Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings; Benghazi Hearings. Aired 18-18:30p ET

Aired October 22, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A lively exchange there between Republican Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio and the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

And we want to welcome back our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We're continuing our SITUATION ROOM live coverage of this Benghazi committee hearing.

It was an exchange that was similar to some of the other lively exchanges we have seen over the past seven or eight hours she's been testifying and, as of now, no end in sight. They will take a quick 10-minute break, resume the questioning. Presumably, Republicans have a lot more questions. And the Democrats who have largely come to Hillary Clinton's defense, they will be weighing in as well, trying to keep, from their perspective, the Republicans honest.

The secretary of state will take this break.

Gloria Borger, as we watch what is going on in this Longworth House Office Building right now, it's been pretty dramatic. I'm not sure, though, we have learned a whole lot more about what happened on that awful night in Benghazi.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No, I think Wolf, we're at a standoff, is what I would say. Jim Jordan over and over again talking about, you raised the video, 90 minutes before the attack ends, you raise the video. She read him her statement that she eventually released.

The political point that the Republicans have been making over and over again is that it would have done administration no good to say this was a terror attack because it didn't fit into their national security narrative, that you killed Osama bin Laden, you're going to end the war in Iraq, and you couldn't have another terror attack and that's why you didn't tell the American people the truth.

Hillary Clinton has not given any ground here. She has read him her statement and -- which was clearly specifically worded and nuanced, and hasn't given any ground. And in the end, she keeps saying, I don't understand what this has to do with why we are here today, because what she, I think, wants to talk about is how you prevent this from occurring again.

She's not -- she's making the case she didn't lie to the American -- to the American public and I think that they are just -- there's not going to be any meeting of minds here at all. They are saying the policy was bad. Sidney Blumenthal had more access to her than Chris Stevens did.

And it looks to me in some instances that with all the infighting between Democrats and Republicans, that she actually got what she wanted here, which was a partisan show, with her Democrats doing her work for her in a way.

BLITZER: It sort of underscores that.

Jeffrey Toobin, she's been remarkably cool under a lot of pressure because several of these Republicans have really been going after her, raising their voices, making it clear they don't believe what she's saying.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: None more dramatically than Jim Jordan from Ohio, who just went after her as much as anyone has all day, and she has obviously made the decision that she is going to greet all of these attacks with a serene smile and move on.

BLITZER: I want to go outside the hearing room.

Dana Bash is standing by with the ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, who just walked out of that room as well -- Dana.


Mr. Cummings, last time we spoke, after the morning session, you were quite unhappy. It was after you and the chairman really went at it after -- about the process and about whether you should release transcripts. Do you think this afternoon's sessions, things have been going better as far as you're concerned?

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: No, things are going downhill.

Basically, they are answering the -- covering the same ground over and over again, information that we have had in some instances for two or three years. And so I -- you know, I think it's time to wrap this up, wrap up this hearing. It's my understanding we're going to go for probably another 2.5 hours, but it's time to wrap it up.

Nothing new. Nothing. I mean, they have drifted everywhere but Benghazi. And that was my concern from the very beginning, and I think that Hillary Clinton has been very transparent. Clearly, she knows the subject matter. And she's been very clear. Even the things that they felt I guess were smoking guns didn't turn out to be that.

BASH: The Republicans are arguing that they spent so much time talking about e-mail exchanges with her friend Sidney Blumenthal is because they're trying -- for several reasons, but one of the points they are making is that they're trying to show that it didn't make sense that he could reach her and could have contact with her, but the ambassador who lost his life, who she said she was good friends with, didn't have direct access to her.

Do you think that's a fair point?

CUMMINGS: I understand making that point, but I think she's explained that very clearly and the ARB went through that, too, that Accountability Review Board.

Basically, what she has said is that the -- Sidney Blumenthal, like all of us, was a friend. He is a friend. All of us have friends that send e-mails. And I get them all the time. But with regard to the ambassador -- he was -- and the ambassador was also a friend. But the ambassador went through the route of the diplomatic security and expressed his concerns through them.

And, apparently, he didn't feel -- for some reason, he did not come straight to her. He said that if he had come straight to her, she probably would have acted on it.

But she relies -- and she said this over and over again -- she relies she relies on diplomatic security. That's what they do. These are the experts. These are the people on the ground. There are responsible for judging what is needed.


And there is a methodology that they have in the State Department. And she and apparently he went by that.

But there is one other thing you're missing, Dana. And we can't lose sight of this.

BASH: Yes.

CUMMINGS: It's become abundantly cleared that Chris Stevens was considered an expert on Libya. And he apparently had -- although he was expressing some concerns to the people down below, apparently, he felt pretty comfortable being there overall.

But I think that if he had come to her directly, she would have done things perhaps differently.

BASH: Thank you.

Mr. Cummings, thanks for coming out. OK. Appreciate it -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much.

And we are going to continue the coverage. They are taking a little break right now. They will resume the live questioning of Hillary Clinton momentarily.

Much more of our special coverage right here THE SITUATION ROOM when we come back.



BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're awaiting the return for Hillary Clinton to testify for yet another round here at the Longworth House Office Building. This is the Benghazi Select Committee.

She's already testified for about seven or six hours already, maybe another two or three more hours to go. Republicans have more questions. The Democratic members clearly coming to her defense.

So far, she's remained remarkably cool under some really sharp, tough questioning, but she's explained her position casually, in detail.

Ryan Lizza is with us. He's one our CNN political commentators, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine.

This follows a pretty good debate performance last week at the CNN debate in Las Vegas. Good news for her yesterday when Vice President Joe Biden decided he was not going to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. And based on what happened, at least so far, it doesn't look like anything that has happened at least during this hearing today would hurt her with potential Democratic voters out there in caucuses or primaries.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No, that's for sure.

There's nothing that Bernie Sanders is going to get out of this hearing. She sat there and proved that she's a master of State Department bureaucracy, of the nuances of foreign policy. So she's -- she hasn't lost her cool, which I think it would be very difficult for anyone to do in these circumstances.

I think in that sense, it's been very good for her. This has been a long sort of advertisement for why Hillary Clinton is calm and cool and understands the nuances of these things. I will say this. On the other hand, the caveat is, she's at war with a Republican committee. And I do think in the long term, it makes it difficult for Hillary Clinton, who is very likely to be the Democratic nominee, to say, I'm going to go to Washington and get along with the Republican Congress or shake things up, right?

I mean, they have drawn her into this very messy partisan fight, and, often, that's not a good place to be in a general election. I think that would be the one caution. I agree with you totally on sort of politically this has been a great two weeks for her, but in the long term, I wonder if that's going to be a problem for her.

BLITZER: And the statement she made at the end of the debate where she lumped in Republicans as her enemies in addition to Iranians and drug companies or health insurance companies, that was probably not a helpful move either.

LIZZA: That's right.

And you could -- look, other people might argue, you know what? It doesn't matter. Any Democratic president with a Republican Congress is not going to get a honeymoon anymore, which is -- it's the world we're living in now. It is going to be pure trench warfare no matter what.

But to the extent that she wants to make an argument that Obama made in 2008 very successful, change the tone in Washington, getting drawn into a messy political fight like this and spending hours up on the Hill does not help her reputation.

BLITZER: Elise Labott is our global affairs correspondent.

Elise, you're based at the State Department. You spend an enormous amount of time following all this, all the seven previous congressional investigations, the review by the outside State Department experts that came in and what's going on today with the select committee.

And people keep asking, why was the ambassador, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi on that day, September 11, 2012? We know 9/11, that's obviously a very, very important date. What was he doing there to begin with, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are a couple things that he was doing.

First of all, he was opening a cultural center, an American cultural center there. He was also taking a look at -- Secretary Clinton alluded to a little bit. There was a lot of concern about loose weapons in Libya getting into the wrong hands, and he was there meeting with his CIA team on the ground to talk to them about that.

And, also, look, Benghazi was a very important area for the administration. I mean, she alludes to it a little bit, but it was the seat of the revolution. You saw that Chris Stevens was the envoy, the special envoy to the opposition. And she talks about him coming in on a barge and being really this grand savior of the Libyans in Benghazi.


LABOTT: And so the U.S. really did want to extend their footprint there. And that was one of the concerns. Why didn't Chris Stevens want to close the facility in Benghazi? Because it was very important for the U.S. to continue to show to the eastern -- the Libyans in the east and to the tribes that the U.S. was not going to abandon them.


BLITZER: But I will point out, this followed the decision by Britain a few months earlier to shut down the diplomatic compound in Benghazi because of attacks against British diplomats.


LABOTT: That's right. There were five attacks on Western interests, the U.N. Red Cross building, a U.N. building. The convoy of the ambassador was attacked. And the British pulled out.

So, there was a lot of talk about whether they should close. Chris Stevens did not want to close, but the question still remains, if they were going to remain open, why didn't they have additional security? I might add, though, it was a very small presence. It was very important that the ambassador was there and he did have a full -- five guards is considered a full security detail.

BLITZER: For one individual.

LABOTT: For one individual. But why was the compound so fragile that it was able to be overrun by these guards?

TOOBIN: But there were two compounds. There was also a CIA compound.

LABOTT: Which was very heavily fortified.

TOOBIN: That's the thing that is so -- sort of the bark -- the dog that has not barked throughout these hearings, which is, what was the CIA's role in preserving security and where is General Petraeus?

BLITZER: Who was the CIA director.

TOOBIN: Who was the CIA director.

Why is this suddenly all State Department's obligation to engage in protection, when it's not the State Department that is primarily a quasi-military operation? It's the CIA.


LABOTT: Hillary Clinton herself is what the committee is trying to say. You know, I have been following this all day with old colleagues at the State Department and even in diplomatic security.

And I'm getting a lot of e-mails who are asking, why are they pointing this at Secretary Clinton? Could she have been more on top of security in Benghazi? Yes. But the real problem -- and this Accountability Review Board kind of said -- quote -- "systemic leadership failures" at the State Department.

And when you talk to people in diplomatic security, they say that the leadership in diplomatic security is really the problem because they were always trying to reduce the amount of budget.


BORGER: But it's her responsibility. You know, the buck stops with her. LABOTT: The buck ultimately stops with her. And she will say

that, but at the same time, she's also kind of pinning it on leadership that should have been on top of these things, but it's very -- it's obvious -- and the committee says, nobody was really fired. A few people resigned. They were reassigned.


TOOBIN: There's another point that nobody wants to raise exactly, because it's considered perhaps in bad taste.

But Ambassador Stevens himself, did he make an intelligent decision in exposing himself and all these security guards to the obvious risks? Did he a mistake in going into this extremely dangerous situation? Obviously, no one wants to blame this man. He was obviously a very accomplished diplomat. He wanted to be out among the people, but did he engage in unduly risky behavior?

BLITZER: According to all the other reports that we have read about what was going on, it was his decision to leave Tripoli, the capital, and go to Benghazi on that day.

All right, stand by, guys. We are going to take another quick break.

When we come back, I expect this committee hearing to resume. The secretary, former secretary, will be testifying again. Stay with us.



BLITZER: Welcome back.

We're awaiting the return of the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She's going to resume testimony before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, the committee chaired by Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.

They are looking into what happened on September 11, 2012, when the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked by terrorists. Four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, were killed.

There, you see Trey Gowdy with us -- well, you saw him a second ago. His back was to the camera. He is sitting next to the ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland. There they are right there.

They have had their exchanges today. Clearly, both of these men have very strong views. They totally disagree on what is going on. Elijah Cummings basically telling our own Dana Bash -- and you heard it live here in THE SITUATION ROOM moments ago -- that this entire procedure, which has cost already $4.7 million, is a waste of U.S. taxpayer money. The chairman getting ready to gavel this session. Once again,

the secretary of state is there in the Longworth House Office Building. I think she's there. Maybe she hasn't walked back in. She should be walking back in momentarily, walking through that door. And we will continue to watch what is going on.

Ryan Lizza, as we await the former secretary of state, give us a little context right now, how this fits into the race, the election for the White House.

LIZZA: Well, I think you have to assume that most Democrats are going to view this through a pretty partisan lens, right, and they are going to have her back on this, right? This is not something, if you have noticed, in the Democratic primaries that any of Clinton's opponents have really brought up in a serious way.

There is no percentage in Bernie Sanders or her other opponents in attacking her over Benghazi. I don't think it will play out in the Democratic primaries in any way except to strengthen her. Again, in a general election, the Republicans will come back to this again and again. This will be what they argue if she's the nominee is one of the big mistakes as her tenure as secretary of state.

BLITZER: You got to admit, Gloria, the timing of all this, looking towards the February 1 Iowa caucuses, then New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, this is a critical moment right now.


I think in watching this hearing, I don't think it changes anybody's mind in particular. I think if you're disposed to believe that Hillary Clinton performed badly in Benghazi or lied deliberately about a video, then you're still going to believe it.

And if you're inclined to think that this is a Republican partisan-witch-hunt, I think you are still going to believe that. Going into the Iowa caucuses, Hillary Clinton has got over 75 percent popularity. She has a real Bernie Sanders problem. It comes from the left. It doesn't come from the right. And if the left is watching this...

BLITZER: I think she's coming. There's David Kendall, her lawyer, some of the other lawyers walking out before her. She's going to be walking into the committee room from that adjacent room right there.

You see the security personnel on the scene there on Capitol Hill right there.

TOOBIN: Wolf...

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin is our senior legal analyst. Hillary Clinton is going to be walking out, Hillary Clinton

David Kendall is a significant player in all of this. TOOBIN: He is, indeed. He's her longtime lawyer. People may

remember he was one of the lawyers for Bill Clinton during the impeachment proceedings back in 1998.

Trey Gowdy said something in passing which I think is worthy of note. He said, we have 20 more witnesses to examine. So, here we are in mid-October of 2015. This hearing -- this investigation looks it will almost certainly continue well into 2016, which is not something that I imagine the Clinton campaign wants.

[18:30:22] BLITZER: And it's going to be interesting if the Democratic minority, the five Democrats on this committee -- there are seven Republicans -- if they continue to cooperate, you call it that, or if they just boycott it and say this committee has lost all credibility; they're not going to participate any more. I'm sure that Hillary Clinton is grateful to these five Democrats, at least today, that they are participating, because they are certainly going after Republicans and their motivation (ph). Let's listen in.