Grilling of Hillary Clinton misfired

Did Clinton talk to Stevens before his death?
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Did Clinton talk to Stevens before his death? 02:50

Story highlights

  • Paul Callan: Republicans failed to crack Hillary Clinton's story about Benghazi
  • Former prosecutor Trey Gowdy and the committee made little headway, he says

Paul Callan is a CNN legal analyst, a former homicide prosecutor and media law professor. He serves as trial counsel to two law firms: Edelman & Edelman PC and Callan, Koster, Brady & Nagler LLP. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Determined and aggressive questioning by Benghazi Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a highly experienced former South Carolina prosecutor, failed to lead former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton down the path of political destruction he and fellow Republicans undoubtedly envisioned.

Members of the committee came armed to the teeth with the kind of material prosecutors love to use in forceful cross-examinations of hostile witnesses. They had stacks of documents from months of investigation and the availability of hours of prior sworn testimony by the very witness about to be examined.
Paul Callan
Most importantly, the matter under investigation was of enormous interest to all Americans -- the murder of a young American ambassador and three other brave Americans at the hands of Islamic terrorists in war-torn Libya.
    Their deaths had indisputably resulted from a lack of State Department security at the scene of the crimes. Repeated requests for additional security had been made by Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens to State Department security officials, but they were denied. The murders occurred on a long and violent September 11, 2012. Yes, the date was actually September 11.
    Sitting before Gowdy and looking extraordinarily confident was the former secretary of state and presumptive presidential nominee of the Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton, an experienced lawyer herself. The stars were aligned for a confrontation of historic importance. Never before in American history had the presumptive presidential nominee of a major American political party been examined under oath in a congressional hearing by the opposition party during the course of a presidential race.
    Yet after a sometimes dramatic and certainly exhausting 11-hour hearing, congressional Republicans learned the prosecutor's dream of "breaking" a witness and forcing a clear admission of guilt on the witness stand rarely comes true. When the witness lies under oath, the supported charge can theoretically be perjury, but nothing even close to a perjurious statement was made by Clinton during Thursday's congressional inquiry.
    Of course, because of the majesty of the hearing room, the television cameras and the intensity of the questioning, the public is often left with the mistaken impression that anyone who dares to tell a lie before a congressional committee will be soon residing in a federal prison. In reality, though, such charges are so unusual that between the 1940s and 2007, it appears that no more than six individuals have been charged with perjury in connection with congressional testimony. Two of the more memorable cases involved the prosecution of President Richard Nixon's Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and his attorney general, John Mitchell, regarding false testimony in the Watergate scandal.
    Since 2007, probably the most memorable congressional testimony indictment was that of baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, who was indicted and subsequently acquitted over statements under oath concerning baseball's steroid scandal.
    In this case, given the thousands of pages of documents relating to the Benghazi investigation, one would expect some inconsistencies from even the most honest of witnesses during the course of a long day of questioning. So, when the microscopic examination of Clinton's transcribed testimony occurs, there will undoubtedly be some differences from prior testimony.
    But even though critics may well continue to say she ducked her legitimate responsibility as the person in charge of the State Department -- and therefore the person with ultimate responsibility for the safety of her diplomats -- no criminal lawyer could say with a straight face that the testimonial record here would support a perjury claim. (Clinton counters that she relied on the recommendations of her highly experienced security staff, as any sensible person would.)
    So in the end, the hearing may ultimately produce little more than grist for TV ads in the presidential campaign, not to mention some funny "Saturday Night Live" skits.
    How did the Republican hopes get derailed?
    Well, Clinton was well prepared for her day on the congressional witness stand. She may have been thinking about another famous federal official's perjury ordeal during the prep sessions, which made her a generally disciplined and effective witness before the committee. (Former President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives and later acquitted by the Senate over the Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones scandals, but none of his testimony occurred in front of a congressional committee.)
    And, unlike the scenes we are accustomed to seeing, with the witness being accompanied by a lawyer or a group of obsequious staff members, Clinton chose to make a solo appearance. In doing so, she demonstrated a remarkable ability to maintain her composure until the very end of the day when the façade began to crack.
    Notwithstanding a particularly bizarre Clinton laughing fit at the end of a long day, Clinton supporters believe she maintained a "presidential" demeanor under a determined attack by a well-prepared, Republican-dominated committee seeking her political destruction. Clinton's political opponents will disagree, saying her failure to order enough security cost the lives of four Americans.
    The fact is that in politics, as in baseball, most people will by now have picked their team and are not about to switch -- whatever may have happened at the hearing. Still, it sure would have been interesting to see what kind of "presidential demeanor" Donald Trump would have maintained under such an intense and aggressive attack.