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16 people who shaped the 2016 election: Pat Smith

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By Nov. 9, the votes will have been cast and counted, there will be a winner and a loser, and the country will begin a slow return to normal. Historians will have their say on the outcome, but all of us who have lived through this election will carry away indelible memories of a shocking year in American history: of a handful of ordinary people, swept up in the rush of history; of a series of moments on which the fate of the nation seemed, at least briefly, to turn; and of places on the map that became symbols of a divided nation. As we count down to Election Day, Yahoo News has identified 16 unforgettable people, moments and places.

For many of the 23 million Americans who watched the first night of the Republican National Convention in July, the emotional climax was a five-minute speech by Pat Smith, the mother of Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information-technology officer who was killed, along with three other Americans, in the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

With a stricken expression, Pat Smith described her son’s last communication to her, in which he expressed fear for his life over the lack of security at the mission. Then, growing angry, she lashed out at Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time, saying, “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.” Many in the hall seemed on the verge of tears; some shouted back at Smith: “Hillary for prison!” Smith’s speech served as a keynote for one of the Trump campaign’s favorite themes: Clinton was (and would be) weak in protecting America from terrorism.

Pat Smith, mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith.
Pat Smith, mother of Benghazi victim Sean Smith, speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Smith did not explain what she meant by Clinton’s personal responsibility for the attack, an allegation backed by none of the numerous subsequent investigations. But a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Smith and the father of CIA officer Tyrone Woods, who also died in Benghazi, a few weeks after the convention gave some details, tying the attack to Clinton’s use of a private email server. The suit alleges, “The Benghazi attack was directly and proximately caused, at a minimum by defendant Clinton’s ‘extreme carelessness’ in handling confidential and classified information,” such as the deployment of State Department employees in Libya, hypothetically exposing them to attacks. In her speech, Smith conflated responsibility for the deaths with a claim that Clinton and other officials misled her about the circumstances of the attack. In Smith’s account, officials first blamed it on a spontaneous anti-American demonstration in response to an offensive video. The political subtext was that a successful terror attack would have been embarrassing to Clinton and President Obama in the midst of a reelection campaign.

Politifact investigated the claim and concluded, “There simply is not enough concrete information in the public domain for anyone to claim as fact that Clinton did or did not lie to the Benghazi families.” But that will probably settle nothing, for either side. Whatever the outcome of the election, Pat Smith will likely go down in history as the victim of a ghastly tragedy, who unflinchingly shared her pain with a whole nation — and did not shrink from using it for political ends. — By Jerry Adler. Video produced by Sarah Boxer and Brad Marshland.

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