By MAGGIE HABERMAN and DARREN SAMUELSOHN 6/17/14 via Politico
Hillary Clinton said there are still unanswered questions about the Benghazi attacks, endorsed a controversial plan to reduce commanders’ oversight in military sex assault cases and declared she’s never smoked pot — all during a wide-ranging town hall-style event hosted Tuesday by CNN.
She also came to President Obama’s defense on the statistics on immigrant deportations and made clear she’d warned the White House about the risks of not arming the opposition in Syria.
The hourlong gathering at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., was part of a one-two cable news punch by Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who is promoting her new memoir, “Hard Choices.” The CNN event, during which she took questions directly from the audience, ended 45 minutes before she did a live interview with Fox News.
Clinton appeared relaxed and measured during both sessions, looking more comfortable as the minutes wore on. Throughout the event, but particularly in the final 30 minutes, she showed frequent flashes of the humor that her friends have long said she kept under wraps in the 2008 presidential campaign. Before the event began, she greeted a Republican National Committee aide who’s been tailing her to events dressed in a squirrel costume, handing the giant animal a copy of her book as the cameras whirred.
The CNN event, moderated by Christiane Amanpour, led out of the gate with questions about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Earlier Tuesday, news broke that Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the suspected masterminds of the attack, had been captured. Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and Republicans have sought to tar her image by questioning whether she did enough to prevent the tragedy.
“There are answers — not all of them, not enough, frankly,” Clinton said. “I’m still looking for answers, because it was a confusing and difficult time. But I would hope that every American would understand, No. 1, why we were there, because we need to be in dangerous places, and, No. 2, that we’re doing the best we can to find out what happened. And I hope that fair-minded people will look at that seriously.”
Asked what specifically is an open question, Clinton said: “There’s a lot we don’t know, Christiane, because now that we have Khattala in custody, hopefully, we will learn more, at least from his perspective. The reason it takes long is to put together cases, which is what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were doing. They have to piece it together, just as we started piecing it together on the night of the attack. We want to know who was behind it, what the motivation of the leaders and the attackers happened to be. There are still some unanswered questions. It was, after all, the fog of war.”
On the question of whether she would have, in retrospect, kept Ambassador Chris Stevens out of Benghazi, she said: “Well, I think, if any of us had known that there was going to be a wave of attacks — remember, it started in Cairo that day and swept across the region — I think we would have certainly cautioned, and maybe even directed people to just shelter in place, so to speak, and wait to see what was going to happen.”
Officials involved in the House select committee on Benghazi have not ruled out calling Clinton to testify.
Clinton expressed reservations about America cooperating with Iran in trying to beat back Sunni militants that have captured significant territory in Iraq. The militant advance is badly straining Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
“I am not prepared to say that we go in with Iran right now, until we have a better idea what we’re getting ourselves into,” she said. “I know that the commander of [Iran’s] Quds Force is in Baghdad right now, meeting with Maliki and his advisers and supporters. They want to do for Maliki what they did for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, namely, to provide the bulwark of protection.”
She spoke about Syria, to which she devotes a chapter to in her book, making it clear that she had cautioned the Obama White House on arming the opposition. “I recommended,” she said, “that we do more in the very beginning to support the moderate opposition, because I believed, at the time, that they would be overwhelmed by Assad’s military force and that they would open up the door to extremists coming in.”
On the issue of gay marriage, Clinton declared unequivocally that she had “evolved’ on the topic. Last week, she got into a testy back-and-forth with NPR host Terry Gross about her motivation in coming out in favor of such unions.
Clinton also said she supports fixing the immigration system. “I would be very open to trying to figure out ways to change the law, even if we don’t get to comprehensive immigration reform, to provide more leeway and more discretion for the executive branch,” she said.
Yet, she took a firm line on how to deal with a rising number of children who are crossing the border without an adult.
“We have to send a clear message [that] just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay,” Clinton said. “We don’t want to send a message contrary to our laws or encourage more to come.”
The former first lady and ex-senator — who would be the Democrats’ front-runner in 2016 but who has said she is still mulling over whether to run — also touched on other sensitive subjects.
She said she’d support reinstating the assault weapons ban, but she was not asked about another controversial element of gun control measures: expanded background checks for prospective buyers. However, in a remark that can only make the Democratic base happy, she denounced the radical “minority” that takes control of the conversation about guns and “terrorizes” the majority.
Clinton also indicated preliminary support for medical marijuana, although she gave a muddled response about whether she would back it fully. She declared, however, that she herself had never smoked pot.
Clinton dodged a question about whether racism is at play in some of the antipathy for President Barack Obama, although she allowed that reactions to him can be “virulent.” And she was clear that she was not impervious to the barbs that get exchanged during a campaign, saying, “I am like every other human being. I am susceptible to being criticized.”
Throughout the town hall, Clinton repeatedly mentioned the title of her new book, “Hard Choices,” for which she fetched a whopping $14 million advance. She also talked at length about gender issues, something she avoided in her 2008 campaign for the White House but which she’s discussed a great deal since leaving the State Department.
At another point in the CNN event, she took a position that appears to put her opposite the Pentagon brass and Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of her earliest Democratic 2016 supporters: She issued her first public endorsement of a controversial plan to overhaul military sexual assault policy by removing commanders from the key decision points in the prosecution of cases.
Clinton said she supported New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in her yearlong battle to force this change through legislation — if the Pentagon can’t clean up its act soon.
“She was a fierce advocate for it,” Clinton said of Gillibrand. “It was not successful this time around. Another approach was taken. But I think everybody on both sides of the aisle knows, if there is not evidence that this other approach is working, then we should go back to Kirsten’s proposal.”
“Take it out of the chain of command?” Amanpour asked to follow-up.
“Take it out, that’s right,” Clinton replied.
Gillibrand fell five votes short on the Senate floor in March but is urging the president to call for the same overhaul later this year after the Pentagon reports on how it has been handling the issue in the wake of several high-profile policy changes and criminal prosecutions. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also has said the military has until the end of this year to show improvements to the system.
Clinton’s comments backing Gillibrand put her in line with victims’ and women’s advocacy groups but on opposite sides from McCaskill, an early Clinton backer for 2016. The Missouri Democrat and former Kansas City prosecutor has helped push a series of changes to the military justice system to address the issue but opposes Gillibrand’s efforts.
At the end of the event, Clinton said she’s trying not “to look past” the moment of becoming a grandmother this fall, when her daughter, Chelsea, is due to deliver her first child. But she also nodded to the gender bias in the question about whether she’d skip a campaign to just focus on a grandchild, noting that plenty of presidents have also been grandfathers.
On Fox News, whose conservative leanings make it sensitive territory for Clinton, she told interviewers Greta Van Susteren and Bret Baier that the president had at no point disappointed her while she worked for him, but that the pair did not always agree on everything.
Asked whether the IRS scandal is a legitimate issue, she said, “Anytime the IRS is involved, for many people it’s a real scandal.” Still, she added, there had been nothing to suggest there was foul play at work.
She capped off the day with a friendly audience at Vital Voices, an organization designed to empower women around the world that Clinton helped found. She used the platform to “demand” the release of Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights activist who has disappeared.
“Her vital voice is silent now even as her country continues to burn,” said Clinton.
Her voice rising, Clinton continued, “So tonight, let us all speak for her. Let us raise our voices as one and demand the safe and immediate release of Razan Zaitouneh and all the political prisoners in Syria and this conflict as it continues.”
Katie Glueck contributed to this report.