Floundering in the polls and desperately searching for a way to rattle his rival, Donald Trump has invited Patricia Smith, the grieving mother of one of the Americans killed in the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to attend tonight’s presidential debate as his guest and sit where Hillary Clinton is likely to see her. Smith has accused Clinton of lying about the Benghazi attack and said she holds the former secretary of state personally responsible for her son’s death.
Trump has also reportedly invited Lydie Denier, a model and actress who was briefly engaged to Ambassador Chris Stevens (who was also killed in Benghazi) back in 1995. Denier, unlike the rest of Stevens’s family, also blames Clinton in part for Stevens’s death. "I think she should have done a better job for security and not ignore his requests,” she told Newsmax TV. “And if he was a friend, like she said, he was a friend, then you don't let your friend down."
This is not the first time the Trump campaign has tried this sort of tactic: At the last debate, the Trump team invited four women who had previously accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual abuse to sit in the Trump family’s personal box at the debate to try to throw Hillary Clinton off her game.
Their scheme was thwarted at the last minute when debate organizers refused to allow the women to take their seats in the Trump box, instead forcing them to sit in the regular seats with the rest of the ticketed attendees.
To be sure, the Clinton campaign has used similar tactics, including using strategically placed guests to try to intimidate her competitor in previous debates. And it seems she will be doing so again tonight, with billionaire Mark Cuban, an outspoken Trump critic, on her list of invitees.
She also had the parents of a Muslim American US Army captain, Humayun Khan, who was killed fighting in the Iraq War give a powerful speech condemning Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric at the Democratic National Convention.
But although the tactics may be the same, the individuals being used by each side — and what they’re being used for — are not. Cuban is a powerful, wealthy man with a big mouth and his own NBA team who likes to mock Trump on Twitter. He’s not a victim. The Khans spoke to stand up for the patriotism of Muslim Americans, not to accuse Trump of literally having blood on his hands.
Patricia Smith, on the other hand, is a bereaved mother who lost a child to a horrific tragedy. And regardless of whether she is a willing and eager participant in this crass political theater, exploiting her pain and anger to score cheap political points and perpetuate a conspiracy theory is simply grotesque.
Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of the fallen US Army captain, are also bereaved parents, of course, and they have been used by the Clinton campaign to score political points. But there is a fundamental difference between having the proud parents of a fallen soldier talk about their son’s sacrifice for his country in order to promote a message of inclusiveness and tolerance, and exploiting a shattered, heartbroken mother’s anguish to trick people into believing a bunch of lies.
Why is Patricia Smith so angry with Hillary Clinton?
On September 11, 2012, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists attacked the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing Smith’s son, State Department information management office Sean Smith, along with Ambassador Stevens. A few hours later, two other Americans were killed in a separate attack on a nearby CIA annex.
In its initial public statements, the Obama administration seemed to imply that the attack was related to a spontaneous reaction to a video depicting the Prophet Mohammed in a manner considered offensive by many Muslims. Mobs protesting the video had erupted elsewhere, including at the US Embassy in Cairo, the same day as the first Benghazi attack.
However, further investigation over the next several days revealed that the attack was not a spontaneous reaction to the video, as was initially stated, but rather was likely a premeditated attack that had been planned before the video even came out. Yet for some time after the real motives behind the attack became clear, the White House continued to push the message that the attack was related to the video.
For instance, Susan Rice, who was the US ambassador to the United Nations at the time, went on the Sunday talk shows several days after the attacks took place. As PolitiFact has documented, throughout those interviews, Rice “consistently emphasized the importance of the video, and the only times she brought up the possibility of a terrorist connection was to downplay it.”
Bloomberg’s Eli Lake notes that Rice was poorly informed of the situation and was just going off prepared talking points. However, it later came out that a number of State Department officials felt at the time that she had gone “off the reservation” in her comments on the Sunday shows.
Three days after the attack, Hillary Clinton, along with President Obama, Rice, and other top officials, met with the families of the Benghazi victims. Some of them — including Patricia Smith — claim that during this meeting, Clinton told them that their family members had been killed because of the video. (Others don’t remember her saying that, and Clinton herself denies that she said it, but she did mention the video in a public statement she made later that day.)
Patricia Smith and others believe that Clinton (as well as Rice and others) purposely lied about the video being the impetus for the attack in order to cover up Clinton’s negligence in failing to prevent a premeditated terrorist attack. In a moving speech at the Republican National Convention earlier this year, Smith said:
The last time I talked to Sean, the night before the terrorist attack, he told me, “Mom, I am going to die.” All security had been pulled from the embassy, he explained. And when he asked why, he never received a response. Nobody listened. Nobody seemed to care. The very next day, he was murdered by radical Islamic terrorists...
For all of this loss, for all of this grief, for all of the cynicism the tragedy in Benghazi has wrought upon America, I blame Hillary Clinton. I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son.
The basic argument is that the State Department, under Clinton’s leadership, failed to provide adequate security for the US diplomatic staff at the consulate in Benghazi despite repeated pleas from the staff on the ground, and that after the attack, in order to cover that up, Clinton and others in the Obama administration tried to pretend the attack was spontaneous and thus that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it.
Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, reiterated this, claiming that under Clinton’s watch, “our ambassador and his staff were left helpless to die at the hands of savage killers” in Benghazi.
Patricia Smith is a grieving mother, not a national security expert
It’s a powerful argument for why Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be president of the United States: It shows that she doesn’t adequately appreciate the true extent of the threat from radical Islamic terrorism, that she is careless when it comes to protecting American lives, and that she’s willing to say or do anything to cover up her own ineptitude.
The only problem is that it’s not actually true. As my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written:
Nine different bodies have investigated Benghazi: the State Department's Accountability Review Board and eight separate congressional committees or staff reports. With the select committee's reports in, all of them have now completed investigations. Each has identified problems with the way the incident was handled, but none have uncovered real evidence of an administration cover-up or failure to properly respond to the attacks.
That’s pretty remarkable. And it puts one hell of a dent in Trump’s attempt to use Benghazi as a perfect example of why Clinton shouldn’t be president. While it is certainly the case that the Obama administration bungled the messaging in the immediate aftermath of the attacks — as Rice’s comments on the Sunday talk shows demonstrate — there is no credible evidence that Clinton purposely lied to the families of the victims, or that she was personally responsible for the deaths of their loved ones.
Trump’s claims to the opposite are nothing more than a conspiracy theory intended to make Clinton look bad. Which is precisely why he’s trotting out Patricia Smith. It’s a lot harder to dismiss or laugh off these false claims when they’re coming from a grieving mother who has legitimately suffered a tremendous personal loss and is visibly in pain.
Her anger and anguish reaches voters on a visceral, emotional level that tends to dampen our ability to separate fact from fiction. We feel for her, we grieve with her, and we want to share her anger. We don’t want to fact-check her; we want to hug her. We want to help her get justice.
One can imagine that Hillary Clinton, who is herself a mother and a grandmother, must also feel Smith’s pain, and regardless of whether she was actually at fault for the death of Smith’s son, she almost certainly feels some degree of guilt about it, knowing she was in charge at the time. It’s only human.
And that’s what’s so incredibly crass about this whole thing: Trump is exploiting one mother’s pain and another mother’s guilt to score political points. It’s an exceptionally dirty move, and he should be ashamed of himself. But he won’t be.