WASHINGTON — They blamed her mismanagement for the death of Americans in Benghazi, Libya. They accused her of a cover-up. Some even suggested that she faked an illness to avoid testifying about the attack.
On Wednesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton finally had her chance to respond to critics, and the outgoing secretary of state served up a potent brew of righteous outrage.
She began her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with restraint, and even remorse. She choked up as she described receiving flag-draped caskets at Andrews Air Force Base and hugging relatives of those killed.
But her anger boiled over when rookie Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., demanded to know why she and her aides didn’t immediately call those evacuated from Benghazi to find out whether a protest had preceded the attack. Clinton replied that she didn’t want to interfere with the FBI’s investigation — which is almost certainly what Republicans would have accused her of doing.
“That’s a good excuse,” Johnson said, scornfully.
“Well, no, it’s a fact,” Clinton retorted, growing irritated. Waving her index finger, she pointed out that much of what happened in Libya on Sept. 11 remains unknown.
“No, no, no, no,” Johnson rejoined. “We were misled that there were supposedly protests and then something sprang out of that, an assault … and the American people could have known that within days.”
Clinton raised her voice. “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” she shouted at the lawmaker. Waving her arms and then pounding the witness table with her fist, she continued: “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Johnson stopped interrupting as Clinton continued. “It is, from my perspective, less important today looking backward as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice,” she said.
Johnson didn’t attempt a rebuttal. “OK, thank you, Madam Secretary.”
It never made sense that Republicans focused less on the serious security lapses that allowed the debacle in Libya than on the supposed cover-up surrounding U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s initial claim, since disproved, that the attack had spun out of a protest.
But Clinton’s appearance on the Hill, expected to be her last before she leaves office, provided a broader vindication of the one-time (and probably future) presidential candidate. There had been concern among Democrats that the Benghazi episode would mar her otherwise successful tenure at State, but in fact she is leaving the post more popular than ever.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that 67 percent of Americans view her favorably, a career high and roughly double the popularity congressional Republicans have. So when Clinton clashed with GOP lawmakers Wednesday, it had the feeling of a Hummer colliding with a Smart car.
Senators, even Republicans, prefaced remarks with obligatory good wishes.
“You probably traveled more than any secretary of state in history and came at your job in the way we all thought you would, with hard work and diligence,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the panel’s ranking Republican.
Added Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., “As a doctor, I will tell you, I have seen you work yourself to exhaustion, not for your own benefit but for the benefit of the people of this country, and the country is grateful.”
Clinton, in heavy green jacket, dark pants and thick glasses, disarmed her critics, who sat uncomfortably through the tearful moment in her opening statement. She further pre-empted their criticism by readily accepting responsibility for the lapse, which occurred at lower levels.
After her dressing-down of Johnson, the questioning became less aggressive. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., although making clear his displeasure with the handling of Libya generally, was relatively subdued. “We are proud of you,” he told Clinton. “All over the world where I travel, you are viewed with admiration and respect.”
Only gadfly Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., still had the stomach to fight with Clinton. “Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi … I would have relieved you of your post,” he charged.
But Paul, a man of exotic opinions, is never going to be president, and Clinton deflected his provocation with a mild reply: “I believe in taking responsibility, and I have done so.”
That may have been Clinton’s most cutting response to a critic: Letting him know he’s not worth wasting her breath.
Dana Milbank’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.