Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, was determined heading into Thursday’s hearing with Hillary Clinton to prove that the committee is not on a partisan witch hunt against the former secretary of state and Democratic primary front-runner. She is just one of dozens of witnesses, Gowdy explained, and his committee simply wanted to get a better portrait on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack. It was a gathering process, not a prosecution.
Yet Gowdy—who was chosen to lead the committee specifically because of his experience as a prosecutor—and several of his Republican colleagues focused on gathering one specific piece of information above all others: why she was such a fastidious emailer when exchanging messages with unsavory figures like longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal, but a ghost when it came to swapping messages with U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attack. In doing so they not only emphasized the political nature of the investigation, but also offered a narrow and easily repelled view of the way the secretary of state conducted her job.
Let’s first stipulate that few figures on either side of the aisle have availed themselves particularly well so far—making it your standard Capitol Hill hearing. The Republicans have badgered her with tangential questions about emails to Blumenthal, while the Democrats are essentially narrating campaign commercials for her. The hearing is well on its way to producing a gray blob of mush for the general public to consume or, more likely, ignore.
It’s true, as Republican members pointed out repeatedly, that Blumenthal emailed her a lot—about the situation in Libya, his thoughts on climate change, excerpts from his son Max’s articles or books, and so forth. What Gowdy and members like Reps. Peter Roskam, Lynn Westmoreland, and Mike Pompeo tried to press her into saying was that she treated Blumenthal’s correspondences—and their frequently political or inaccurate nature—more seriously than she treated communication with Stevens. It was Westmoreland, for example, who got Clinton to concede that Stevens did not have her personal email:
Westmoreland: You got a lot of emails from Sidney Blumenthal. And you say that Mr. Blumenthal was a friend of yours. And he had your personal email address.
You say Chris Stevens was a friend of yours. He asked numerous of times for extra protection. Now, if I had been Mr. Stevens—and I think anybody out there—anybody watching this would agree.
If I had been Mr. Stevens, and I had had a relationship with you, and I had requested 20 or more times for additional security to protect not only my life but the people that were there with me, I would have gotten in touch with you some way.
I would have let you know that I was in danger, and that the situation had deteriorated to a point, I needed you to do something. Did he have your personal email?
Clinton: Congressman, I—I do not believe that he had my personal email.
Pompeo continued in the same vein, contrasting Stevens’ and Blumenthal’s access to Clinton:
Pompeo: I want to go back to a couple things I talked to you about a bit before, Madam Secretary. Ambassador Stevens didn’t have your email, correct? Your personal email?
Clinton: I’m sorry, what did you ask me?
Pompeo: Ambassador Stevens didn’t have your personal email, we’ve established that.
Clinton: That’s right.
Pompeo: Did he have your cellphone number?
Clinton: No, but he had the 24-hour number in the State Department that can reach me 24/7.
Pompeo: Yes, ma’am. Did he have the fax number?
Clinton: He had the fax number of the State Department.
Pompeo: Did he have [your] home address?
Clinton: No, I don’t think any ambassador has ever asked me for that.
Pompeo: Did he ever stop by your house?
Clinton: No, he did not, congressman.
Pompeo: Mr. Blumenthal had each of those and did each of those things. This man who provided you so much information on Libya had access to you in ways that were very different than the access that a very senior diplomat had to your—to you and your person.
Again, Pompeo does a fine job establishing something. But what? That Clinton was on closer personal terms with Sid Blumenthal than she was Chris Stevens, or maybe that Blumenthal knew better how to spam her than Stevens did?
As people have been saying for some 20 years to no avail, the Clintons would do well to cut Blumenthal out of the loop. Maybe they’ll learn someday, but probably not, and that’s why it’s politically useful for Republicans to keep mentioning his name. In terms of establishing what went wrong in Benghazi, though, her close email contact with Blumenthal and nonexistent correspondence with Stevens over email does not prove that she was ignoring Stevens or other State Department officials working in Libya.
Clinton explained to Westmoreland that while Stevens did not email her at all hours of the night with wacko theories or his son’s articles, they did speak—on something called “the telephone,” or in person. More often, Stevens did what most people working in federal departments do: He obeyed the chain of command, rather than taking every query he had directly to Hillary Clinton. This meant taking his security concerns to people specifically assigned to dealing with them, Clinton said:
He was in constant contact with, you know, people on my staff, other officials in the State Department. And, you know, I did have an opportunity to talk with him about the substance of the policy. But with respect to security, he took those requests where they belonged. He took them to the security professionals. And I have to add, congressman, the diplomatic security professionals are among the best in the world. I would put them up against anybody. And I just cannot allow any comment to be in the record in any way criticizing or disparaging them. They have kept Americans safe in two wars and in a lot of other really terrible situations over the last many years. I trusted them with my life. You trust them with yours when you’re on [congressional delegations]. They deserve better. And they deserve all the support Congress can give them because they’re doing a really hard job very well.
The point is that things were done the appropriate way, even if the results were ultimately tragic. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler explained it well: “With nearly 200 ambassadors in the field, it would invite chaos if each could directly write the secretary of state. Instead, ambassadors and other diplomats send reporting cables, which in turn are examined and processed by various levels of the State Department. If it’s an urgent matter, presumably it would come to the secretary’s attention. But many issues—by necessity in a 70,000 person organization—would be handled far below the secretary’s level.”
The focus on Clinton’s email allows Republicans to emphasize the scandal—how she operated out of an unsecured private server. As Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy explained earlier this month, the email scandal, brought forth by the Benghazi committee’s investigative work, has done damage to Hillary Clinton’s polling numbers for honesty and trustworthiness. But the focus on Clinton’s emails has also given her prosecutors a sort of tunnel vision through which they see the totality of her job and her life as being represented by what came into her inbox. There might be plenty of other additional information for the committee to gather instead of focusing so much on emails. But it might not fit its case.