What to Expect at Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing

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Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Benghazi on January 23, 2013.Photo: SAUL LOEB/2013 AFP

Hillary Clinton may have won the first Democratic debate — at least according to a majority of analysts, and now, the polls — but now she faces a unique campaign hurdle: a televised grilling from House Republicans. Clinton is set to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi this morning, and Americans can watch her eight-hour appearance on CSPAN3 starting at 10 a.m. (though they almost certainly won’t).

The event’s significance depends on where one falls on the political spectrum. Those on the right consider the investigation the Watergate of our time, while others view it as proof that the vast right-wing conspiracy against the Clintons is alive and well. Regardless, Clinton’s testimony could have serious consequences for her presidential campaign. Here’s a look at what to expect, for those who haven’t spent the past four years following partisan theories about Benghazi.

Didn’t Clinton already testify? I could swear I saw her wearing fun glasses and talking about Benghazi.
On January 23, 2013, Clinton testified before the House and Senate foreign-relations committees about the September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya, which left four Americans dead. This is the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which House Speaker John Boehner formed in May 2014 after a conservative watchdog group uncovered emails related to the attack that had not surfaced in previous congressional investigations. Clinton was wearing special glasses to help treat her double vision following a concussion, but, yeah, they were pretty fun.

Wait, Congress already investigated Benghazi?
In fact, this is the eighth congressional probe, in addition to a review by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board. Vox has a breakdown of what the eight previous investigations concluded, but basically, “Each has identified problems with the way the incident was handled, but none have uncovered real evidence of an administration cover-up or failure to properly respond to the attacks.”

So Clinton’s right: The Benghazi committee is just a partisan witch hunt!
That’s certainly what Clinton supporters would like people to believe. There are many Republicans who earnestly believe that the Obama administration purposely covered up the truth about Benghazi, and in a USA Today opinion piece published earlier this month, Congressman Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Benghazi Committee, justified the ongoing investigation, saying those who oppose it “are either satisfied with an incomplete inquiry into the deaths of four Americans in Libya or unconcerned with accountability as it relates to the public record.” He continued:

This committee has interviewed 41 witnesses no other committee interviewed. Seven were eyewitnesses to the attacks. We have reviewed 50,000 pages of documents never before given to Congress — including the emails of top State Department personnel. And, for the first time, State is committed to finally providing all Ambassador Stevens’ emails by week’s end

It is true other panels conducted Benghazi inquiries. It is equally true they failed to interview dozens of key witnesses, failed to access all information and inexcusably missed Clinton’s exclusive use of private email on her personal server for official business.

The Washington Post says the committee actually only found three new eyewitnesses, but it did conduct 30 new interviews.

Wait, what do her emails have to do with Benghazi?
Clinton’s private email server came to light due to the Benghazi committee’s investigation. The New York Times reported this month that last spring the focus of the committee’s investigation shifted from determining what happened in the Benghazi attack to Clinton’s email habits at the State Department. In April, the Benghazi committee sent Clinton a list of 130 questions, and only eight were directly related to Benghazi. Major Bradley Podliska, a Air Force Reserve officer and Benghazi committee investigator, says he intends to file a lawsuit because he was fired for refusing to concentrate on Clinton and the State Department rather than the attack. Gowdy denies this.

The chairman said he pushed Boehner to hand off the email issue to another committee so his probe could focus exclusively on Benghazi, but he refused. “I would have liked nothing more than for the speaker to find another committee,” Gowdy told the Times.

Ugh, I’m sick and tired of hearing about her damn emails!
Then you’re probably a Democrat. This week, an NBC News/WSJ poll found Americans are essentially split on the importance of Clinton’s private email server. Similarly, their opinions on whether Clinton has offered a satisfactory response to the Benghazi attack, and whether the Benghazi committee is politically motivated, break down along party lines.

Ah, that explains my sudden urge to overlook the Clintons’ general shadiness. Why can’t Republicans admit the Benghazi probe is a total sham?!
Well, two of them admitted it pretty explicitly. As shown in this Clinton ad, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said everyone thought Clinton was “unbeatable,” but her poll numbers are dropping thanks to the Benghazi committee. (This is likely part of the reason why McCarthy won’t be speaker.)

Then, last week, Representative Richard Hanna said in a radio interview that while much of the Benghazi probe is important, “there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people — an individual: Hillary Clinton.”

Sunday on Face the Nation, Gowdy responded, “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 have done, why we have done it, and what new facts we have found.”

What about the Democrats? Are they just sitting back and taking this?
No. Politico reports that the Clinton-affiliated pac Correct the Record will have a war room of 30 staffers ready to defend the candidate on Thursday. Media Matters is launching online ads and a book titled The Benghazi Hoax. According to the New York Times, the super-pac Priorities USA will run TV ads focusing on Clinton’s hearing appearance in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and D.C. And the Clinton campaign is said to be organizing appearances by her surrogates to argue that she was an effective secretary of State.

For the first time this week, Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Benghazi panel, called for the committee to be shut down, following the release of a 124-page Democratic report that countered the criticisms of Clinton’s handling of the attack. “Republicans have now admitted repeatedly that they are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to damage Secretary Clinton’s campaign for president,” Cummings said. “This report shows that no witnesses we interviewed substantiated these wild Republican conspiracy theories about Secretary Clinton and Benghazi. It’s time to bring this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition to an end.”

It’s not lost on me that the uptick in criticism is [happening] the two weeks before she’s coming,” Gowdy told Politico. “I don’t think that that is a coincidence; it’s an attempt to marginalize and impugn the credibility of the panel that’s going to be asking her questions.”

So what’s Clinton’s plan? Look presidential and wait for everyone else to embarrass themselves?
That strategy did work pretty well in the debate. According to Politico, she intends to appear solemn and presidential during the hearing, and will try to make her case for continued American diplomatic engagement overseas.

She’s also been underscoring her claim that the probe exists only for political purposes in recent interviews. “I think it’s pretty clear that whatever they might have thought they were doing, they ended up becoming a partisan arm of the Republican National Committee with an overwhelming focus on trying to, as they admitted, drive down my poll numbers,” she told CNN on Sunday.

Joe Biden’s announcement yesterday that he won’t be running for president lowers the stakes for Clinton slightly, but she surely hopes that her testimony will help her move past Benghazi and her email scandal (though both are likely to drag on at least through November 2016). If she fails, this won’t be the only Benghazi clip in the next GOP attack ad.