WASHINGTON (CNN) — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton took direct aim at her Republican critics from the witness chair at a highly anticipated congressional hearing on Benghazi Thursday that marks a critical moment in her campaign.
She warned that Americans want true statesmanship, not partisan politics and ideology.
“I took responsibility and, as part of that, before I left office I launched reforms to help protect our people in the field,” Clinton said.
In an apparently veiled reference to her campaign’s contention that the Benghazi Select Committee is a sideshow meant to damage her politically, she added, “We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad, leadership that puts national security ahead of politics and ideology.”
But the top Republican on the House Select Committee, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, denied the hearing was a nakedly partisan exercise designed to derail Clinton’s campaign for the 2016 election — even as her top ally on the panel hit back at that assertion.
Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings claimed the probe had wasted 17 months and $4.7 million on a partisan fishing expedition that had turned up no new evidence on the attack, which occurred when she was secretary of state.
The committee is probing the events before, during and after an assault on U.S. diplomatic and CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, which killed four Americans and ignited a furious political controversy that has now spanned two presidential elections.
At the beginning of what is set to be eight grueling hours of testimony, Clinton, reading slowly from notes, somberly paid tribute to the four Americans killed: U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, information management officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
“I am here to honor the service of those four men, the courage of the diplomatic security agencies and the CIA officers who risked their lives that night, and the work their colleagues do every single day all over the world,” Clinton said.
Striking a somber tone, Clinton said that losing any member of her staff as secretary of state was “deeply painful” for the entire State Department as well as her personally, and recalled how she had asked Stevens to go to Libya in the first place, then stood at Andrews Air Force base as his flag-draped casket was brought home from Libya.
Clinton noted that an independent Accountability Review Board which she set up as secretary had pulled no punches, unveiling 29 recommendations for improving security for U.S. diplomats abroad.
Clinton largely stayed away from political rhetoric, but towards the end of her opening remarks, her voice seemed to catch briefly as she spoke about how proud she had been to represent America abroad as secretary of state.
In his opening statement, Republican Committee Chairman Gowdy also praised the four Americans who died in the Benghazi attacks. He called them heroes who had “believed in service and sacrifice” and promised justice for their families and the truth about what happened.
He also implicitly rejected claims by the Clinton campaign that the hearing was primarily a partisan activity, saying that unlike seven other congressional probes on the topic, it had established new parameters for the investigation and unearthed new troves of evidence.
“I understand there are people, frankly, in both parties that have suggested that this investigation is about you,” Gowdy told Clinton.
“Let me assure you that it is not and let me assure you why it is not. This investigation is about four people who were killed representing our country on foreign soil. It is about what happened before, during and after the attacks that killed them.”
5 things the Benghazi committee wants to know Gowdy pledged to investigate what exactly the United States was doing in Libya at the time of the attacks, why military assets were not available to deploy to save the Americans under threat and to examine the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis and the aftermath.
He said new evidence included a fresh batch of 1,300 emails from Stevens and 1,500 from Clinton that his panel was the first to investigate. He also complained that the investigation had been delayed because Clinton had used a private email account as secretary of state, which the committee only discovered in March.
Clinton watched the opening statements carefully from her seat opposite Gowdy but with no noticeable reaction to his statements.
But Cummings, of Maryland, charged that the Republicans had called the committee simply to “derail” her presidential campaign, and said some of the allegations leveled against her were “outlandish and inaccurate.”
He also denounced Republican presidential candidates for statements on Benghazi which he said proved the GOP was trying to hijack the Benghazi tragedy as a 2016 issue.
“Carly Fiorina has said Secretary Clinton has blood on her hands. Mike Huckabee accused her of ignoring the warning calls from dying Americans in Benghazi. Sen. Paul says Benghazi was a 3 a.m. phone call that she never picked up. And Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted ‘Where the hell were you the night of the Benghazi attack?’ Everyone on this panel knows these accusations are baseless,” Cummings said.