Benghazi: GOP Grills Clinton, but Has Little to Show for It

Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington. Republicans questioned her for nearly 11 hours but failed to land any major blows. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

If Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi were hoping to prove their investigation is not overly fixated on Hillary Clinton's emails, they didn't do a good job of it at their highly anticipated hearing with the former secretary of state Thursday.

Emails—to or from the former secretary of state and those around her—dominated Republicans' lines of questioning of the Democratic presidential candidate regarding the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. Members added up how many she sent regarding Libya in 2011 compared with 2012 (stacked on the dais, in paper form, for emphasis) and how many Clinton friend Sidney Blumenthal sent to her. They also contrasted who had access to her personal address (Blumenthal) and who didn't (Libya Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed during the attack on the Benghazi compound).

"We just heard email, after email, after email about Libya and Benghazi that Sidney Blumenthal sent to the secretary of state," committee Chairman Trey Gowdy exclaimed during one of the 10-plus-hour hearing's feistier moments.

The focus is not entirely surprising, given that the cache of emails was the primary source of new information the committee has obtained about the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi in 2012. The problem for Clinton's critics is that while the content of some of those emails is mildly embarrassing for the secretary and her advisers, none of the information they revealed—either in previous press leaks or in Thursday's marathon session—alters any of the core facts surrounding the attack, which left Stevens and three other Americans dead.

Instead, most of the committee's questioning at the hearing, the panel's first since January, either went over old ground or came off as distinctly political in tone. None of it wounded Clinton on Thursday. And it did little to dispel the notion, rapidly gaining steam, that the GOP-led panel is bent on taking down Democrats' likely 2016 nominee, as opposed to preventing similar attacks from happening in the future.

The House Democrats on the panel certainly tried to drive home that impression, taking every opportunity to lambaste the committee's operations and its focus. They pointed to the seven investigations of security failures in Benghazi that have already been conducted and the current committee's focus on State Department witnesses and emails, as compared with defense and intelligence sources. "You are running for president with high poll numbers, and that's why we're here," California Congressman Adam Schiff suggested late in the day.

Democrats' needling of their Republican counterparts provoked some of the only fireworks of the hearing. As the first round of questioning closed, Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings launched into a scathing critique of what he said were Gowdy's inaccurate statements, prompting the chairman to caution him, "You need to make sure the entire record is correct."

"That's exactly what I want to do!" Cummings exclaimed angrily. "I move that we put into the record of the entire transcript of [the committee's deposition with] Sidney Blumenthal. We're going to release the emails, let's do the transcript, that way the world can see it!"

That prompted several minutes of noisy bickering between Gowdy and the panel's Democrats before the committee was gaveled closed for lunch. Watching the fracas, Clinton couldn't help but let a small smile creep across her face.

When the committee returned, they did vote on the question of releasing the transcript from Blumenthal's deposition, which fell on a party-line vote, with the five Democrats for it and seven Republicans against. "My seven colleagues do not want the American people to read what he said in his deposition," Schiff asserted later, because then they would see the focus of Republican inquiries.

Out of 160 questions, fewer than 20 were about the Benghazi attacks, according to Schiff's tallies, and none were about the U.S. presence in Benghazi. But Schiff said there were more than 50 questions about the Clinton Foundation, the nonprofit organization run by Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Republicans didn't manage to ruffle Clinton, but they did land some of their punches on Thursday. The fact that the secretary sent far more emails about Libya in 2011 than in 2012, as Indiana Congresswoman Susan Brooks illustrated vividly, wasn't entirely surprising given the fact that the United States was a player in the civil war there in 2011. But it reinforced that Libya wasn't the same priority once the immediate conflict ended.

Ohio Republican Jim Jordan revealed an email detailing Clinton's call with the prime minister of Egypt the day after the Benghazi attack in which she was said to have told him, "We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack—not a protest." That directly contracted with what others in the Obama administration were saying at the time, attributing the attack to the same sort of protests that had occurred at other American embassies the same day over a video Muslims found disrespectful.

Some of biggest questions about Clinton's judgment and management at the State Department stem from the failure to respond to the deteriorating security situation in eastern Libya in 2012 and the numerous requests for increased security from diplomats and security professionals posted in the country. "It's not a matter if you knew about 'em, it's a matter what you did about 'em," Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland declared, "and to us, the answer to that is nothin'."

Clinton reiterated several times that security requests did not make it to her desk (as several previous investigations found), but instead were handled by the department's security professionals. She also pointed out that Stevens "knew the security situation in Libya quite well" and never raised security concerns directly with her or her top staff. "There was never a recommendation from Chris Stevens or anyone else to close Benghazi," she noted on more than one occasion. "It's the same answer I've been giving all day."

Illinois Republican Pete Roskam suggested Clinton didn't want to send more security personnel to Libya because it would be a public acknowledgment that the 2011 air campaign the United States conducted there was a policy failure. Earlier, he noted an email exchange between Clinton and top advisers about publicity around the successful ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. "'You must go on camera,' that was Blumenthal's admonishment to you. You forwarded Blumenthal's suggestion," Roskam said to Clinton.

"Let me tell you what I think the Clinton Doctrine is. I think it's where an opportunity is seized to turn progress in Libya into a political win for Hillary Rodham Clinton," he continued.

Clinton barely blinked. "Well, Congressman, that is only a political statement," she replied. "I don't understand why that has anything to do with what we are supposed to be talking about today."

Despite Republicans' best efforts to paint it otherwise, there was politics aplenty over the course of the day and evening hearing. And if the American public wasn't already "sick and tired of hearing about your damn email," as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told Clinton at the first Democratic presidential debate last week, they probably are this morning.