In an act of a highly anticipated political drama that even a city like Washington has rarely seen, former US Secretary of State and the leading Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, has testified before the Benghazi Committee of the House of Representatives.
In nearly 11 (eleven!) hours of often intense and sharp questioning by Republican lawmakers, Clinton sought to project an image of composure and authority, challenging the committee in her opening statement to “reach for statesmanship” in their long-running inquiry into the terrorist attacks that killed four Americans three years ago.
About these attacks that killed the American Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others in Benghazi, Libya, on the night of September 11, 2012, and early the next morning the hearing revealed little new information.
Instead, Republicans on the committee focused more broadly on questions about Clinton’s judgment. But Clinton kept cool and held her ground.
Quite revealing: When Republican committee chairman Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor from South Carolina, was asked by reporters afterwards what he had learnt in the marathon hearing, he couldn’t name anything. “I have to go through the transcript”, he said.
The Clinton testimony came at an early stage of the 2016 election campaign that is increasingly sucking political oxygen out of the US capital.
In recent weeks, Democrats have stepped up their criticism of the Republican majority, blasting the Benghazi Committee for being a partisan vehicle to smear Clinton.
At the same time, Republicans have been on the defensive after one of their Congressional leaders, Kevin McCarthy, had bragged on cable television that the committee was put together to bring down Clinton’s poll numbers.
In her opening statement, Clinton hailed the memory of Christopher Stevens and the three others who died at the mission in Benghazi and again took responsibility for the attacks in which they died.
But the Democratic presidential candidate said that as secretary of state she had not personally approved or denied requests for extra security for the facility where they were based. And she insisted that the United States must not back away from diplomacy because of the incident.
“Retreat from the world is not an option,” Clinton told lawmakers. She called accusations that she contributed to the death of Stevens, a personal friend, “personally painful” and “deeply distressing.”
Her statement was a measured defense of diplomacy and its inherent risks, while expressions of outrage over the committee’s investigation were left to Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland.
Cummings said the investigation was a sham aimed at trying to destroy Mrs. Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
“It is time, and it is time now, for Republicans to end this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition,” Cummings demanded, calling for what he said should be a “shift from politics to policy” in the inquiry about the Benghazi attacks.
But Republicans repeatedly challenged Clinton to defend her actions, at one point accusing her of expressing a diminishing amount of interest in Benghazi in the months before the attacks, as evidenced by fewer emails that she sent about the topic.
Clinton rejected that accusation, saying she did not conduct state department business through email, but received information from briefings, telephone calls and cables.
Despite the day’s intensity, Clinton appeared cool and in command for much of the hearing. But as the day wore on, she seemed to be increasingly impatient with the Republican line of questioning and with the constant interruptions from the GOP members on the panel.
In her most emotive testimony, Clinton sought to defang the Republican attacks by arguing that she agonized over the deaths of four Americans in Libya more than anyone else on the panel.
”I would imagine I have thought more about what happened than all of you put together,” she said. “I have 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.”
Chairman Gowdy said important questions remain unanswered: Why was the US in Libya, why were security requests denied, why couldn’t the military respond quickly on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 and why did the administration change explanations of the attacks in the weeks afterward?
Clinton focused on the bigger picture, starting with a plea for the US to maintain a global leadership role despite threats to its diplomats.
She said perfect security can never be achieved, drawing on attacks on American diplomatic and military installations overseas during both Democratic and Republican administrations: the attacks on the US marines I Beirut in 1983, the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
In one of the quieter moments of the hearing, Clinton expressed disappointment that a tragedy like Benghazi has become the subject of so intense partisan bickering.
She said she hoped that the political parties in Washington would learn again how to work together. “We have to do that”, Clinton said.