Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House panel investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, said on Tuesday that there is “no smoking gun” in the approximately 60 emails recently turned over to the committee by a former adviser and confidant to Hillary Clinton.
That unofficial adviser, Sidney Blumethal, was in Washington, D.C., to sit for a closed-door deposition in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Blumenthal told reporters Tuesday evening that he spent nearly nine hours answering questions.
"The committee spent hours asking me questions that have nothing to do with Benghazi," he said. "Many of the questions had to do with politics as far back as the 2008 Democratic primary. So why was I subpoenaed at all before this committee? I am a longtime friend of Hillary Clinton. It seems obvious that my appearance before this committee was for one reason and one reason only and that reason is politics." He added he hoped his presence "cleared up" a series of misconceptions the committee held.
Cummings told reporters that he feared the GOP-led House panel has turned into “the committee to investigate Hillary Clinton,” who is running for president, and has strayed from its original purpose to find any additional information about the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans three years ago. Cummings also said the new emails between Blumenthal and Clinton should only be made public if the transcript of Tuesday’s closed door deposition was released as well.
“So we can put them in context,” said the Maryland lawmaker.
Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the committee, has previously said the committee is prepared to release the emails. Before the hearing, the South Carolina legislator griped that his committee should have received the emails between Blumenthal and Clinton a long time ago—instead of on Friday.
“I will leave it to you to figure out whether there was a failure to produce on the former secretary’s part or a failure to produce on the Department of State’s behalf. But clearly, the committee should have gotten this information out sooner,” Gowdy told reporters.
The deposition took an unexpected turn Tuesday when Gowdy had to escort Rep. Darrell Issa from the questioning room, according to NBC News' Luke Russert and Frank Thorp. Issa is the former chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which has also investigated the Benghazi attacks. But he does not sit on the House select committee probing the attacks. After being asked to leave, Issa stormed out and threw his soda can into a garbage can, The Hill reported.
"I'm a prosecutor, and one thing about prosecutors is that we always follow the rules," Gowdy told NBC News, "[Issa] is not a [Benghazi] committee member and non-committee members are not allowed in the room during the deposition. Those are the rules and we have to follow them, no exceptions made."
The committee said on Monday that the new emails were not included in the latest release of Benghazi-related emails, from Clinton’s private email server, made public by the State Department last month. The correspondence showed Clinton – then secretary of state -- forwarded several of Blumenthal’s emails about Libya, before and after the attack, to her senior staffers without identifying him. Critics also contend there is a potential conflict of interest because Blumenthal was also involved in business ventures in Libya.
Last month, Blumenthal defended the advice he sent to Clinton on Libya, even though at the time he was being paid by the Clinton Foundation. “From time to time, as a private citizen and friend, I provided Secretary Clinton with material on a variety of topics that I thought she might find interesting or helpful. The reports I sent her came from sources I considered reliable,” he said in a statement.
Clinton has also downplayed the correspondence with Blumenthal, saying in Iowa last month, “When you’re in the public eye, when you’re in an official position, I think you do have to work to make sure you’re not caught in a bubble and you only hear from a certain small group of people.”
According to The New York Times, the batch of emails given to the committee “include information about weapons that were circulating in Libya and about the security situation in Benghazi in the year and a half before the attacks.”