Her survival guide: Accept responsibility. Talk about the need for bipartisanship in a partisan town. And remind the audience how often she was in the Situation Room, making sensitive decisions alongside the president of the United States.
Hillary Clinton, who spent days off the campaign trail preparing for her high-stakes testimony Thursday before the House committee investigating the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, worked repeatedly to steer the discussion away from the biggest stain on her record as America’s top diplomat and toward her foreign policy vision to not retreat from the world if elected president next year.
“I would imagine I’ve thought more about what happened than all of you put together,” Clinton said at a hearing Thursday before a U.S. House committee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, that produced no significant new information. “I’ve lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been wracking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done.”
Clinton calmly refuted critics who accused her of failing to prevent the 2012 attacks and took pains to stay on message during the faceoff set against the backdrop of her campaign to become the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.
The former secretary of state told the committee that she took responsibility for failures that led to the deaths of four Americans, including her friend, U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, and that she made necessary changes to prevent further assaults.
She said Stevens did not directly contact her for additional security, saying he went to others at the State Department.
“I did not see them. I did not approve them. I did not deny them,” she said.
Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi went after Clinton throughout the day-long hearing, peppering her with questions about whether she pushed U.S. intervention into Libya, why she did not increase security in Benghazi before the attack and whether she took advice from Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime friend who worked for her husband.
“Let me tell you what I think the Clinton doctrine is,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill. “I think it is where an opportunity is seized to turn progress in Libya into a political win for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and at the precise moment when things look good, take a victory lap like on all the Sunday shows … and then turn your attention to other things.”
Clinton’s appearance is critical to determining whether her campaign sustains the momentum it’s enjoyed following her strong performance at the first Democratic debate and the decision by Vice President Joe Biden to sit out the race. Her performance Thursday was likely to further buoy Democrats.
The hearing was broadcast live on multiple TV networks for much of the day.
Clinton’s responses typically were delivered slowly and carefully, with only occasional unscripted flashes of curtness or annoyance, as she pushed back on what she said were inaccuracies.
“I’m sorry that it doesn’t fit your narrative, congressman,” she said at one point.
“I wrote a whole chapter about this in my book, Hard Choices. I’d be glad to send it to you, congressman,” she said another time.
Unlike her previous testimony on Benghazi in 2013, when she came close to tears when describing the death of her friend and banged her hand on the table in frustration, saying “What difference, at this point, does it make?” there was no such standout moment of her testimony this time.
Instead, the most heated exchanges occurred between Republican and Democratic lawmakers, arguing over the committee’s purpose, rules and actions. At one point, a tense argument broke out over whether to release the previous private testimony of Blumenthal. Voices rose and lawmakers spoke over each other as Clinton smiled and sat silently at the witness table.
Clinton entered the hearing with Republicans already on the defensive over comments from House Republicans suggesting the committee was created to focus on Clinton and damage her political ambitions.
Republicans created the panel in May 2014 to examine U.S. government policies that might have contributed to the attacks and the response of the Obama administration, including Clinton. Chaired by Gowdy, it has cost more than $4.7 million so far.
Seven other congressional committees and the bipartisan, independent Accountability Review Board already have looked into the assault. Nearly all of them criticized the Clinton State Department for insufficiently addressing security issues at the diplomatic facility in Benghazi. Clinton testified twice before Congress on the attacks in 2013.
“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,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the committee.
Gowdy dismissed as incomplete all previous Benghazi inquiries, saying they failed to interview key witnesses and access many documents. His panel, which discovered Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email system for government business, recently received hundreds of pages of new Stevens emails from the State Department.
“It is impossible to conduct a serious, fact-centric investigation without access to the documents from the former secretary of state, the ambassador who knew more about Libya than anyone else, and testimony from witnesses who survived the attacks,” he said.
The review board portrayed a total system breakdown in the Benghazi attacks: An inadequate number of security agents; a lack of protective equipment; and officials who failed to appreciate and craft a response to the city’s rapidly deteriorating security situation.
Gowdy criticized the review board for its composition of members who were “handpicked” by the State Department. He said the panel never interviewed Clinton, never reviewed her emails and allowed a top Clinton adviser to review and suggest changes to the final report before its public release. He also complained that it was impossible to know how thorough the questioning was because there’s no transcript from the panel’s interviews.
“That is not independent. That is not accountability. That is not a serious investigation,” he said.
As in previous testimony, Clinton defended the review board’s work, calling nonpartisan and hard-hitting. The investigators, she said Thursday, “did not pull a single punch” in their criticisms and in their 29 recommendations for the State Department.