After months of buildup, Hillary Rodham Clinton finally takes center stage as the star witness in the Republican-led investigation into the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president, testifies from a position of political strength as her potential rival for the nomination, Vice President Joe Biden, announced Wednesday that he will not jump into the presidential race and she rides the momentum of a solid debate performance.
Meanwhile, the Benghazi committee is on the defensive as the panel’s GOP chairman scrambles to deflect comments by fellow Republicans that the inquiry is aimed at hurting Clinton’s presidential bid.
Even so, Clinton faces a formidable challenge as she tries to explain security lapses at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, the slow military response to the violence and the Obama administration’s changing narrative about who was responsible for the attacks that killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, and why the attacks were launched.
In a high-stakes, day-long appearance that could solidify her hold on the Democratic nomination or raise doubts about her candidacy, Clinton also is certain to face questions about her use of a private email account and server while serving as secretary of state.
The committee also faces a make-or-break moment. The panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, and other Republican investigators know their questioning of Clinton could revive the beleaguered panel’s credibility or undermine it even further.
A new Associated Press-Gfk poll offers solace to both sides. While the investigation into the attacks is a burning issue for Republicans but not the broader public, Americans are more likely to view the investigation as justified rather than as a political attack on Clinton, the poll finds.
Many Americans don’t have an opinion about Clinton’s handling of the investigation. Four in 10 say they neither approve nor disapprove of how she has answered questions about the attack, while 20 percent approve and 37 percent disapprove.
Americans also are divided on Clinton’s emails. More than half of those polled view her use of a private server as a minor problem or no problem at all, compared with 1 in 3 who think it is a major problem. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans call it a major problem.
Gowdy pledged in a recent interview that the hearing will be “Benghazi-centric,” focused on security before and during the attacks. Some questions on Clinton’s emails are likely, Gowdy said, but he maintains that his approach may “shock you with fairness.”
Clinton has said the use of a private server was a mistake.
The hearing comes amid an escalating partisan feud on the 12-member committee, which has spent more than $4.5 million since its creation in May 2014.
Democrats have complained about “selective and out-of-context leaks” that they said mischaracterized testimony by top Clinton aides and other witnesses. They say the panel has devolved into partisan harassment intended to hurt Clinton’s bid for president.
Gowdy and other Republicans say the panel has been and remains focused on those killed in Benghazi and on providing a definitive account of the attacks. There have been seven previous investigations.
“This has never been political for us,” said Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., a member of the Benghazi panel. “This has always been about finding out the truth.”
While Thursday’s hearing has drawn worldwide attention, “the investigation isn’t solely about Secretary Clinton. She’s just one piece of a much larger investigation,” Roby said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the committee has been a bust.
“After 17 months and millions of taxpayer dollars spent, the Select Committee on Benghazi has uncovered nothing that alters our core understanding of the facts as revealed by the other (seven) investigations,” said Schiff, who has called for the committee to be disbanded.
“When you consider the committee’s obsessive focus on attacking Secretary Clinton, the reason becomes quite clear: the (GOP) majority has little interest in the events in Benghazi except to the degree they can be used to diminish her standing in the polls,” Schiff said.
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