Hillary Clinton Looks to Turn Benghazi Hearing Into Next Boost

With the Republican-led committee under fire, the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential front-runner prepares to testify.
Photographer: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton and her allies can't stand the House Select Committee on Benghazi, charging that it's driven by political motives and a rehashing of previous investigations into the 2012 attack in Libya that left four Americans dead. Some even call it the Select Committee to Destroy Hillary Clinton.

Despite all the risks that come with hours of nationally televised questioning before a Republican-led congressional panel, the Democratic front-runner and her team are looking forward to Thursday's hearing as a key turning point that will help solidify the momentum she's built since last week's debate. 

To avoid further charges of political showboating following House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's comments on the committee, GOP members are expected to focus their early rounds of questioning on the attacks and to reference her controversial use of a private e-mail server as secretary of state as evidence, not as a separate line of inquiry and investigation. Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland, for instance, has vowed that his questions to Clinton “won't be about the server.”

Aware that his committee's legitimacy is being challenged, even by some members of his own party, Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina was insistent on Sunday that his fellow Republicans stop making comments that risk to derail his work. “I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends, 'Shut up talking about things that you don't know anything about.' And unless you're on the committee you have no idea what we've done, why we've done it and what new facts we have found,” he said on CBS's Face the Nation.

While some Republicans may be hoping the Democratic presidential front-runner will slip up during her hours of testimony, a Clinton aide pointed to her long day of Benghazi testimony before Senate and House committees in January 2013 as evidence of her endurance, noting that she’d suffered a concussion and a blood clot the month earlier and still “killed it.”

But during that appearance, an exasperated Clinton also gave her political opponents ammunition when responding to a line of questioning from Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, about the Obama administration's initial characterization about what sparked the Benghazi attack. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the September 11 attacks against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Capitol Hill January 23, 2013 in Washington, DC. Lawmakers questioned Clinton about the security failures that led to the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23, 2013.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans?” Clinton fumed. “What difference at this point does it make?”

Clinton's focus before last Tuesday was on preparing for the debate, and it's only since then that she's been able to prioritize preparations for the hearing, aides said. She has no travel on her public schedule ahead of the hearing and is studying a briefing book to make sure she gets her facts right. While her immediate preparations are limited to this week, an aide noted that her two previous rounds of testimony on Benghazi and the questions she's been getting on the campaign trail for months about her e-mail account have prepared her for the style and substance of the hearing.

Clinton is expected to start off with an opening statement much like the ones she delivered during her previous round of testimony, honoring the four Americans who died, taking responsibility for her role overseeing the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and stressing all the efforts to investigate and ameliorate what went wrong on that night more than three years ago. 

QuickTake Benghazi

If Republicans' questioning heads down rabbit holes that have little to do with Benghazi or that are clearly politically motivated, Clinton can always point to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's suggestion that the committee was successful in hurting her poll numbers or Representative Richard Hanna's assertion last week that “a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people —an individual: Hillary Clinton.”

To prepare to help her keep her cool, Clinton's team paid close attention to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's aggressive questioning last month of Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, and to Richards's calm and respectful responses. A few members of that committee—including Gowdy and Representative Jim Jordan, who often cut off Richards as she spoke—are also on the Benghazi panel.

“The risk is they just shout at her … and she doesn’t get to say anything,” said former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a Clinton supporter. 

The hearing is an important moment and one the Republicans don't want to squander. Since McCarthy's remarks, Gowdy has made a point of stressing that Clinton is a key witness not because of her current place in American politics but because of the role in which she served on the day the four Americans were killed.

Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) speaks during a House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi hearing on Capitol Hill, September 17, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Representative Trey Gowdy speaks during a House Benghazi committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Sept. 17, 2014.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“Secretary Clinton is an important witness in a number of regards, including, but not limited to, policy formulation, the State Department’s security posture prior to the attacks, considerations of a response during the pendency of the attacks, and the administration's response after the attacks,” Gowdy said in a written statement Sunday, adding that “she is uniquely well-suited to address certain aspects of the Committee’s jurisdiction and may or may not be able to provide information and insight into other areas of inquiry.”

More than 50 witnesses appeared before the committee ahead of Clinton's testimony and another 40 are waiting to be interviewed. “So it is important to hear from Secretary Clinton, but it is equally important to hear from all witnesses,” Gowdy said.

Still, the GOP members know this is their only shot at Clinton, who has agreed to answer all questions at Thursday’s hearing but has said it will be her only appearance before the panel.

“It is our one bite at the apple,” said Westmoreland, who added that he’s been exhaustively preparing to make sure that he’s not only successful in questioning Clinton but in representing himself. “This is something that is going to be a big event. And I think a lot of people will tune in and I don't want to look like an idiot.”

Clinton's supporters are ready, too. 

David Brock, Clinton's top outside defender, and the groups he's founded to fight on her behalf, are preparing for a busy week. He'll speak at Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service, led by former Clinton communications aide Mo Elleithee, on Monday to argue why the media should stop paying attention to the committee and the leaks coming from its Republican members. Later in the week in Philadelphia he'll offer a prebuttal to the hearing, making his case against the committee. His Correct the Record super-PAC will be running a rapid response war room to respond to new developments.

Westmoreland, meanwhile, said he’s practiced with stand-ins who have answered his questions as Clinton might, “just trying to think about what her responses would be.”

Even while engaged in exhaustive preparations for Clinton’s testimony, Westmoreland stressed that “she is just a witness.”

“I think that is what people are kind of getting all messed up about,” he said. “She is just another witness. We've already done 50 or 60 different interviews. She may be, you know, number 61? And there will be other interviews after this.”

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