Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went before the House and Senate yesterday to testify on the September 11, 2012 attacks on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya. While Secretary Clinton enjoyed some fawning questions from her supporters, she also faced pointed criticisms from her detractors.
One of the most dramatic moments came during questioning from Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), who asserted that Americans were “misled” about what occurred leading up to the attacks, a question that caused Secretary Clinton to lose her composure and shout:
CLINTON: With all respect, the fact is we have four dead Americans 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? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.
On Real News last night, S.E. Cupp interviewed Senator Johnson to get his reaction to what transpired during the hearings.
CUPP: With us right now is Senator Ron Johnson. Thanks for joining us.
JOHNSON: Hello, S.E. How are you doing?
CUPP: Good. Firstly, and this is not a condemnation of everything Secretary Clinton said today, but I was incredibly offended by her reaction to what I thought was a very valid question from you, and I think we all know what difference it makes whether the attacks were spontaneous or terrorism. What was your reaction to her response?
JOHNSON: I was surprised by her reaction, but, again, I thought it was a pretty simple question and valid point that this administration, I think, purposely misled the American public for a couple of weeks. And we all know why they did it. They have this narrative that [Osama] bin Laden is dead, and Al Qaeda is on the run, and all is well with their policy of disengaging with the world. The point I was trying to make is: it didn’t have to drag on for two weeks – this question of whether it was a terrorist attack or sprung out of some protest. All that really needed to happen was a simple phone call to the evacuees. Ask them what happened, and they could have easily told them there was nothing happening outside of the consulate prior to these guys rushing the gate. When you read the Accountability Review Board report, it’s obvious there was no protest, and those people could have answered that question very simply with a very quick phone call. It is clear we could have avoided two weeks of controversy.
CUPP: And a number of senators in the hearing called some of Secretary Clinton’s responses “unsatisfying.” Rand Paul, John McCain, and others pressed for more answers and more accountability from the State Department. Were you satisfied?
JOHNSON: I don’t think we really got any more answers to our questions. We are going to continue put questions on the record, and we will try to get those responses. One thing that I will agree with Secretary Clinton on is the primary thing we ought to be doing is learn lessons from the failure – the failed leadership that really took a look at all of these requests and did nothing with them to beef up security. We should learn those lessons and apply them to all of our other diplomatic missions so we can protect Americans that are serving this nation honorably abroad.
CUPP: Help us understand, from your perspective then, why Benghazi happened. Was it politics? Was it a funding issue, negligence, incompetence, duplicity, all of the above? What do you think?
JOHNSON: I would say, certainly, a failure of leadership – the fact that those cables didn’t bubble up past a certain level. I believe Secretary Clinton when she said she didn’t see those cables, those pleas for reinforcements, and beefing up security. So that is a real problem when you’ve got an incredibly volatile region – let’s face it, a nation where we led from behind in, and we continue to lead from behind in. That’s part of the problem, S.E., when America doesn’t lead, there is a void. There is a vacuum that is created and bad people to flow in to fill that void. And that is basically what happened in Libya. Again, that is just a failure of leadership from the president on down.
CUPP: Secretary Clinton also discussed the recent attacks in Algeria and ongoing terrorism threats in North Africa at great length. She seemed to contradict the President’s insistence that Al Qaeda has been decimated and urged action in that particular theater. Do you expect that we’ll intervene in Mali?
JOHNSON: I have no idea. I know the French were expecting at least some support, and it seems like we haven’t given them that much from that standpoint at all. Secretary Clinton really specified her remarks in terms of Al Qaeda being decimated – primary Al Qaeda. But what she certainly did admit is that Al Qaeda is springing up in different nodes all around North Africa. Let’s face it: Al Qaeda is not on the run. It is growing. The threat to America is real, and we need to take that seriously. We have to look at that fact honestly if we are actually going to secure our nation.
CUPP: Lastly, Senator, a number of your colleagues across the aisle criticized Republicans for failing to fund adequate security in places like Benghazi. What is your response to that?
JOHNSON: Listen, this government spends enough money. If we can’t prioritize spending properly to protect those individuals who step up to the plate and defend our freedom, something is wrong here. And something is horribly wrong here in Washington. There is plenty of money flowing into this government. It is about prioritizing spending to do the things the federal government was designed to do and to stop doing the things our founders never intended the federal government to take upon itself.
The panel went on to dissect the Secretary of State’s behavior during her time in front of the House and Senate, and it became clear that Secretary Clinton’s response to Senator Johnson was the defining moment of the day’s events.
“I think it was a rare misstep from her,” S.E. said in regards to Secretary Clinton’s “what difference does it make” remark. “‘What’s the difference’ is the reason we are having these conversations in the first place. ‘What’s the difference’ informs our public policy in areas like Benghazi. ‘What’s the difference’ – whether this happened spontaneously or was terrorism – should inform our decisions in making sure this never happens again. And, finally, ‘what’s the difference’ speaks to this timeline that we have talked about time and time again on this show of negligence, incompetence, and duplicity. ‘What’s the difference’ speaks to all three of those.”
Amy agreed with S.E., adding that she found the comments “shocking.” “It was jaw dropping, gob smacking,” she said. “I could not believe our Secretary of State was saying, ‘What’s the difference?’ It was absolutely stunning to me.”
While the exchange proved to be a rare moment of candidness from Secretary Clinton, Buck and Will agreed that her future political ambitions were the driving force behind the majority of her statements.
“It was stunning, but I have to also say that Secretary of State Clinton is not being held responsible,” Buck said. “I think she is already looking at the calendar and planning her 2016 run. This is not going to be sticking to her with any real political consequence.”
“I am not sure I can totally agree with your certainty that there is going to be no accountability for this,” Will responded. “As this goes on in time and this kind of reverberates, this could have serious consequences for her in 2016. ‘What’s the difference’ is pretty offensive.”
Guest panelist Ben Domenech noticed Secretary Clinton’s responses were quite retrospective given the fact that Clinton is still the standing Secretary of State.
“She is not addressing any of these responses to these senators, to these congressmen, from the perspective of someone who is still working within the government, within the administration,” Ben said. “But rather as someone who is looking back on it already and already looking on to the next thing.”
Ultimately, the hearings seemed to confirm a sad and unfortunate truth – there has been plenty of finger pointing under the guise of accountability but no actual accountability.
“She is claiming responsibility because she is not actually responsible,” Buck concluded. “She should have offered her resignation right away… but she didn’t because she knew she could get away with it.”