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What you need to know about Hillary Clinton's 'infamous response' to Benghazi question
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who for weeks declined to endorse Donald Trump, called for party unification on the second night of the Republican National Convention against the "cold, calculated lying" of Hillary Clinton.
Johnson is one of the only vulnerable GOP senators to appear in Cleveland, and he devoted the majority of his short speech to clobbering Clinton.
" ‘What difference, at this point, does it make?' I am the guy that got under her skin and provoked that infamous response from Hillary Clinton by asking a pretty simple question, 'Why didn't you just pick up the phone and call the survivors’ (of the Benghazi attack)?" Johnson said. "Instead of doing that, she hatched a cover-up story and repeatedly lied to the American people."
Is that how their exchange unfolded?
We found that Johnson is accurately recounting the testimony, but being selective. Clinton’s answer was longer and more nuanced.
During a January 2013 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Johnson did repeatedly press Clinton about not making contact with Americans in Benghazi to "ascertain immediately that there was no protest." Clinton did give her exasperated answer (which has been hashtagged and criticized).
"Ron's questioning from start to finish was about how a simple phone call could have led to the truth — a fact that clearly got under Secretary Clinton's skin just as he described," Brian Reisinger, Johnson’s spokesman, told us.
But Johnson’s account requires some more context, as Clinton answered the senator’s question twice before her infamous comment.
Here is a transcript of their exchange, per PolitiFact Wisconsin, with the parts Johnson highlighted in bold:
Johnson: "Okay, when you read the ARB (State Department Accountability Review Board), it strikes me as how certain the people were that the attacks started at 9:40 Benghazi time. When was the first time you spoke to — or have you ever spoken to — the returnees, the evacuees? Did you personally speak to those folks?"
Clinton: "I‘ve spoken to one of them, but I waited until after the ARB had done its investigation because I did not want there to be anybody raising any issue that I had spoken to anyone before the ARB conducted its investigation."
Johnson: "How many people were evacuated from Libya?"
Clinton: "Well, the numbers are a little bit hard to pin down because of our other friends — "
Clinton: "Approximately, 25 to 30."
Johnson: "Did anybody in the State Department talk to those folks very shortly afterwards?"
Clinton: "There was discussion going on afterwards, but once the investigation started, the FBI spoke to them before we spoke to them, and so other than our people in Tripoli — which, I think you’re talking about Washington, right?"
Johnson: "The point I’m making is, a very simple phone call to these individuals, I think, would’ve ascertained immediately that there was no protest prior to this. This attack started at 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time, and it was an assault. I appreciate the fact that you called it an assault. But I’m going back to then-Ambassador (Susan) Rice five days later going on the Sunday shows and, what I would say, is purposefully misleading the American public. Why wasn’t that known? And again, I appreciate the fact that the transparency of this hearing, but why weren’t we transparent to that point in time?"
Clinton: "Well, first of all, senator, I would say that once the assault happened, and once we got our people rescued and out, our most immediate concern was, number one, taking care of their injuries. As I said, I still have a DS (Diplomatic Security) agent at Walter Reed seriously injured — getting them into Frankfurt, Ramstein to get taken care of, the FBI going over immediately to start talking to them. We did not think it was appropriate for us to talk to them before the FBI conducted their interviews. And we did not — I think this is accurate, sir — I certainly did not know of any reports that contradicted the IC (Intelligence Community) talking points at the time that Ambassador Rice went on the TV shows. And you know I just want to say that people have accused Ambassador Rice and the administration of misleading Americans. I can say trying to be in the middle of this and understanding what was going on, nothing could be further from the truth. Was information developing? Was the situation fluid? Would we reach conclusions later that weren’t reached initially? And I appreciate the — "
Johnson: "But, Madame Secretary, do you disagree with me that a simple phone call to those evacuees to determine what happened wouldn’t have ascertained immediately that there was no protest? That was a piece of information that could have been easily, easily obtained?"
Clinton: "But, senator, again — "
Johnson: "Within hours, if not days?"
Clinton: "Senator, you know, when you’re in these positions, the last thing you want to do is interfere with any other process going on, number one — "
Johnson: "I realize that’s a good excuse."
Clinton: "Well, no, it’s the fact. Number two, I would recommend highly you read both what the ARB said about it and the classified ARB because, even today, there are questions being raised. Now, we have no doubt they were terrorists, they were militants, they attacked us, they killed our people. But what was going on and why they were doing what they were doing is still unknown —"
Johnson: "No, again, we were misled that there were supposedly protests and that something sprang out of that — an assault sprang out of that — and that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact, and the American people could have known that within days and they didn’t know that."
Clinton: "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they 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. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information. The IC has a process, I understand, going with the other committees to explain how these talking points came out. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime."
Johnson: "Okay. Thank you, Madame Secretary."
So the transcript makes a few points fairly clear:
Johnson was the guy who got Clinton riled up by asking why she didn’t call Benghazi survivors;
Clinton did say "What difference at this point does it make?" in response to that question.
But Clinton also did provide Johnson other answers. She said her priority was figuring out how to rescue those still at the compound and how to treat their injuries, not pressing them for information. She said it wasn’t appropriate for the State Department to talk to them before FBI interviews. Finally, she said her department and the administration were still trying to sort out the confusion in the days following the attacks.
Johnson said, "I am the guy that got under her skin and provoked that infamous response from Hillary Clinton by asking a pretty simple question, 'Why didn't you just pick up the phone and call the survivors’ (of the Benghazi attack)?"
During a 2013 hearing, Johnson suggested repeatedly that had Clinton phoned the Benghazi compound, she would have known the attack wasn’t related to alleged protests. Clinton did get exasperated and say, "What difference, at this point, does it make?"
But Johnson’s phrasing omits the fact that Clinton did provide other detailed responses to Johnson’s question.
The claim is accurate but needs additional information. We rate the claim Mostly True.https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/bea4535d-04cb-444a-a32e-8a2c8a67d2ba
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "In Context: Hillary Clinton's 'What difference does it make' comment," May 8, 2013
Email interview with Brian Reisinger, spokesman for Ron Johnson, July 19, 2016
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What you need to know about Hillary Clinton's 'infamous response' to Benghazi question
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