WASHINGTON — A "devastated" Hillary Rodham Clinton worked late into the night on Sept. 11, 2012, trying to protect her people caught in an attack on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that ultimately killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, a close Clinton aide said in testimony released Wednesday.
But the former secretary of state was "deeply engaged" in ensuring the others made it home, added Cheryl Mills, Clinton's former chief of staff, who spoke to the GOP-led House Benghazi committee last month. Democrats on the committee released the full, 307-page transcript of Mills' remarks a day ahead of Clinton's appearance before the panel, saying Republicans were making out-of-context and misleading leaks.
Nothing in the testimony appeared to shed new light on the deadly violence that already has been scrutinized by an independent review board and seven previous congressional probes. Instead, the 9½ hours of back-and-forth served primarily to preview the partisan atmosphere and vastly divergent questioning that will greet Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for the 2016 presidential nomination.
Jamal Ware, a spokesman for the committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, said the transcript showed that for Democrats, once again, "this is all about Hillary Clinton — and not about the four brave Americans who were killed by terrorists in Benghazi."
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel's top Democrat, said that Democrats "are now correcting the record" by releasing the entirety of Mills' testimony. He and other Democrats say the $4.5 million investigation is a taxpayer-funded campaign to damage Clinton's bid for president. After 17 months, it has now gone on longer than the 1970s Watergate probe.
Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department employee Sean Smith and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty died in Benghazi that night.
Occurring in the heat of a presidential campaign, the attack immediately became the source of political disagreement. Republicans have challenged President Barack Obama and Clinton, his top diplomat at the time, on security at the facility, the military response to the violence and the administration's changing narrative about who was responsible and why.
But the investigations have been marked by several implausible conspiracy theories, none of which seem to be advanced by Mills' testimony.
No new evidence was introduced to suggest, as some Republicans have claimed, that Clinton or any other top official ordered the military to "stand down" during the siege of the diplomatic post or a subsequent attack on a nearby CIA facility. Mills also batted down the idea that Clinton personally denied requests for more security or ordered Stevens to Benghazi that evening, or of U.S. officials engaged in an elaborate gun-running scheme from eastern Libya.
As the attack unfolded, Mills said Clinton was so engaged in the response that "it took some people aback when she even decided to go to a staff-level" meeting.
"What she really was communicating that night is, 'I'm here because I want my team safe. I'm not here ... for any other reason,'" Mills recalled, adding that her boss felt pain for the loss of all four men.
"Stevens was someone she had a lot of confidence and respect for, and his guidance and his way was a compelling one," Mills said. "And the notion that he had been murdered, I think, was something that all of us thought was unbearable, but I think she particularly felt the pain of that."
Although she didn't know the others and two of them weren't State Department personnel, Mills said Clinton "felt very strongly about claiming all of them" and "honoring their service."
The release of the testimony coincided with new TV ads Wednesday by a political action committee that supports Clinton focusing on comments by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., that credited the Benghazi panel with driving down Clinton's poll numbers.
"Republicans are playing politics over Benghazi," says the ad sponsored by Priorities USA.
It follows an ad that aired earlier this month from a group called the Stop Hillary PAC, which depicted Stevens' grave and pictures of all the Americans killed in Benghazi, portraying them as asking Clinton questions. The victims' families said the pictures were used without their knowledge or permission.