Just three days before the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton was confronted Saturday at a town hall meeting by one of her Republican critics’ most common attacks.
A woman who identified herself as a 2008 Hillary Clinton supporter, but whose identity was not confirmed, asked the former secretary of state to assuage some doubts she had been having over the Benghazi attacks. In a quiet voice, the woman pointed to an email Clinton sent to her daughter on the night of the Benghazi attack that suggested terrorists were responsible for the killing of Ambassador Chris Steven. She asked why Clinton had spoken of protests over an anti-Islamic video in public. “What seemed to have come out was that you were pushing the video paradigm, when you were writing an email to your daughter that said the opposite,” she said at New England College in Henniker, N.H.
The Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi might just as well have phoned in. “You tell the American people one thing, you tell your family an entirely different story,” Republican Rep. Jim Jordan lectured during Clinton’s Benghazi hearing in October.
The reality of Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi situation is not so cut and dry, but Clinton’s answer in New Hampshire demonstrated her challenge. She continues to struggle to translate the complex details of a hectic response to an attack in Libya into a easily parsable campaign trail message for voters.
There was a “fog of war,” Clinton told her inquisitor, and it took a long time to figure out what had happened. The Benghazi incident was a terrorist attack, and shortly after the incident, she said as much. “Both President Obama and I, we called it a terrorist attack. We said it was an attack by terrorists,” Clinton said.
What has inflamed many Republicans is Clinton’s first statement from the night of the attack in 2012. In that press release, Clinton did not call the attack an act of terror. She also made reference to an anti-Muslim video, which had sparked protests in Egypt, noting that others had suggested that the Libya attacks were related to the same video. “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” the statement read. “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” Hours later, Clinton emailed her daughter, Chelsea, saying that the attack was committed by an “Al Qaeda-like group.”
In Henniker, Clinton said there was no effort to mislead the public. “There was no clear understanding and there wasn’t for many many days,” she said. “But the first claim of responsibility for Benghazi came from a group, a terrorist group that claimed responsibility and after that happened that’s when I communicated with my daughter. That it looks like, clearly there was an attack, but both President Obama and I, we called it a terrorist attack. We said it was an attack by terrorists. Between the time I told my daughter that and the next day that group withdrew their claim of responsibility.”
At the House hearing, Clinton explained it differently, pointing out that her initial public statement never explicitly connected the video with the terror attack. She also said then that the statement was meant to send a broader message to the region, warning that attacks over the video were unacceptable. That has not stopped Republicans from attacking her on the stump for having two different stories. “She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that [the attack] was because of a video,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said in October. Clinton, he says regularly, is a “liar.”
“I have to tell you I know this is a meme,” Clinton said Saturday. “This is a constant claim by some in the media, some on the right, some in the Republican Party. . . . But all you have to do is look at the time line. Did the video play a part? It certainly played a part in all the other attacks we were under.”
Clinton has forcefully denied there was a cover-up, and independent investigators have uncovered no evidence of intentional deception by Obama administration officials. Ansar al-Sharia, the group that at first claimed responsibility for the attack, withdrew its claim the next day. The reticence by the Obama Administration to call that attack terrorism did not last long. President Obama explained in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack that it was an “act of terrorism.” Administration officials have since maintained that the attack would have been “terrorism,” even if there was no other motive than a protest of the video.
Clinton tried to explain some of this nuance to the audience on Saturday. She added the terrorist attack at Benghazi could very well have been incited by the anti-Islamic video, and there was evidence to show it. “Did the ringleader who we arrested and now have in this country for trial say [the video] played a part? He did,” Clinton said. “Were they terrorists? Yes they were. Those are not in contradiction.”
The questions about Benghazi appear to have taken a toll on Clinton. Her trustworthiness, which has also been battered by a debate over the proper handling of her private email accounts, has sunk significantly among independents and even slightly among some Democrats, polls show. “Hillary is a liar. Benghazi is a big problem,” said Sean Adkins, a Democrat and native of Waterloo, Iowa who supports Bernie Sanders. One of the most pointed questions Clinton faced during a CNN town hall last week in Iowa came from a student who said, “I’ve heard from quite a few people my age that they think you’re dishonest.” An ABC/Washington Post poll released last month shows that while Clinton is the favorite of most Democrats by a significant margin, Democrats think Sanders is more honest by a margin of 48% to 36%.
Clinton, for her part, has said she will stand up to partisan attacks on her record. “Why is this being used as a great political issue? I really regret it is,” Clinton said at Henniker. She added that the investigations into Benghazi have been exhaustive, compared with other crises like the September 11th attacks. “I regret that four brave Americans whose lives have been lost serving our country has been put in the middle of what is a very political effort. I just think it’s wrong and I don’t think it should continue.”