The most intense exchange during the first portion of Hillary Clinton's testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi Thursday revolved around the prior private testimony of Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton confidant who emailed her many times about Libya but never visited the country.
After Chairman Trey Gowdy, a Republican, began questioning Clinton about her relationship with Blumenthal, his employment by the Clinton Foundation and his ability to email her directly, Democrats on the committee insisted that Gowdy release a full transcript of Blumenthal's testimony earlier this year. Voices rose, lawmakers spoke over each other, Clinton grinned widely.
Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings and Adam Schiff led the charge, arguing that Gowdy has been selectively using Blumenthal's testimony to cast aspersions on Clinton.
"Why conceal the transcripts?" Schiff asked Gowdy.
Gowdy refused to make them public, saying he would consider it at a later date and insisting he would keep up the line of inquiry later in the day.
"If you think you've heard about Sidney Blumenthal," Gowdy said as he gaveled into a recess, "wait 'til the next round."
The GOP's focus on Blumenthal is the strongest evidence that the committee's a partisan political tool and that its members have little interest in either finding out what happened when four Americans were killed in Benghazi in 2012 or how to prevent future attacks. What they are determined to do is embarrass Clinton and hurt her chances of winning the presidency.
Ultimately, the first three hours of Clinton's marathon testimony yielded little if any new information. Republicans are making the argument that Blumenthal's emails to Clinton suggest he had an out-sized impact on the US policy in Libya. But that's absurd. Clinton received emails from Blumenthal and forwarded some to her staff. But there's no evidence that Blumenthal, a gadfly who was black-balled from the administration by the Obama White House, had any influence at all on policy or on Clinton's thinking.
This is just the latest in a string of Blumenthal-based attacks
Republicans stripped away any pretense that they are more interested in the Benghazi attack than in attacking Hillary Clinton when Blumenthal was dragged to Capitol Hill this summer for a deposition behind closed doors.
With that nine-hour interrogation of Blumenthal, the committee jumped the shark.
The Benghazi Committee deposed the Clinton confidant in a closed hearing room in a sub-basement of the Capitol. Blumenthal’s never been to Libya. He doesn’t know anything special about the Benghazi attack. He did sometimes forward "intelligence" memos from an ex-CIA officer to his longtime friend Hillary Clinton.
Not surprisingly, the committee — tasked with investigating the Benghazi assault — learned absolutely nothing from Blumenthal about the terrorist attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in September 2012.
However, by spending all that time on Blumenthal, they met someone who does know something about HClinton. Indeed, Blumenthal’s appearance on Capitol Hill — where he was last a prominent figure during Bill Clinton’s impeachment saga — felt like part of a national time warp in which Americans are forced to relive the partisan warfare of the 1990s, when Republicans summoned Clinton aides to testify about an endless string of investigations. A Clinton confidant testifying before Congress is the only thing more '90s than a Bush and a Clinton running for president.
Democrats were so convinced the deposition will make Republicans look partisan and politically motivated that they called for the release of a full transcript to the public both on the day of the testimony and during the Clinton hearing Thursday.
Gowdy, who invited reporters to stake out the Blumenthal deposition, insisted that he isn’t trying to affect the election.
"My interest is in the past, not the future," the South Carolina Republican said.
Gowdy, a former prosecutor who may have watched a little too much Law & Order, tried to generate as much drama as possible from the deposition by suggesting at a press conference afterward that the most exonerating evidence was actually the most damning.
Blumenthal "wasn’t the author of a single one of those memos," but "simply and merely a conduit" for someone who may have had a "pecuniary interest" in Libya, Gowdy said, enunciating his words for effect. A new batch of Blumenthal emails is "eerily similar" to those that have been made public before by the State Department, he added. He acknowledged that he didn’t directly learn anything about the Benghazi attack from Blumenthal.
So, for those scoring at home — and by Gowdy’s own admission on all counts — Blumenthal took memos from a former CIA official, essentially cut and pasted them, and forwarded them to the secretary of state.
On Thursday, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) hinted at what Gowdy may have been going after during the Blumenthal deposition when he asked Clinton whether Stevens had her personal email address.
Clinton replied that she didn't believe the ambassador had it. So, Westmoreland, concluded, Blumenthal had a more direct line to her than Stevens.
No smoking gun
Cummings said in June that "there’s no smoking gun."
Actually, there’s no gun, no bullet, no smoke, and no crime. Blumenthal is an oddity, a sycophantic relic of the Clinton administration who, for some unfathomable reason, retained Hillary Clinton’s ear — or at least her email address. It’s mildly embarrassing that she was receiving intelligence memos cooked up by a former CIA official, Tyler Drumheller, through a friend who was on the payroll of the Clinton Foundation.
Gowdy tried to make that sound really nefarious, too, both in June and on Thursday — like Clinton had mishandled the information.
"We have a CIA. So why would you not rely on your own vetted source intelligence agency?" Gowdy asked reporters this summer. On Thursday, he said "a significant number of your emails were to or from Sidney Blumenthal."
The emails that have been made public by the State Department show that Clinton often sent Blumenthal’s memos to members of her aides to vet. They found the information was sometimes wrong, sometimes outdated, and sometimes compatible with the department’s own intelligence.
This may come as a surprise to Gowdy, but the State Department is actually a massive intelligence-gathering operation that is a vital and integral part of America’s national security apparatus.
"My testimony shed no light on the events of Benghazi, nor could it," Blumenthal told reporters after his deposition, adding that he had been called to the Hill for "one reason and one reason only, and that reason is politics."
He said he told the committee that his work for the Clinton Foundation, for which he was reportedly paid $10,000 a month, had nothing to do with him forwarding to Clinton the content of memos from a person he described only as a "well-respected, former high-ranking CIA officer." The emails were intended "for her to use or not" as she saw fit, Blumenthal said. Flanked by his lawyer, former Deputy Attorney General James Cole, Blumenthal did not take questions.
A master of political spin and a veteran of the bloody 1990s political wars that seem destined for a comeback, Blumenthal is nobody’s victim. But neither is he any part of the answer to the questions of what happened in Benghazi and how the US can prevent and defend against future attacks on diplomatic facilities.
Before he spoke to the assembled reporters and television cameras, Blumenthal asked for a few moments to meet with his lawyer and gather himself.
"I need to look good for you," he said.
That put him one up on Gowdy.