Thursday's meeting of the House Select Committee on Benghazi began not with a bang but a whine. Republican chairman Trey Gowdy wanted everyone to know that he was sick and tired of all the chatter out there about how the committee was just a partisan exercise designed to harm his special guest, Hillary Clinton. That was nonsense peddled by irrelevant cranks like the House Majority Leader. This was a "fact-centric" probe that would sweep the seven previous investigations into the Benghazi attacks into the trash can, where they belonged.
"We are going to write that final, definitive accounting of what happened in Benghazi," Gowdy intoned, as Clinton adopted a pose of utmost solemnity.
Nearly three-and-a-half hours later, Clinton looked on impassively while Gowdy and his Democratic counterpart, Elijah Cummings, screamed at each other for five minutes about parliamentary procedure. It almost seemed like she was going to jump in and ask if she could head to lunch early while they finished their fight.
No prizes for guessing which image will linger more in the mind. The ultimate impression left by the first half of the hearings was the one that everybody already has: Congress is terrible.
Well, that's not exactly true. People will think Congress is terrible and also that Sidney Blumenthal must be the most important, consequential person in recent American history. Anybody who thought that Blumenthal was a hanger-on in the vast, shady world of the Clintons who peppered his more powerful friends with email would apparently be mistaken, given the amount of time spent on dissecting his correspondence with Clinton. Gowdy may have pledged to conduct a dispassionate inquiry about what happened in Benghazi, but when the time came for him to interrogate Clinton, he spent literally every second of it asking her about Blumenthal's emails. In none of those emails did Blumenthal say anything like "just got back from orchestrating the Benghazi attacks," so little progress was made.
In fact, the only thing Gowdy managed to do was enrage Elijah Cummings, who went straight to 11 and stayed there as he yelled about Blumenthal, and transcripts, and contexts, and secrets, and it went on. Really, the crux of his thundering peroration was that Trey Gowdy is a bad person. Gowdy does not think he is a bad person, so he took issue with this. Clinton, meanwhile, sat back and enjoyed herself.
"Hillary Clinton enjoys herself" is not something Republicans likely wanted anybody to take away from these hearings, but what can you do? She was clearly very determined not to give them anything to get her with. She'd practiced all her different voices, from hushed near-whisper to flat near-contempt, and she deployed them at will. Her Republican questioners veered from meandering questions on her emails in 2011 to meandering questions on her emails in 2012, interspersed with gotchas that have already been explained in many other venues. Some got under her skin slightly more than others, but none of it left any lingering damage. Her Democratic questioners barely bothered to ask her anything at all, spending most of their time talking about how dumb what they were being made to do was. In other words, it was just like all other pointless Congressional hearings in American history.
Ironically, Republicans missed a golden opportunity in the first half of the Benghazi hearing. Hillary Clinton is extremely politically vulnerable when it comes to Libya. She was the most enthusiastic proponent of an invasion that turned out to be an unholy foreign policy disaster. It left a crater where a country once was and fast-tracked the relentless destabilization that has overtaken the Middle East in recent years. Clinton desperately needs to be grilled on how she could have made such a terrible choice. It's a true shame that so much attention is instead being given to the GOP's sham of an investigation.
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