in her autobiography. “It is inaccurate to state that every single one of them was influenced by this hateful video. It is equally inaccurate to state that none of them were.”
The only seriously debatable question is what Clinton said privately to the families of the Benghazi victims on Sept. 14, 2012, three days after the attack, at a ceremony to honor their loved ones. The sister of one victim says Clinton “spoke to my family about how sad we should feel for the Libyan people because they are uneducated, and that breeds fear which breeds violence and leads to the protest.” There’s nothing in that account about a video. Charles Woods, the father of another victim, says Clinton gave him a much clearer assurance: that the U.S. government was “going to have the filmmaker arrested who was responsible for the death of my son.” But Woods’ accuracy is suspect. He’s a longtime critic of Clinton and Obama who’s at odds with his own family about the GOP’s reinvestigations of Benghazi. Two years after the attack, Woods was still repeating the discredited conspiracy theory that through a live video feed, “the White House Situation Room was watching our people die in real time.”
We don’t know exactly what Clinton told Woods. But we do know that Rubio’s characterization of the conversation is false. On CBS, Rubio said Clinton lied because she was “in the middle of a 2012 re-election in which President Obama had made the claim that al-Qaida was being defeated and on the run, and this counteracted that narrative.” On CNN, Rubio said Clinton lied to advance “a political narrative that the administration had settled on.” If that were true, then Clinton would have peddled the video story to the people who were going to vote in the election: the public. But she didn’t. So Rubio is left with the bizarre theory that in order to conceal terrorism and influence the election, Clinton whispered the video story to the families of the victims on Sept. 14 but, at the same event, stood at a microphone and commended foreign leaders for denouncing the attack as an “act of ugly terror.”
Rubio’s conspiracy theory doesn’t add up. And he knows it. On CNN, he inadvertently exposed his deception, acknowledging that even by his reckoning, Clinton had tried not to make public statements she knew could be disproven. “I thought it was interesting that the weekend after that attack, she refused to go on the Sunday shows” to peddle the video story, he remarked. “I think that was ... her calculus in saying, ‘I'm not going on the Sunday shows and saying that, because I don’t believe it’s true.’ ”
Exactly. Clinton avoided saying what she didn’t believe to be true. She’s careful with her words. Rubio isn’t. His butchery of the Benghazi story—the intelligence, the context, the public record—betrays a disregard for evidence that doesn’t fit his agenda. He delivers his falsehoods with absolute self-assurance. What unites Rubio with Cruz, and distinguishes him from Bush, isn’t that Rubio sometimes says things that aren’t true. It’s that he does it without compunction.