Eighteen months after outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner charged him with holding the Obama administration’s feet to the fire about the attacks in September 2012 that claimed the lives of four Americans in Libya, Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy finally gets to grill former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about the diplomatic catastrophe.
The conservative firebrand and the former first lady cross paths at career-defining times for both.
Gowdy, who is no stranger to criticism leveled by colleagues on the other side of the aisle, has recently come under fire after allegations about the polarizing panel’s real purpose.
And Clinton’s presidential campaign has for months been plagued by lingering questions about what she might be holding back from investigators and what, if any, relevant information regarding the fatal incident was shared via a personal email account the one-time New York Democrat has been loath to completely open up to public scrutiny.
What’s the Point?
The Select Committee on Benghazi was officially formed on May 8, 2014. Its top priority, per the committee website, is to investigate “all policies, decisions and activities that contributed to the attacks on United States facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, as well as those that affected the ability of the United States to prepare for the attacks.”
The panel has so far held three official hearings. The first two meetings, held in September and December of last year, focused on digesting the aftereffects of the attacks as outlined in an Accountability Review Board report and picking the brain of the State Department’s inspector general about the state of play at the agency, respectively.
Things got more contentious in January, when Gowdy summoned State Department and CIA officials for an airing of grievances regarding a perceived lack of cooperation from myriad government aides.
Committee member Susan W. Brooks told CQ Roll Call the work required is staggering, citing a recent flood of emails from late Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens as just the latest challenge.
“We got a bunch last week, we got a bunch this week — I mean, thousands — and there could be more after we’re finished, and that’s not right. And not fair,” the Indiana Republican said of the irregular information dumps.
What’s even more troubling is the dissension in the ranks that’s now making headlines.
“It has been frustrating as the committee, because we have been very careful not to share with others in the conference bits and pieces of the investigation, so people don’t know what we’ve done, what our results have been, what our game plan has been, we haven’t shared that,” she said. “So it’s been frustrating that people are talking about things they don’t really know anything about.”
Ranking member Elijah E. Cummings spent the Tuesday evening vote series alone at a table toward the back of the Speaker’s Lobby, poring over materials for Thursday’s hearing.
“I’m going over every single transcript,” the Maryland Democrat said. “I’m going over it right now, as a matter of fact. I’m looking at the Blumenthal stuff right now, and preparing like I would for a trial, that’s all. I’m a trial lawyer, so I’m used to this.”
In 2013, she fielded questions about the Benghazi attacks from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Committee on Foreign Affairs in back-to-back hearings that, at times, got combative.
“I’ve been on the other side of the table. I understand trying to figure out what was going on, and why were we told this, that, and the other? But … I can only assure you that as the information came to light, and as people thought it was reliable, we shared it. But that took some time,” she assured Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., about the frustration levels felt all around.
Admission of Guilt or Gift of Gaffe?
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.”
That stunning admission, which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy shared on Sept. 29 with Fox News Host Sean Hannity, seemed to confirm Democrats’ longstanding reservations about participating in the ongoing spectacle.
On the Clock
The 12-member panel is expected to meet in 1100 Longworth at 10 a.m. to hear directly from Clinton.
Committee staff did not respond to queries requesting guidance on the anticipated pacing of what’s sure to be a daylong proceeding. But media reports suggest Gowdy might try and limit members to four questions each; no word, however, on how long the participants will be allowed to interact with Clinton on any given issue.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest certainly seems to believe House Republicans won’t wish to squander a second of their long-awaited confrontation.
“They are going to come out with aggressive, hostile questioning of the secretary of State, trying to further the goal that Leader McCarthy laid out, which is driving down her poll numbers,” Earnest predicted Tuesday during his daily briefing. “I think Republicans on the committee will be engaged in a very vigorous, aggressive effort to try to justify the continuing existence of the committee.”
What We’ve Learned
It remains unclear how far House Republicans have progressed along this seemingly lonely road.
Per the interim report Gowdy published in early May, the committee’s work must remain secret — at least for the time being.
“While tremendous progress has been made, both in the quantity and quality of transcribed interviews, those interviews must remain private until such time as a final report has been written in fairness to both the conduct of a proper investigation and all relevant parties. I have made this a fundamental principle for the Committee and its staff because serious investigations do not leak information or make selective releases of information with full and proper context,” he asserted in the lone update.
Cummings has repeatedly challenged Gowdy’s calculations about all this.
He did so again in an Oct. 15 letter calling into question the scope of the actual work. According to Cummings, Gowdy claims credit for interrogating “over 50 witnesses to date who have never before been interviewed,” but is, in actuality, double counting nearly two dozen individuals already captured by the ARB.
Translation: There’s nothing to see here.
“It is finally time for the Republican Party to stop denying the undeniable, stop defending the indefensible, and stop using millions of taxpayer dollars for the illegitimate purpose of trying to damage Hillary Clinton’s bid for president,” Cummings advised his chairman.
The Blame Game
According to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted in early October nobody looks particularly great in all this.
When asked about the perceived nature of the Benghazi Committee, fewer than a quarter of those polled categorized it as a “mostly serious attempt to find out what really happened.” Nearly a third of those quizzed viewed it as a “politically motivated attempt to embarrass the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton.”
So, What Happens Next?
Gowdy has previously said he hoped to sew things up by the end of the year. Many seem to doubt that timetable.
“This is not going to be over on Thursday,” Brooks advised. “We have a lot more witnesses beyond Thursday.”
Right or wrong, Cummings seems inclined to stick things out to the bitter end.
“Democrats have the role of defending the truth. I said that from the beginning and I still believe that,” he maintained.
Committee member Adam Smith just wants to get on with it already.
“We did not need this committee,” the Washington Democrat told CQ Roll Call. “But if we are going to have this committee, then it should be about Benghazi. It should not be about us and the Republicans.”
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.