Hillary Clinton sought to maintain her composure under tense questioning from Republican lawmakers on the House Select Committee on Benghazi during the first three and a half hours of her much-anticipated hearing Thursday.
GOP lawmakers questioned Clinton on everything from her initial support for military intervention in Libya and the emails she exchanged with friend and former aide Sidney Blumenthal to the talking points used to explain the attack afterwards.
She faced a particularly tough line of inquiry from Rep. Mike Pompeo, who questioned why Clinton received none of the security requests from U.S. personnel in Benghazi, even as she read and forwarded so many emails from Blumenthal, who was barred by the Obama White House from a job in the State Department.
Pompeo noted that the State Department received more than 600 security requests from Libya outposts — none of which made it to Clinton’s desk. At the same time, she received more than 100 emails from Blumenthal, many of which she passed on aides.
“The level of detail,” Pompeo quipped, “that’s a special friend.”
Clinton explained that that’s not how the State Department works, noting that the secretary does not handle security requests and that they are instead forwarded to the appropriate department. Still, it was a rare moment when Clinton seemed on the defensive.
Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Jordan, an influential conservative lawmaker, essentially called Clinton a liar because the administration initially blamed the attack on a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube.
“You tell the American people one thing, you tell your family an entirely different story,” he said, without specifying who he meant by her family. “So you can’t be square with the American people.”
The talking points used by the administration after the attack are well trod territory and featured prominently in the 2012 presidential election and in dustups between Congress and the Obama White House in 2013. Emails released by the White House and all over evidence demonstrate clearly that it was the CIA who initially believed the attack grew out of a demonstration from the video, only to change their understanding as they gained more information.
Clinton’s blood pressure seemed to raise slightly during the testy exchange with Jordan. But it calmed again when Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff took his chance to question Clinton.
“I imagine I’ve thought more about it than all of you put together,” Clinton said solemnly of the attack. “I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together.”
That was consistent with the tone she set out in her opening remarks. She focused the statement on the bravery of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed with three other Americans in the September 11, 2012, attack on U.S. government compounds in Benghazi, Libya, and a defense of what Clinton called expeditionary diplomacy.
“I am here to honor the service of those four men,” she said. “America must lead in a dangerous world, and our diplomats must continue representing us in dangerous places.”
The closest Clinton got to partisan politics was to call for them to be absent from the hearing. “We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad, leadership that puts national security ahead of politics and ideology,” she said.
She added that “despite all the previous investigations and talk of partisan agendas,” she was there to help diplomats and others who count on political leaders to keep them safe. “My challenge to you is the same challenge I put to myself: let’s ‘be worthy’ of the men and woman who trust us,” she said.
Her tone was notably different from the one struck by the committee’s GOP chairman and especially its top Democrat in their own opening remarks.
Well aware of numerous questions about the committee’s credibility, Rep. Trey Gowdy’s opening statement amounted to a defense of the committee’s existence.
“This committee is going to do what we pledged to do, and what should have been done long ago, which is interview the witnesses, examine the relevant evidence, and access the documents,” he said. “We are going to write that final, definitive accounting of what happened in Benghazi.”
Gowdy also politely chided Democrats on the committee, suggesting they had obstructed the committee’s work.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, meanwhile, the top Democrat on the committee, used his opening statement to unleash a bridled attack on Gowdy and the other Republicans on the dais beside him.
“Clearly, it is possible to conduct a serious, bipartisan investigation. What is impossible is for any reasonable person to continue denying that Republicans are squandering millions of taxpayer dollars on this abusive effort to derail Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign,” he said.
“It is time for Republicans to end this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition. We need to come together and shift from politics to policy,” Cummings added.
The hearing is expected to last at least eight hours and comes at at time when Clinton’s campaign has enjoyed a streak of good fortune.