Clinton tries to turn the tables as Benghazi hearing approaches
Ahead of high-stakes testimony this week before the Republican-led House committee investigating the Benghazi attacks, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying to turn the tables by highlighting the rest of her well-regarded tenure as chief U.S. diplomat.
Her campaign is releasing a video highlight reel from her State Department service Monday that includes endorsements and testimonials from Cabinet officials and others praising Clinton’s diplomatic work. The Clinton campaign is also helping organize public appearances and outreach by prominent surrogates to make a case this week that Clinton’s four years as secretary of state are anything but a liability.
Some details of the strategy, including the video, were made available exclusively to The Washington Post ahead of their release.
“If you examine the records and evaluate the approaches of all the candidates running for president — on both sides of the aisle — it’s clear that there is nobody better equipped to be our next commander-in-chief,” Clinton chief policy adviser Jake Sullivan said.
“As she showed in the debate the other night, her national security experience, accomplishments, and vision are major assets, and we plan to elevate and embrace these assets throughout the campaign,” said Sullivan, who served as Clinton’s right-hand adviser on all foreign policy issues when she was secretary of state.
But the deaths of four Americans, including the sitting U.S. ambassador, in Libya in September 2012 are a blot on Clinton’s record that has also become a political weak spot as she runs for president. Republican candidates have argued that both Benghazi and Clinton’s dealings with Syria, Iraq, Israel, Russia and elsewhere show a failure of leadership. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has called her tenure a disaster.
Clinton will testify Thursday before an investigative panel whose work led to revelation this year that she had exclusively used a privately owned e-mail system for her government work while at the State Department. Questions surrounding that decision, and Clinton’s handling of it as a candidate, have contributed to a sharp erosion of her political support, especially in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
“I really don’t know what to expect. I think it’s pretty clear that whatever they might have thought they were doing, they ended up becoming a partisan arm of the Republican National Committee with an overwhelming focus on trying to as, they admitted, down my poll numbers,” Clinton said in a CNN interview broadcast Sunday.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) handed her some firepower three weeks ago when he credited the panel’s work with bringing down Clinton’s approval ratings.
“I’ve already testified about Benghazi. I testified to the best of my ability before the Senate and the House. I don’t know that I have very much to add. This is, after all, the eighth investigation,” Clinton said.
The chairman of the House committee investigating the militant attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA base pushed back against claims that the probe has a partisan motive.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he has told Republican colleagues to “shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about. And unless you’re on the committee, you have no idea what we have done, why we have done it and what new facts we have found.”
Clinton left the State Department in early 2013 with approval ratings well above 60 percent and compliments from some of the Republicans running against her now. She is expected to try to turn Thursday’s session to focus on her record, and to discuss foreign policy more widely than has been the norm in the Democratic contest this cycle.
Since announcing her second try for the White House in April, Clinton has focused on domestic economic and social issues, from middle class wages to immigration reform and criminal justice, and until recently rarely mentioned the nitty-gritty of foreign policy unless asked.
Clinton did use her campaign pulpit to strongly defend the new international nuclear accord with Iran, and to seek some credit for helping to initiate the negotiations. And as Republicans criticize her for what they call a thin record of accomplishments, she has begun to add more references to her work on such issues as climate change and successful shuttle diplomacy to stop an outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Clinton talked about foreign policy at some length during last week’s first Democratic debate, including the long conflict in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State and Russian motives. She cast herself as a tough negotiator, including with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and proudly said that her enemies included both “the Iranians,” and “the Republicans.”
On Friday, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright delivered a de facto endorsement of Clinton with a speech at the Center for American Progress about the use of American power and influence, and the risks diplomats take to do their jobs.
Albright was secretary of state in 1998 when U.S. embassies were bombed in Tanzania and Kenya, killing more than 220 people including 12 Americans.
On Monday, former National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen and former assistant secretary of defense for international security Derek Chollet will hold a press briefing titled “Getting the Facts on Benghazi.”
Both former officials served in the Obama administration. The telephone briefing is organized by the Democratic-linked National Security Network, and the Clinton campaign invited political reporters to participate.
Albright is featured prominently in the new Clinton campaign video, which also includes admiring comments from former defense secretary Robert M. Gates, a Republican, and former defense secretary Leon Panetta.
“The world was in great trouble at the time that Secretary Clinton came into office, because our reputation was so bad,” Albright says. Later in the video she makes her endorsement of Clinton explicit.
“I don’t think I have ever met a person more prepared to be president,” says Albright, who served in the administration of Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton.
Clinton is pictured in talks with Chinese, Mideast and other leaders in the 5-minute video, which places her at the center of Obama administration work to tighten sanctions on Iran in 2010. Those strictures are credited with helping open a path for negotiations that could ease sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions, a breakthrough that came long after she left office.
The video includes a lengthy section on Clinton’s hectic negotiations in the fall of 2012 to bring about a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. The tricky back-and-forth involved getting the then-new Muslim Brotherhood-backed president of Egypt to be an intermediary with Hamas militants, and to persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he had more to gain by stopping the offensive.
The gambit worked and the cease-fire held for nearly two years. It was a rare example of a specific diplomatic accomplishment from Clinton’s tenure. The video also points to claims of less tangible success in promoting women’s rights and health, gay rights and AIDS treatment, and calls her a “shaper of conversations” in the Obama administration’s strategic shift toward wider engagement in Asia.
The unsuccessful effort early in President Obama’s first term to foster lasting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians goes unmentioned, as does the air campaign the United States, NATO and Arab states led in Libya in 2011 and the “surge” of U.S. forces to the flagging Afghanistan war.
“The deep bench of respected national security experts supporting her — from former cabinet secretaries to the next generation of leaders — is a testament to the fact that she is ready to take on the awesome responsibilities,” of being commander-in-chief, Sullivan said.
The campaign has worked quietly for months to build a roster of policy experts, including many younger specialists who worked for Clinton at the State Department, who will develop position papers and recommendations. The campaign plans to announce a foreign policy working group later this week. More than 40 experts will lead the group, including former career diplomat R. Nicholas Burns, former Clinton State Department aides Kurt Campbell and Vikram Singh and former CIA official Jeremy Bash, according to a campaign aide.
The group began meeting in September and on Oct. 9, Albright hosted a strategy session over dinner that also included former Obama national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon.