If one knew nothing about the 2012 Benghazi attack before Thursday’s special committee hearing, he or she would think that Sid Blumenthal — a former aide to President Clinton — had led the attacks.
Time and time again, Republicans returned to Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Blumenthal, who has never been in Libya nor served in Clinton’s Department of State. On numerous times they brought up the emails that he sent her, the influence of his advice, where his missives were passed along and whether his communications were truly unsolicited.
Their justification for their focus on a side character in Clinton’s universe seemed Clinton emailed Blumenthal — a personal friend of the Clintons– more than she did Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the four Americans killed in the attack. The name Sidney Blumenthal has become something of a dog whistle in right-wing circles — for Clinton cronyism, rank politicization, and self-dealing — but it remained unclear after hours of testimony how his emails further implicated Clinton in the Benghazi tragedy.
“I think it is imminently fair to ask why Sidney Blumenthal had unfettered access to you with whatever he wanted to talk about and there’s not a single solitary email to or from you to or from Ambassador Stevens,” Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said.
The desire to drive home this comparison led Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) to ask Clinton if Stevens had her personal email address, her cell phone and fax, with the assumption that Blumenthal did.
“Did he have your home address?“ Pompeo asked.
“No, I don’t think any ambassador has ever asked me for that.” Clinton said.
“Did he ever stop by your house?” he continued
“No, he did not, congressman,” she responded.
“Mr. Blumenthal has each of those and did each of those things. He provided so much information about Libya. He had access to you in ways that were very different than the access that a very senior diplomat had to your and your personnel,” Pompeo said.
Republican committee members treated the Blumenthal emails as something of a smoking gun. They insisted that this was the kind of revelation the committee — now under intense scrutiny — was set up to expose.
“We just heard email after email after email about Libya and Benghazi that Sidney Blumenthal sent to the Secretary of State. I don’t care if it was by morse code, carrier pigeon, smoke signals, the fact that he sent by email isn’t relevant,” Gowdy said, after Clinton herself question the relevancy of the line of questioning. “What is relevant is that he was sending information to the Secretary of State. That is what relevant.”
Clinton explained that much of the business she did as secretary of state did not take place over email, and her personal contact with Blumenthal did not reflect the work she was doing there. Republicans have used Blumenthal’s emails to Clinton’s private email — which were first revealed by a hacker — to build attention around the fact that she used a private email server to conduct her work at the State Department.
Democrats on the committee turned the Republicans’ obsession with Blumenthal back on them, pointing out that the GOP-led committee had yet to make public Blumenthal’s testimony from his deposition in front of the committee and even called a vote to release it.
“Let the world see it. What do you have to hide,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking member, roared in a heated exchange with Gowdy that capped off the first round of questions.
Reports based on those who have seen the transcripts suggest that committee’s questioning of Blumenthal went for hours before the Benghazi attack was brought up and was focused on his personal connection to Clinton.
“You personally attended Mr. Blumenthal’s deposition. You personally asked him about the Clinton foundation and you personally directed your staff to ask questions about Clinton, the Clinton foundation which they did more than 50 times,” Cummings recounted at Thursday’s hearing.
For Cummings, that was proof that the point of the committee was to bring to light politically damaging information about Clinton.
“Now, these facts directly contradict the statements you made on national television,” Cummings said, referring to Gowdy’s defense of the committee after other Republicans suggested it was politically-motivated.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) went deeper into the details of Blumenthal’s testimony:
“Republicans asked more than 160 questions about Mr. Blumenthal’s relationship and communications with the Clintons, but less than 20 questions about the Benghazi attacks. Republicans asked more than 50 questions about the Clinton foundation but only four questions about security in Benghazi. Republicans asked more than 270 questions about Mr. Blumenthal’s alleged business activities in Libya, but no questions about the U.S. presence in Benghazi. And Republicans asked more than 45 questions about David Brock, Media Matters — I have no idea what that is even — and affiliated entities, but no questions, no questions about Ambassador Stevens and other U.S. personnel in Benghazi.”
Gowdy himself had earlier in the day kicked off his questioning about Blumenthal by pointing out his work for the Clinton Foundation as well as his previous positions at liberal organizations like Media Matters and Correct the Record.
He also brought up some emails Blumenthal sent Clinton criticizing some members of President Obama’s administration, and even Obama himself.
“This is a quote from him: ‘I would say Obama’—and by- the way, he left the president part out,” Gowdy said, before reading the rest of the email accusing Obama of operational analysis.
“You know, Mr. Chairman, if you don’t have any friends who say unkind things, I congratulate you,” Clinton said.