After nearly four years, millions of dollars and at least eight investigations, Republicans failed to produce enough evidence to pin the Obama administration’s bungled handling of the fatal 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, squarely on Hillary Clinton, making it unlikely that the episode becomes a make-or-break challenge to her presidential bid.
Clinton still faces other hurdles in her path to the White House: a lack of enthusiasm by some Democrats, polls finding that voters think she’s not honest and a months-long FBI inquiry into the handling of sensitive information while secretary of state. But after Tuesday, her campaign is not likely to hinge on the Benghazi attacks.
The latest inquiry led by Republicans in the House of Representatives revealed governmental failures. But it assigns blame across several agencies – the State Department, the Pentagon, the FBI and the intelligence community. It yielded no bombshell revelation against Clinton. Republicans have criticized her as lacking decisive leadership in responding to the crisis and several inquiries have found that the response was delayed by miscommunications and other problems within her State Department.
“In the end, it’s not really going to change things at all,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron in the battleground state of Ohio. “Most people are tired of hearing about Benghazi.”
Clinton and her allies are relieved not only that there was no major new finding but also that the long list of inquiries into the attack, which killed four Americans, has finally come to an end, just weeks before she accepts the Democratic nomination for president.
Speaking at a campaign event Tuesday in Denver, Clinton took a rare question from the media, eager to deem the investigation a closed case. “I think it’s pretty clear it’s time to move on,” she said.
Once anticipated as the Republican linchpin in a campaign to hold Clinton directly responsible for the deadly attacks, the House Republicans’ Benghazi report landed with a thud. Nearly all news agencies immediately took the “no smoking gun” angle; even the conservative Breitbart outlet stuck it in a corner column, not as the top story.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the committee’s chairman, repeatedly resisted characterizing the report as a tool against the Clinton campaign. He said he’d led a neutral investigation, and he made an emotional appeal for people to read the report and draw their own conclusions.
“If you can read this report and you believe on the last page of the report that it is about one person instead of about four people, then there’s nothing I can say that’s going to disabuse you of that,” Gowdy said at a news conference. “That’s just what you believe.”
Others, including Reps. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who released their own joint statement separate from the committee, said the findings showed that President Barack Obama was more concerned about his re-election than about the victims. Pompeo said Clinton’s leadership was “morally reprehensible.”
Pompeo suggested, though he wouldn’t say outright, that Clinton’s performance in the crisis renders her unfit for the presidency.
“I like my president of the United States to do the job in the lead – that would be things like, when your folks are in trouble, you move heaven and earth to save them,” Pompeo said in a phone interview. “I like my president to tell the truth to the American people.”
The report came from the Select Committee on Benghazi, created in May 2014 to examine U.S. government policies that may have contributed to the attacks and to evaluate the response of the Obama administration, including Clinton. Republicans said Democrats and the Obama administration refused to cooperate, though Democrats say they were shut out of the process.
It's unfortunate that the death of four Americans would be subject to that kind of political fantasizing. But that is the state of the Republican Party these days.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
A total of 107 witnesses were interviewed for the report, including 81 never before questioned by Congress and nine eyewitnesses to the attacks on U.S. posts in eastern Libya in September 2012, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three American colleagues. The committee also received and reviewed more than 75,000 new pages of documents.
“This report just confirms . . . this committee’s chief goal is to politicize the deaths of four brave Americans in order to try to attack the Obama administration and hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign” Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement.
The 800-page report offered a more detailed look at the bureaucratic failings revealed by previous inquiries and concluded, as others have, that the administration had failed to act on intelligence that warned of the risks posed by violent extremists.
Findings highlighted by the committee underline members’ assertions that administration officials didn’t act with the urgency required of such a crisis.
With Stevens still missing, the White House convened a two-hour meeting where, according to the committee’s account, officials were undecided whether to deploy military assets and seemed preoccupied with seeking Libyan approval for any such rescue operation. A senior Defense Department official who should have been at the meeting, the committee said, “did not attend because he went home to host a dinner party for foreign dignitaries.”
The committee also learned that a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or FAST, sat on a plane in Rota, Spain, for three hours, with service members changing in and out of their uniforms four times as Washington officials debated the protocol for sending in U.S. forces.
“Despite President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s clear orders to deploy military assets, nothing was sent to Benghazi, and nothing was en route to Libya at the time the last two Americans were killed almost eight hours after the attacks began,” the committee said.
House Democrats released their own 339-page report Monday, accusing the Republicans of providing distorted accusations for the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump, to use against Clinton. The Democrats mention Clinton and Trump far more times than the Republicans name either presidential candidate.
“I don’t think it’s going to move any voters,” said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Jacksonville, Fla. “Voters who are committed to Hillary are committed to Hillary. Voters who are committed to Trump are committed to Trump.”
Clinton delivered what was widely considered a strong performance at an 11-hour grilling in October in front of the committee. She testified that she’d taken responsibility for the State Department’s handling of Benghazi by “moving quickly in those first uncertain hours” to respond to the crisis, and then, in the aftermath, by launching an independent investigation to find out what happened and “to recommend steps for improvement.”
Seven other congressional committees and the bipartisan, independent Accountability Review Board have looked into the assault. Nearly all of them criticized the Clinton State Department as insufficiently addressing security issues at the diplomatic facility in Benghazi.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong length of time that a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team sat on a plane in Spain awaiting orders. It was 3 hours.
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this article.