Clinton vs. Trey Gowdy in Benghazi showdown

One day, probably sometime next year, there will be a final report from the House Select Committee on Benghazi, and Americans will be able to turn the page on the deadly attack that left four people dead in that Libyan city, more than three years ago.

But first we have to get past Thursday.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the simmering scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s emails, Thursday would be a good time to start. It’s an all-day marathon hearing featuring a confrontation between the two key figures in this drama: the lean, brooding, ill-starred chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and his prize witness, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose national campaign is finally picking up momentum, energized by a solid first debate last week and the news Wednesday that Vice President Joe Biden would not launch his own presidential bid.

Until recently, this was shaping up to be a difficult trial for the former senator and first lady — a metaphoric trial, although some clearly hoped it presaged a real one in a courtroom. Her lead for the Democratic nomination eroding under a steady drip of disclosures about her private email account, Clinton was on the defensive. Gowdy, a former prosecutor, was armed with 50,000 pages of emails and the testimony of more than 50 witnesses from the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon, hoping to catch her in a contradiction or obfuscation. To allow plenty of opportunity for that to happen, he scheduled as much as eight hours of questioning by the panel’s seven Republicans and five Democrats.

But she will take the witness stand Thursday in a much stronger position than anyone could have imagined just a few weeks ago. Her solid showing in the Democratic debate had her campaign staff cheering, and a series of gaffes by Republicans regarding the role of the committee have given her the moral and psychological high ground, according to her team.

Now she just has to make sure she doesn’t slip up.

The epic showdown was preceded by a series of sharp Twitter and talk-show skirmishes between Gowdy and his Republican allies and the Democrats on the committee, led by the tenacious Elijah Cummings of Maryland, a shrewd congressional infighter. Just in the last few days, committee member Mike Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, drew the inevitable comparison to Watergate (he thought Benghazi was worse, and the Benghazi investigation has lasted longer than the one that brought down President Nixon) while Mo Brooks, a back-bencher from Alabama, announced that if Clinton became president he would move immediately to impeach her. Gowdy released an email from Clinton purporting to show that she had risked exposing the identity of a Libyan official who was helping American intelligence; Cummings responded with evidence the CIA had cleared the information for release, stopping just short of accusing Gowdy of forgery. Each side piously denounced the other for “politicizing” the deaths. Democrats bemoaned the $4.7 million spent by the committee, Republicans decried the $14 million cost to the State Department of sorting and redacting Clinton’s emails (neglecting to mention that this was done to comply with the committee’s subpoena). Both figures were invariably described as “taxpayer money” to remind Americans of the roughly 6.7 cents each this fiasco was costing them.

But the outlook for Clinton changed radically last month when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., implied that her sagging poll numbers were one of the successes of the Republican majority in Congress and a result of the Benghazi committee’s work. To Clinton and her supporters, McCarthy was admitting what they suspected all along: that the special panel’s work went hand-in-hand with Republican efforts to defeat her. In turn, Gowdy took to the Sunday morning talk-show circuit to fruitlessly urge his GOP colleagues to “shut up talking about things you don’t know anything about.”


Rep. Gowdy has said he wants to avoid a media circus, but press attention will never be more intense than it is when Clinton finally appears before his committee. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

He grimly went about repairing the damage, insisting on Face the Nation Sunday that “when Speaker Boehner called me, he never mentioned Secretary Clinton’s name, not once.” Salon, a left-leaning website, described Clinton as “visibly outraged” by McCarthy’s admission, although her outrage surely was tempered by the recognition that this was the best possible thing that could have happened to her. A Clinton campaign memo on “Friends and Allies Talking Points,” obtained by Yahoo News, advised her surrogates to argue that McCarthy’s comments proved that the committee was a “partisan plot to turn the taxpayer-funded Benghazi committee into a front for Hillary Clinton” — a plot that “went all the way up to the speaker of the House himself. And it invoked the charge that Gowdy sought to “politicize the deaths of four brave Americans at Benghazi for the sole purpose of trying to damage Hillary Clinton.”

But politicization was part of the committee’s DNA from the very outset, when Boehner reluctantly authorized it at the insistence of his most conservative members. As a creature of the institution of the House, Boehner considered a select committee unnecessary, indicating that the five standing committees with jurisdiction (plus two from the Senate) were adequate to the job.

But as time went by it became apparent that the committees weren’t finding what the right-wingers expected. The final report of the House Intelligence Committee, stated flatly that, contrary to some conspiracy theories, “there was no stand-down order issued by or to intelligence community personnel, and there was no denial of air support to intelligence community officers on the ground.” To the Tea Party Republicans, for whom the administration’s culpability was a matter of faith, the only possible explanation was betrayal by the congressional leadership.

In early 2014, the influential conservative group Judicial Watch demanded Boehner appoint a special committee, actually accusing him of helping to cover up for Obama. Under intense pressure from the Tea Party caucus on a number of issues, Boehner decided this was one bone he could throw them, in exchange for their going along with the leadership on bills to execute basic functions of Congress, like funding the government and paying for its bills. He formed the committee in May and to head it named Gowdy, an ally of the right who won his seat from a sitting Republican congressman who was very, very conservative, but not conservative enough.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was dismissive of the panel from the start, even floating the idea of keeping Democrats off the committee altogether, an unusual move to deny it bipartisan legitimacy. But that was never a viable plan; she knew she needed someone in the room to keep an eye on the proceedings, and chose Cummings as her point man. One of his first acts was to ask Gowdy to limit the committee’s scope to investigating matters that hadn’t already been chewed over by the seven previous sets of congressional investigators. Gowdy refused.

Cummings and his Democratic colleagues also pressed for more public hearings. After several months, Gowdy grudgingly came up with a schedule of hearings and witnesses to run through most of 2015 — a hollow victory for transparency, since none of the hearings have actually taken place. (A minority staffer on the committee began growing a beard that he said he would shave only if and when Gowdy convened an open hearing. Presumably he has an appointment with his barber this week.)

The first few months of the committee’s life were surprisingly low-key. As Yahoo News reported in September 2014, the politics of Benghazi had shifted. Republicans were looking to take back the Senate majority and pick up seats in the House; attacking Clinton would be a distraction that could energize the Democratic base. Internationally, the emergence of the Islamic State had turned Middle East politics into a time bomb that could go off unpredictably in the hands of anyone who touched it.

Gowdy, who had come into the chairmanship suggesting that secret evidence might surface of an administration cover-up, morphed into a judicious seeker of truth trying to contain the media circus around the issue.

But several things happened in the late summer and fall of 2014 to change the dynamic again. The committee held its first public hearing of just three so far, in which Gowdy announced that the panel wouldn’t complete its work until 2016, signaling to the restive right wing that he would still be around to challenge Clinton well into the presidential campaign. Just before the end of the year, Boehner quietly slipped into a huge, must-pass rules package a provision extending the panel’s existence into the current, 114th Congress.

The second turning point came after State Department lawyers looking for Clinton’s emails couldn’t find any on her official government account, which had never even been activated. Committee staffers discovered that Clinton had been sending and receiving emails at a private address, not her official State Department account.

Actually, this information had been available as early as 2013, courtesy of an unemployed Romanian cabdriver who called himself “Guccifer” and had hacked into the email account of Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime confidante of both Hillary and Bill Clinton. A writer for Gawker noticed that Blumenthal was sending emails to Clinton at the address, (“HDR” for Clinton’s full maiden name, Hillary Diane Rodham), but few others paid attention. Even Gowdy’s staffers didn’t realize the significance of what they had found at first — and it was only in March 2015 that the Associated Press broke the story that Clinton had been using not just a personal email account for work, but her own server, housed in her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

When the email story appeared in the New York Times on March 2, the headline indicated she was “possibly breaking rules,” an equivocation that left much to the imagination of the reader. The “rules” had to do with the safeguarding of classified information and the preservation of messages for legal and archival reasons, but Clinton’s enemies leaped to embrace the implication she was trying to hide some as-yet-unspecified secrets.

Clinton campaign staffers reacted with incredulity that “possibly breaking rules”—not even laws — rose to this level of attention. The next day, Clinton’s veteran communication aide Philippe Reines fielded questions about a follow-up Gawker story reporting that he and Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin had also used private email addresses. In a series of increasingly testy emails he copied to other reporters, Reines called the story the work of a “lying liar” (he meant the source, not the reporter) and derided the suggestion he was trying to keep his emails hidden from a freedom-of-information-act suit as a “cockamamie theory.”

That set the tone for the campaign’s response. Clinton first addressed the growing scandal personally in a tweet later that morning: “I want the public to see my email. I have asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible.” Hours later, the Benghazi committee announced it was subpoenaing her emails, and Republican presidential candidates began weighing in with their own assessments of Clinton’s egregious and self-evident culpability.


Clinton finally addressed questions about her email use earlier this year at the United Nations. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Clinton did not publicly address the scandal again for six days, when she held a press conference following a speech on women’s rights at the United Nations. Notifications were sent to reporters just a few hours before the event, creating a scene of pandemonium, as more than a hundred reporters sought passes to see the event, while staffers hastily removed international flags from behind a makeshift podium set up in a hallway.

It was there that Clinton explained that, in putting both work and personal emails on the same account and the same phone, she had “opted for convenience” — a phrase that would haunt her for months. “Looking back, it would have been better if I had simply used a second email account and carried a second phone, but at the time, this didn’t seem like an issue,” she said.

Clinton stressed she mostly communicated with other government officials on their work accounts, which meant those emails were archived at the other end. She also disclosed that, prior to turning over her emails to the state department, her team deleted about 30,000 messages that she characterized as personal and said she had “no reason to save.” She left the podium to shouted questions from reporters, which she ignored.

From that moment, the focus of the committee — and of Clinton’s numerous enemies in the press, from right-wing fulminators such as Red State to mainstream figures such as Joe Scarborough — was on the emails. Bradley Podliska, a conservative Republican who had joined the committee as a staffer in the mistaken belief he would be looking for the truth about Benghazi, was fired for refusing to join in what he called “a partisan investigation” focusing entirely on Clinton, according to a subsequent interview. Gowdy, who says he doesn’t know Podliska, denies his account.

The Clinton campaign meanwhile struggled to deal with the steady drip of leaks and allegations. For months, commentators parsed her precise degree of contrition. While conceding that she should have done things differently, Clinton also at times slipped into her habit of answering questions with technicalities, of stonewalling and blaming all her troubles on her enemies — a category into which she appeared to lump, in the Democratic presidential debate, all the roughly 50 million Republicans in the nation. She even joked about the controversy, at times, seemingly tone deaf to the gravity of the issue. Though she seemed to feel she had conveyed contrition, according to a campaign staffer, she seemed unaware of the significance the public and media invest in the word “sorry.” It was only in September that she managed to put that behind her by uttering the magic word in an interview on ABC.

Yet in the view of many staffers and sympathizers, she was gradually turning things around to her advantage, helped in the time-honored Clinton fashion, by luck in her adversaries. One turning point came in July, when the New York Times broke the bombshell news that Clinton faced a possible criminal investigation into her email use. But the bombshell went off under the Times, which had to retract its most sensational allegations after furious protests from Clinton staffers led to the conclusion the newspaper’s reporters had been misled by their sources — who were not identified, although it seemed likely to many observers wise in the ways of Washington that the leaks originated with members or staffers on Gowdy’s committee.

This, of course, was a blessing in disguise for the Clinton campaign, since many of the most damaging news stories, including the first one about the emails, had appeared in the Times, by the same reporter, Michael S. Schmidt.

So as Thursday’s showdown nears, Clinton’s advisers, according to one campaign staffer, are feeling more confident than they have in a long time. They see coverage of the email scandal receding, in the wake of McCarthy’s blunder and the Podliska firing. They believe Republican efforts to “manufacture” revelations in order to “keep the drip, drip, drip going” have failed. They were jubilant at the audience response to Bernie Sanders’ remark in the Democratic debate that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

And they recall how, back in 2013, at a hearing in one of the earlier investigations, Clinton turned the tables on her interrogators over their obsessive questioning about a now forgotten aspect of the affair, the administration’s confusion over whether the four were killed in a planned terror attack or a spontaneous riot. “At this point,” she exclaimed in exasperation, “what difference does it make?” Conservative media immediately yanked the comment out of context to paint Clinton as callous and insensitive toward the tragedy but Clinton staffers and allies now think it was one of her most forceful moments, an example of how well she can perform under pressure.

“Hillary can now walk right in and basically call it out as a kangaroo court,” Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and Clinton’s traveling campaign press secretary in 2008, told Yahoo News. “These comments basically give her the opportunity every time they overreach, and they have a history of overreaching, to just dismiss it out of hand. … They either overreach, giving her an opening to remind everyone about their own comments. Or they tread incredibly softly, in which case that’s probably a win as well for her.”

Elleithee had one caveat: “Unless there is a moment where she trips up,” he mused. “Unless there is a legitimate question that she just doesn’t answer satisfactorily, which is why I say she’s got to take it seriously.”

And such a moment is what Gowdy must hope for. Ever since the McCarthy gaffe, the chairman has been insisting that the hearing will be about the issues and lessons of Benghazi. As he told Face the Nation, “the seven [sic] members of my committee [there are also five Democrats on the panel] are much more focused on the four dead Americans than we are anyone’s presidential aspirations.” But he undercut that high-minded sentiment the very next day,telling Politico he would be looking for Clinton to contradict her previous statements, which would “call into question her credibility.”

For their part, the Clinton campaign’s plan for avoiding such a blunder will apparently rest on taking a somber approach to the proceedings, despite their long-standing view that the whole process is illegitimate. The campaign aide said Clinton will “stay focused on what should be the substance of the hearing” and keep her mind on the people who died during the attack. Staffers suggest she will approach the testimony with the same gravity as when she audibly choked up while recalling the four slain Americans: “She will approach it in a very sober, solemn manner, notwithstanding all the admissions and various things that have come to light over the last several weeks.”

For his part, Gowdy’s problem is that he lacks what a prosecutor would call a theory of the case. Unless he has some major revelation up his sleeve about the attack itself — one that escaped all the previous investigations — he is left with the email-server issue, for which Clinton has already apologized. The danger that someone could have hacked into her relatively unsophisticated server and downloaded classified information is hypothetical at best — and slightly risible coming just after the federal government’s own servers were allegedly raided by Chinese hackers to the tune of 4 million personnel files.

So there’s reason to think he may try to focus on peripheral questions, such as Clinton’s relationship with Blumenthal, who had business interests in Libya at the same time he was emailing her about the political situation there.

But we won’t know until Thursday, and possibly not even then. Gowdy is respected by his peers, especially the outgoing Boehner, but he’s been badly shaken by recent events. Just last month, a colleague said Gowdy might be ready to forego the pleasures of serving in Congress and return to South Carolina. It’s unlikely that the last three weeks have changed his mind. His legacy, such as it is, could be determined by Republicans’ performance Thursday and by the committee’s final product, when and if it appears.