The burning question on Capitol Hill is which Hillary Rodham Clinton will show up Thursday to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi: the affable and polished politician who wowed the Democratic presidential debate last week or the combative woman whose 2013 testimony has become a campaign liability.
After months of back and forth conducted by press release and media interviews, Mrs. Clinton will get the chance to square off against investigators face to face in testimony expected to cover everything from her whereabouts during the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi to her decision to delete tens of thousands of emails she has insisted were private, though they were sent from the same account she used for government business.
How she handles herself could go a long way toward shaping Americans’ views of her as she prepares to ask voters to trust her with the White House.
“People are quite curious as to which Hillary is going to show up,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who said Mrs. Clinton’s full cooperation with the committee could go a long way toward getting answers for the four Americans who were killed in the 2012 attack on the diplomatic post in Libya’s second-largest city.
“My hope on behalf of those families that lost loved ones and our men and women in uniform who go out every day to defend us around the globe, is that she will be honest with the committee,” the Tennessee Republican said.
The attack by heavily armed militants on the compound killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a State Department staffer and two former Navy SEALs working as security contractors for the CIA, which operated an annex near the diplomatic compound.
Three years later, Mrs. Clinton and the Obama administration are still facing questions about lax security ahead of time, a slow response to the attack and inaccurately attributing the armed assault to a spontaneous riot in response to a YouTube video that mocked Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Mrs. Clinton testified to Congress on those subjects in 2013, just before she left office, including one scathing exchange with Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, about why it took so long for the Obama administration to correct the claim about a spontaneous riot.
Gesturing wildly with her hands, she shouted out the now-infamous phrase: “What difference at this point does it make?”
The outburst was so startling and unflattering that the Republican National Committee (RNC) adopted it as their catchphrase for Mrs. Clinton, plastering it across the top of press releases and online posts that assail her credibility and performance as secretary of state.
However, Mrs. Clinton’s unsteady testimony in January 2013 came on the heels of her being hospitalized for several days with a concussion and blood clot in her brain. At the hearing, she had to wear special glasses to correct double vision.
Last week, in the Democrats’ first presidential debate, Mrs. Clinton was in good health and full campaign mode, drawing strong reviews for her in-control performance.
Asked about the email scandal dogging her campaign, Mrs. Clinton pivoted to disparage the Benghazi committee as a partisan witch hunt.
“I have answered all the questions, and I will certainly be doing so again before this committee,” she said. “This committee has spent $4.5 million of taxpayer money, and they said that they were trying to figure out what we could do better to protect our diplomats so that something like Benghazi wouldn’t happen again. There were already seven committee reports about what to do. So I think it’s pretty clear what their obvious goal is.”
Likewise, Mrs. Clinton’s allies have spent the last few weeks trying to dent the panel’s credibility, calling it a waste of taxpayer money and a “political hit job.”
Senate Democrats sent a letter to the RNC demanding reimbursement for the more than $4.5 million of taxpayer dollars spent on the probe.
“House Republicans have used the tragic deaths of four innocent Americans and turned it into an appalling political farce,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, in a statement announcing the letter. “The very notion that an official House Committee was used as a political tool is inexcusable. It is even more disgraceful that nearly $5 million taxpayer dollars were spent on this political hit job.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat on the committee, said this week that the Democrats are considering quitting the committee after Mrs. Clinton testifies.
But Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and ranking member on the committee, tamped down the threat.
“We have to be careful about leaving the committee for this reason: Someone has to defend the truth,” he said. “If you’re not in the room, you can’t do anything.”
Democrats insist there aren’t any new questions for Mrs. Clinton to answer about Benghazi given the myriad previous probes, and predicted the hearing would be intensely political.
Republicans counter that those other investigations didn’t have access to Mrs. Clinton’s emails — which she only gave back to the government at the prodding of the committee — and said there are questions she can help them clear up.
Republican political operatives said they’ll be watching to see if Mrs. Clinton changes her version of events, either on Benghazi or on her email server. And they said they’ll watch to see how she handles questions about the U.S. involvement in ousting Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, which spurred the instability that’s plagued the country since.
Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican who serves on the Benghazi committee, said he would be surprised if Mrs. Clinton reprised the combative approach she took in her 2013 testimony.
Regardless, he said that all he wants from Mrs. Clinton is for her to tell “the truth.”
“The American people have a lot of questions, and we have a lot of questions,” he said, though he declined to say what he would ask her.
Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, has questioned Mrs. Clinton in a congressional hearing room when she was secretary of state and he was chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for foreign operations. He expected that she would bring her “A game” for the Benghazi committee.
“She’s always pretty well prepared. She’s a very capable advocate,” he said. “She always knows what she’s talking about, knows her facts and knows the points she needs to make. She’s very good at running out the clock when she needs to.”