Hillary Clinton will be in the hot seat Thursday when she appears before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, but so will the Republicans questioning her on the State Department’s response to the 2012 attacks.
For Clinton, her questioning comes amid the FBI investigation into her private email server, brought to light by the Benghazi panel. But Republicans on the committee, led by Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, must demonstrate through their questions that the entire investigation isn’t a partisan endeavor, as the Clinton campaign, congressional Democrats and the White House all have charged.
Public opinion doesn’t bode well for either side, according to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Wednesday: Forty-four percent of Americans said they aren’t satisfied with Clinton’s response to the Benghazi attack, compared to 27 percent who are satisfied. Opinion on her email is more divided, with 47 percent calling the private server an important factor in their vote, and 44 percent saying it isn't. And it’s close on the GOP-led investigation: Thirty-six percent of those polled said they think the Benghazi committee is unfair and too partisan, while 29 percent believe it’s a fair probe.
Though Thursday's focus will be on the lead-up to Benghazi, what the State Department could have done to prevent it, and how the government responded, questions will certainly touch on Clinton’s private email system, which she used while she was secretary of state.
“It will be interesting to see how cautious and careful … Clinton will be in the testimony,” Matthew Whitaker, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, told TheBlaze. “This will be a high-stakes situation. For her, it will be an opportunity to put at least some of these questions to bed.”
Whitaker guessed that Clinton's server likely won’t be the first question to come up during the hearing, but said legitimate questions remain about whether Congress had full access to all the information it has requested – including information that existed in her personal system.
“The questions that have to be answered are all related to Benghazi. There is some doubt by the committee as to whether everything has been turned over. Most on the committee will try to get the answers on Benghazi and what was done to protect the compound,” said Whitaker, now the executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a government watchdog group. “In my mind it will be very important to paint a real-time picture of the State Department in the lead-up to the attack and the decisions made.”
The White House hit the committee hard ahead of Clinton's testimony.
“Republicans on the committee are going to be under intense pressure to justify their very existence of this committee and to prove to the American people that this committee is not just an arm of the Republican National Committee,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday. “Given that pressure that Republicans on the committee are feeling, they are going to come loaded for bear and they are going to come out with aggressive, hostile questioning of the secretary of state.”
The question of her email server is key, and this is a rare opportunity to question her under oath regarding exposing security information on an unsecure network, said Michael Daugherty, a cybersecurity expert and board member at cybersecurity firm Snoopwall.
He said in this particular case, the “Clinton playbook” of blaming the investigators might not work.
“They are using a 20th-century playbook with 21st-century technology. The facts will eventually be there,” Daugherty said.
The partisan clashes between Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, and Gowdy have created an opening for Clinton, Daugherty said. He also has doubts about the legal or political impact of the hearing.
“It boils down to the memories of the public. It is an advantage to Clinton that this is happening in October of this year and not May of 2016,” Daughterty said. “Elijah Cummings will suppress, circle and confuse and spin and say don’t look at the evidence. It has been a source of frustration to people like Trey Gowdy.”
On Monday, committee Democrats released a 124-page report declaring the investigation has determined nothing, as Cummings alleged “wild Republican conspiracy theories about Secretary Clinton and Benghazi,” and calling the House probe a “fishing expedition.”
The committee’s majority spokesman Jamal Ware said in a statement that the Democrats are too quick to draw conclusions.
“Why is every single bullet point in the Democrats’ press release about Clinton and not a single one about the four people who were killed or about providing better security in the future? This is further proof of the Democrats’ obsession with covering for Hillary Clinton instead of investigating the Benghazi terrorist attacks,” Ware said.
“For the majority members of this committee, they will continue to wait until after hearing from all witnesses, up to and including the very last one, before drawing conclusions, because that is what serious investigations do,” Ware continued. “As Chairman Gowdy said this weekend, the past 18 months of the investigation conducted by the majority members has not been about Clinton, it has been about the four brave Americans we lost in Benghazi.”
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s statement last month on the panel's role in causing a dip in Clinton's polling numbers was a game-changer that allowed her to go from being on the defensive to going on offense, said Gary Rose, a political science professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.
“It’s quite possible Hillary will come out looking even stronger from this,” Rose said. “It will be a political chess game, watching how each side makes its move. Hillary has mastered dodging questions and turning the tables.”
That said, Rose said Clinton has been off her game in the past, such as when she lost her cool at a 2013 Senate hearing and notably said in response to questions about Benghazi, “What difference at this point does it make?”
“She can get rattled,” Rose said. “If Republicans are able to get her to respond emotionally and we see a repeat of ‘what difference does it make,’ that would give Republicans a tremendous advantage. But she has almost certainly been preparing for this for a while.”