WASHINGTON – The House Select Committee on Blumenthal, as some are now calling it, came to order Thursday at 10 a.m. Lawmakers didn’t finish questioning Hillary Clinton until 11 hours later – just after the Democratic presidential candidate succumbed to a coughing fit.
The name of Sidney Blumenthal was invoked more than 75 times, and scores of questions were asked about the longtime Clinton friend. By lunchtime, Blumenthal had been invoked 49 times – exactly the number of mentions of Chris Stevens, the ambassador to Libya whose death in Benghazi is the supposed subject of the congressional probe. The other three Americans slain in Benghazi – Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods – got seven or eight mentions apiece, while former CIA Director David Petraeus and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates each got two.
Chairman Trey Gowdy, reading from Blumenthal’s emails to Clinton as if he were the teacher who had intercepted a note passed between two students, said Blumenthal referred to Gates as “a mean, vicious little” – Gowdy paused. “I’m not going to say the word, but he did.”
He also quoted Blumenthal referring to former national security adviser Tom Donilon’s “babbling rhetoric” and he said Blumenthal had referred to “Obama” (he “left the ‘President’ part out”) and “his political cronies in the White House and Chicago.”
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Clinton refused to get riled. “I don’t know what this line of questioning does to help us get to the bottom of the deaths of four Americans,” she said.
But Gowdy knew. A couple of minutes later, he announced: “I’ll tell you what: If you think you’ve heard about Sidney Blumenthal so far, wait until the second round.”
He and his colleagues made good on that, posing questions on Blumenthal’s work for the Clinton Foundation, his business interests, his attempt to get a job at the State Department, and his communication with the former secretary of state over matters as mundane as her new iPad. They were particularly concerned with whether Blumenthal’s advice to Clinton on Libya was “unsolicited.”
The Blumenthal focus shows that, after 17 months of probing Clinton, the Benghazi committee hasn’t come up with much. Blumenthal has been a Clinton hatchet-man for years, and he has an unsavory reputation. The very mention of his name (he was prominent during the Monica Lewinsky scandal) lends a whiff of skullduggery to any situation.
But injecting Blumenthal as a central character in the Benghazi probe doesn’t help Republicans demonstrate that Clinton did wrong. And the justification for invoking him – to show that Clinton had more contact with him than with Stevens – is a stretch. Whatever else one thinks of the former journalist, he had nothing to do with what happened in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, acted as if he had found a video of Blumenthal attacking the compound himself. Pompeo, who had previously made the false allegation that Clinton got “most of her intelligence” on Libya from Blumenthal, asked whether Stevens had Clinton’s personal email, her cellphone number, fax or home address or visited her at home. “Mr. Blumenthal had each of those and did each of those things,” Pompeo concluded.
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Illinois, thought he saw a smoking gun in an email correspondence from August 2011 in which Blumenthal encouraged Clinton to “make a public statement before the cameras” when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was deposed.
“Two months before the end of the Gaddafi regime and you’re already planning on how to make your statement dramatic to maximize political gain,” Roskam scolded.
Relevance to the Benghazi attack? None.
Gowdy found it damning that Clinton aides passed along some of Blumenthal’s advice (which he got from a former intelligence official) to people including Stevens. “It’s relevant because our ambassador was asked to read and respond to Sidney Blumenthal’s drivel,” the chairman said, “in some instances on the very same day he was asking for security.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, observed that for all the time the panel has spent on Blumenthal, you’d think “that he was in Benghazi on the night, manning the barricades.” During private testimony from Blumenthal, to which he was summoned by federal marshals, Republicans asked more than 160 questions about his associations with the Clintons but fewer than 20 about the Benghazi attacks.
Schiff and Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat, proposed that Republicans, rather than selectively releasing Blumenthal’s emails, come clean about their interest in him and make public the entire transcript of his testimony. Gowdy, after a shouting match with Cummings, refused.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.