WASHINGTON – Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is in the witness chair for her long-awaited appearance before a congressional panel investigating the Benghazi attacks, setting up a confrontation with Republicans that could be one of the pivotal moments of her campaign.
Clinton is being cross-examined by the House Select Committee on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of four Americans in the attacks on State Department and CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. The committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, called the hearing to order at the start of what could be eight grueling hours of testimony.
Clinton, with a broad smile on her face, arrived in the hearing room in the Longworth Office building and greeted members of the committee before taking her seat in front of a gaggle of news photographers. She was sworn in privately before entering the chamber.
The hearing is the latest twist in a long-running political saga ignited by the attacks, with the GOP claiming Clinton was negligent after security lapses that happened on her watch as secretary of state. They claim her approach led to the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.
In his opening statement, Gowdy praised the four Americans who died in the Benghazi attacks as heroes who had “believed in service and sacrifice” and promised justice for their families and the truth about what happened.
He also implicitly rejected claims by the Clinton campaign that the hearing was primarily a partisan activity, saying that unlike seven other congressional probes on the topic, it had established new parameters for the investigation and unearthed new troves of evidence.
“I understand there are people, frankly, in both parties that have suggested that this investigation is about you,” Gowdy told Clinton.
“Let me assure you that it is not and let me assure you why it is not. This investigation is about four people who were killed representing our country on foreign soil. It is about what happened before, during and after the attacks that killed them.”
Gowdy pledged to investigate what exactly the United States was doing in Libya at the time of the attacks, why military assets were not available to deploy to save the Americans under threat and to examine the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis and the aftermath.
He said new evidence included a fresh batch of 1,300 emails from Stevens and 1,500 from Clinton that his panel was the first to investigate. He also complained that the investigation had been delayed because Clinton had used a private email account as secretary of state, which the committee only discovered in March.
Clinton watched the opening statements carefully from her seat opposite Gowdy but with no noticeable reaction to his statements.
The top Democrat on the committee Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, charged that the Republicans had called the committee simply to “derail” her presidential campaign.
Her team has argued that the committee represents a naked political attempt by Republicans to derail her presidential ambitions and point to the seven previous congressional investigations as they contend the current inquiry will turn up no new evidence.
“She will be prepared. It’s questions she has all answered before, I presume, because she has testified on Benghazi before,” Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said Wednesday on “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”
But she added that the former secretary of state took the hearing — which is also expected to cover the private email account she used while at the State Department — very seriously.
An aide said that Clinton would make the point that advancing American interests in a dangerous area of the globe would never be totally safe but that it would be against U.S. interests to always seek to use the military as a first option in a foreign trouble spot rather than deploying front-line diplomats like Stevens, who died as he sought to build a democratic future in Libya.
According to excerpts of her testimony seen by CNN, it did not appear that the former secretary of state would directly attack the committee as a political exercise — a charge that her campaign aides have made repeatedly in recent weeks.
Republicans clearly feel the hearing is an extremely grave event.
Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, who sits on the select committee, said on CNN on Wednesday that the Benghazi controversy was more serious than the conspiracy that felled President Richard Nixon.
“In many dimensions this is worse than Watergate,” Pompeo said. “Remember, we had four Americans killed here. Remember, too, we had a secretary of state who had a private server and then erased 30,000 of those emails without any third party having a chance to look at them.”