U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., was under more pressure than ever Thursday to justify his committee’s focus on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her role in the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the dealth of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Gowdy, who had said in an interview that these have been the “worst weeks of my life,” wasted no time in defending the committee’s credibility. It came in his opening statement.
“Madam secretary, not a single member of this committee signed up to investigate you or your email,” Gowdy said in remarks that began an 11-hour marathon. “We signed up to investigate and, therefore, honor the lives of four people that we sent into a dangerous country to represent us.”
The tension never faded between Gowdy and Democratic committee members. The former federal prosecutor frowned and looked at the ceiling in irritation when the panel’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., accused the committee of passing up chances to interview other government officials in order to focus on Clinton herself.
Gowdy used every opportunity he could during the subsequent hours to counter allegations that his investigation has partisan motives – criticism that intensified in recent weeks as members of his party applauded the committee for sinking Clinton’s poll numbers.
After Clinton gave an account of how four Americans lost their lives in the attacks, seeming to catch the Republican members off guard, Gowdy thanked her for pointing out their heroism. Then, he used the moment to justify the money spent on his 17-month investigation.
“Frankly, it infuriates me to hear folks to my left who don’t raise a single whisper about spending $500 million to train five anti-ISIS fighters, but God forbid we spend one-tenth of that to give some answers to the family members sitting in the first row,” he said.
For their part, committee Democrats used every opportunity to bring up what Gowdy’s committee has spent – according to their website, $4,809,839 as of Thursday afternoon.
Compared to other Republican members of the committee, Gowdy was markedly restrained in his interactions with Clinton. He gave her the unusual option of avoiding the public swearing-in before the hearing.
“Chairman Gowdy offered to swear her in, in private, because this is not about politics, it’s about the four brave Americans we lost,” a committee spokesman said.
Gowdy was careful to point out that he would not be cutting Clinton off, and that this was not a prosecution.
He methodically interrogated her on why Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime friend of the Clinton family, played such an important role despite not having a formal position in the administration. Blumenthal often sent memos on Libya and other foreign affairs to the private e-mail address that Clinton used for government business while at the State Department.
“Help us understand how Sidney Blumenthal had that kind of access to you, madam secretary, but the ambassador did not,” said Gowdy, who seemed more comfortable in the role of interrogator than as chairman running the hearing.
Gowdy pointed out that Clinton often forwarded Blumenthal’s emails to other State Department officials without mentioning the source.
“I don’t know what this line of questioning does to help us get to the bottom the deaths of four Americans,” Clinton said, getting frustrated with Gowdy’s series of questions.
“It’s relevant because our ambassador was asked to read and respond to Sidney Blumenthal’s drivel,” Gowdy replied.
The most dramatic moment of the hearing did not even involve Clinton.
A heated exchange about whether to release Blumenthal’s previously private testimony devolved into a shouting match between Gowdy and Cummings. Clinton sat back and watched with an amused expression, often nodding and smiling.
“I don’t care if he sent it by Morse Code, carrier pigeon, smoke signals,” the usually unruffled Gowdy said of Blumenthal, raising his voice and visibly sweating. “The fact that he happened to send it by email is irrelevant. What is relevant is that he was sending information to the secretary of state.”
“You said from the beginning we want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” Cummings shot back. “Why don’t we just put the entire transcript out there and let the world see it. What do you have to hide?”
During the marathon hearing some Republicans voiced their support for Gowdy and the committee’s work – threatening to undermine the chairman’s insistence that the probe is apolitical.
“Sign and stand with Trey Gowdy as he uncovers the truth about Hillary Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted.
Fellow S.C. Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham emailed supporters, saying Gowdy’s committee “has uncovered more facts about what happened in Benghazi than any other investigation has.”
“Those who are calling this committee a partisan attack on Hillary Clinton are simply wrong. Trey Gowdy has done an incredible job, and I can’t imagine a better person for this difficult task.”
But the praise of Gowdy was not universal among conservatives.
Commentator Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News that while Clinton gave a “gripping performance,” speaking about spending sleepless nights over the Benghazi attacks, the hearing produced no similar moment for Gowdy’s committee.
“The only thing that’s going to be shown on the committee ... in the clips is going to be that Trey Gowdy interchange with Cummings. Which of course is a conflict, reality TV. And a nice little bit of heat, but we’re not going to get the contradictions, we’re not going to get the facts.”