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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill; Benghazi Hearings. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 22, 2015 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:08]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Our politics lead today, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. That's why Hillary Clinton is supposed to be on Capitol Hill today to offer that truth, to face the Benghazi Select Committee, a panel of House lawmakers charged with finding the facts and reconstructing why Ambassador Chris Stevens, Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, and Sean Smith were murdered by terrorists, as her State Department seemingly missed signs that a sophisticated terrorist attack was imminent.

But it took more than an hour for any lawmaker to put the first question about the actual events of September 11, 2012, to then- Secretary Clinton. Much of the morning session instead revolved around issues that Clinton defenders insist are political, her relationship with friend Sidney Blumenthal, for instance, Sidney Blumenthal, who was blackballed from the Obama administration.

Her e-mails printed out and stacked side by side as props to suggest that she was engaged in Libya in 2011, not so much in 2012, instead of focusing on what Clinton called the swirl and whirl of September 11, 2012, and the scrambled response to save Americans on the front lines.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is here with me, as well as CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and CNN political commentators Paul Begala and Amanda Carpenter.

We're going to get to you guys in a second, but, Jeff, let me start with you. Walk us through this marathon day of testimony.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, this day was 17 months in the making. And Clinton's appearance in that witness chair has been the top objective of this committee. But so far, after hours of questioning and testimony, there's much of a rerun of the divisive arguments, rather than an opportunity for any new revelations.

Republicans pressed Clinton trying to make their case she failed in her duty to secure the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Democrats dismiss the entire episode as a partisan taxpayer-funded witch-hunt.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, I would imagine I have thought more about what happened than all of you put together. I have lost more sleep than all of you put together.

ZELENY (voice-over): Hillary Clinton stood her ground today before the congressional committee investigating the Benghazi attacks from her time as secretary of state.

Her long-awaited testimony shed more fireworks than light on the 2012 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that took the lives of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We're going to pursue the truth in a manner worthy of the memory of the four people who lost their lives and worthy of the respect of our fellow citizens. And we are going to write that final definitive accounting of what happened in Benghazi.

ZELENY: But the hearing soon devolved into a familiar partisan argument that's dominated American politics for much of the last three years. Chairman Trey Gowdy and his fellow Republicans pressed Clinton for answers, drilling down on the e-mails she sent as secretary of state.

GOWDY: My question is how did you decide when to invoke a people in process and who just got to come straight to you? Because it looked like certain things got straight to your inbox and the requests for more security did not.

ZELENY: It was this committee that first discovered Clinton's use of a private e-mail account. The controversy has consumed her presidential campaign, shining a bright light on her leadership. Her longtime friend Sidney Blumenthal was front and center in the discussion, Republicans wondering why she exchanged so many e-mails with him.

GOWDY: We just heard e-mail after e-mail after e-mail about Libya and Benghazi that Sidney Blumenthal sent to the secretary of state. You need to make sure the entire record's correct.

(CROSSTALK)

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

CUMMINGS: And that's exactly what I want to do.

ZELENY: But Clinton and Democrats on the committee aggressively fought back.

CUMMINGS: Here's the bottom line. The select committee has spent 17 months and $4.7 million of taxpayer money. We have held four hearings and conducted 54 interviews and depositions.

ZELENY: The daylong hearing was a spectacle with extraordinarily high stakes for Clinton. The Benghazi attack and all of its fallout is one of the biggest uncertainties hanging over her presidential candidacy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: The Benghazi affair is one of the biggest uncertainties hanging over her campaign. But from the pure, raw politics of it all, a commanding performance last week and yesterday's decision by Joe Biden to stay out of the campaign, this testimony before the Benghazi Committee offers an opportunity for Clinton to reassure Democrats that she's the party's strongest presidential nominee.

And, Jake, at least so far in this process during a couple first rounds, I think she appears to have done that.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

Let's bring in CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, going into today, nearly three out of four Americans polled thought that the Benghazi Committee was politically motivated. Do you think Republicans have done anything today to set those concerns, that skepticism at ease?

[16:05:07]

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They certainly have tried, but every step of the way, as many times as Trey Gowdy, the chairman, says or tries to illustrate that it's not political, Democrats, as you just heard some of them in Jeff's piece, come back at the idea that it is political, whether it's the money spent, the time spent or at least in the first, what, four or five hours that we have seen here, not a whole lot new that they appear to have unveiled, at least not that they have revealed through their questioning of Hillary Clinton.

So I think that this is -- I think with a lot of things with Hillary Clinton, it's sort of a political Rorschach test. If you like her and like the Democrats, you think that it's political. If you don't, then you think that it's not. And this is no different.

TAPPER: Dana, we did not see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton get sworn in today, though, of course, her entire testimony was under oath. Explain to us what happened there behind the scenes.

BASH: So interesting. This probably has happened before, but I don't remember it ever happening. I'm not sure about you, Jake. She was sworn in, in private, not in public. And if you actually take a look, because we're in the hallway right in front of the committee hearing room, the chairman walked across the hall and went into that room.

In fact, Hillary Clinton is in there right now, taking a little bit of a break. And when he walked in there, that's what he did. He swore her in in private. When I asked the reason, it is because they said that they are bending over backwards to show that this is not political.

You know very well, Jake, that one of the most sort of quintessential political images that anybody can have is standing in front of a committee in Congress with their hand raised. That is the kind of image that sort of says 1,000 words when you're an opponent politically and trying to maybe make a campaign ad against them. They understood that on the Republican side. That's why they did that in private.

TAPPER: Interesting. Dana Bash, thanks.

A lot of claims were made today on both sides of the aisle during this long, intense hearing about Benghazi. How many of them simply are not true? We're looking over the testimony. We're going to try to keep everyone honest. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:11:24]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

You're looking at a temporarily empty House committee hearing room. With so much of the American -- so many of the American people watching today with former Secretary of State and likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Capitol Hill testifying, we're waiting for the House of Representatives to finish a vote and then the marathon session will resume.

And Congressman Jim Jordan, who provided some fireworks earlier today, will get his second bite at the apple, his second chance to ask former Secretary of State Clinton some questions.

Let's go over what has happened so far with Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, obviously a supporter of Hillary Clinton, as we have established in previous episodes.

Senator, good to see you. Congratulations on the roil so far.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: Thank you.

TAPPER: So, let's talk specifically about some of the points that I think the Republicans have made that still are interesting and I want to get your thoughts on them. Let's talk about Congressman Peter Roskam, who has made a big point about talking about the grandeur, the larger picture of Libya and what a disaster in his view the administration's policy has been and how Secretary of State Clinton was the architect of the policy. Take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: Well, Congressman, I think it's important to point out there were many in the State Department who believed it was very much in America's interests and in furtherance of our values to protect the Libyan people.

REP. PETER ROSKAM (R), ILLINOIS: You summed it up best when you e- mailed your senior staff and you said of this interchange, you said, "It's good to remind ourselves and the rest of the world that this couldn't have happened without us."

And you were right, Secretary Clinton. Our Libya policy couldn't have happened without because you were its chief architect.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: A fair hit, you think?

MCCASKILL: I think that what you're seeing all day long are Republicans trying to fit the facts into their narrative.

And the facts don't fit. They just don't fit. And it's awkward to watch them try to force the facts around some notion that she was unengaged, that she didn't care, that she was cavalier, that she wasn't involved, that she wasn't knowledgeable.

I think she has done a remarkable job under very difficult circumstances of being very calm and collected and showing how engaged and knowledgeable she was, and that everyone was doing their best in a very difficult, dangerous part of the world.

TAPPER: Well, I think it's fair to say that she was engaged, but I think one of the questions that has been out there for years now is whether or not she was sufficiently engaged in the security requests being made by individuals, including Ambassador Stevens.

I know that she has instituted when she was secretary of state recommendations from the Accountability Review Board. But do you know why all those requests were rejected? Do you, as a sitting United States senator, have any better idea of why Chris Stevens and others didn't get the security they asked for?

MCCASKILL: Well, I think the point she's tried to make -- and I think she's done it well -- is that her job, it's important to rely on security experts, because requests come in from around the world, especially now, in a dangerous and complicated world, where we have enemies literally in every country in the world because of the nature of the extreme movement of terrorism around the globe.

So, all of these requests come in, and you have to have experts who evaluate them and rank the risk and decide where they should move and where they can't move based on the limitations of the budget they were given. And keep in mind this is a secretary of state that, prior to the tragedy in Benghazi, was asking for more funding for embassy security.

[16:15:07] I mean, as you remember, we had a scandal around the embassy security in Kabul, where they were having to contract with third-world countries for security instead of using the marines. So, this is an ongoing problem and she was relying on the trusted experts to weigh the various requests and then make recommendations which of course she acted on.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio honed in on the issue of why the Obama administration blamed this anti-Muslim video on the attacks when it seemed clear and based on contemporaneous notes -- contemporaneous notes by Clinton's aides she knew as early as September 12th that it was a terrorist attack.

Take a listen to Congressman Jordan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH), SELECT COMMITTEE ON BENGHAZI: Seems to me that night you had three options, Secretary. You could tell the truth, like you did with your family, like you did with the Libyan president, like you did with the Egyptian prime minister. Tell them it was a terrorist attack.

You could say, you know what, we're not quite sure. Don't really know for sure. I don't think the evidence is there. I think it's all in the person. But you could have done that.

But you picked a third option. You picked the video narrative. You picked the one with no evidence and you did it because Libya was supposed to be as Mr. Roskam pointed out, this great success story for the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Senator McCaskill, do you think it's possible that the administration and that Clinton specifically went with the video narrative not only because that was what some of the information was saying even though certainly not all of the information, but also because she was trying to be a good soldier? The Obama administration, President Obama was in the middle of a tough re- election campaign, with just days away, Mitt Romney was hammering him and Obama was out there saying that al Qaeda was on the run.

In other words, is she being tagged because the Obama administration and President Obama made her go with the video narrative?

MCCASKILL: I think that's not fair. There was conflicting information. There were in fact embassy breaches around the area because of the video.

The video was very much within the vernacular of dangerous activity that was going on in that neighborhood and there was different information. And in fact, one of the people who were arrested for this in fact cited the video as part of their motivation.

So I think this is once again -- and by the way can I just point out, is there anything new here? I think this is the 32nd hearing. We have 11 published reports. We have eight different committees who have investigated.

And have we really heard anything new today other than Sid Blumenthal wanted to tell her a lot of stuff, which she was not asking for, he was just offering?

And that's what's frustrating I think to those of us who see this as such a brazen political exercise. Marco Rubio is raising money off this today for president of the United States. Stand with Trey Gowdy, he sent out his e-mail today. That's just politics, Jake. And that's what this is.

And I thought one of the most powerful moments that Secretary Clinton had was when she said when we've had these tragedies before it has not been political, it has been bipartisan, Democrats and Republicans coming together to try to make these embassies more secure and to make our diplomats more safe. This is, I think, an outrage and a waste of taxpayers' money.

TAPPER: Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, thank you so much.

MCCASKILL: You bet.

TAPPER: We have seen so many tense moments already. You just saw another one in Hillary Clinton's testimony will resume any minute on Capitol Hill. We're going to take you there live.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:19] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Our politics lead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton trying to keep cool as she testifies before something of a hostile audience before the House Benghazi Committee, at least half of them. So, the explosive accusations and fiery words today mostly came from members of the committee sparring with each other. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Would the gentleman yield?

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I'd be happy to, but you need to make sure the entire record's correct.

CUMMINGS: That's exactly what I'm going to do.

GOWDY: Well, then go ahead.

CUMMINGS: I move that we put into the record the entire transcript of Sidney Blumenthal. We're going to release the emails, let's do the transcript. That way, the world can see it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Second in motion.

CUMMINGS: Motion has been seconded.

GOWDY: We'll take that up --

CUMMINGS: Mr. Chairman, I consulted with the parliamentarian and they have informed us we have a right to record a vote on that motion.

GOWDY: Well, I'll tell you --

CUMMINGS: You want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Well, that's what we want to have. Let the world see it.

GOWDY: Why is it that you only want Mr. Blumenthal's transcript released? Why don't you want the survivors --

CUMMINGS: I like to have all of them released.

GOWDY: The survivors? Even their names, you want that?

CUMMINGS: No.

GOWDY: You want that released?

CUMMINGS: Let me tell you something --

GOWDY: The only one you've asked for is Sidney Blumenthal. That's the only one you've asked for. That and Ms. Mills.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Cheryl Mills.

CUMMINGS: That's not true.

GOWDY: That's two out of 54. If you want to ask for some facts witness --

CUMMINGS: Ask for a recorded vote on Blumenthal. You said from the beginning you want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Why don't we just put the entire transcript out there and let the world see it. What do you have to hide?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are the only e-mails you have released. And in fairness to Mr. Blumenthal and American people, in the interest of a complete record, if you're going to release his e-mails, release his transcript where he has the chance to give the context of those e- mails.

[16:25:05] GOWDY: Well, you keep referring to Blumenthal e-mails. I would hasten to remind both of you, the only reason we have Blumenthal e-mails is because he e-mailed the secretary of state. Those are her e-mails. That's why they were released. They're not Blumenthal's e- mails. And she wanted all of her e-mails released --

(END VIDEO CLIP)]

TAPPER: The Blumenthal e-mails, lesser known Robert Ludlum book.

Let's talk about today's Benghazi hearing along with everything 2016 with CNN political commentators Amanda Carpenter and Paul Begala and CNN senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Amanda, let me start with you. How are the Republicans doing, do you think?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, let's be honest. The next election is not going to be a referendum on Blumenthal's e- mails or Cheryl Mills' e-mails, but it will be a referendum on the Obama-Clinton foreign policy. TAPPER: In her character.

CARPENTER: Yes, and her judgment. That's what this hearing is really about. It's a perfectly reasonable thing to have a hearing about what were the decisions that led up to the situation in Benghazi? What were our strategic interests there? And why was it so important that we had an ambassador there who was in a compound that was not secure, did not have the right military protection, did not have the right protection of the host nation and the fallout that became of that?

So, yes, it is a question of Hillary Clinton's judgment. Yes, it is political. And I know you like to call this committee a super PAC.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is.

CARPENTER: But judging from the Democrats performance, if the Benghazi committee is a super PAC, then the Democrats donation was an unkind donation because they did nothing but duck and cover for her at every turn when I think the American people really need an honest discussion of what happened on the ground and why.

TAPPER: Paul agrees with you. He just considered that an insult.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's not. I disagree with this. The Democrats actually didn't have Hillary's back. They didn't need to. She did fine.

What they did, which was ingenious, is Republicans try to put Hillary on trial, OK? The Democrats puts the Republicans on trial. She floated above the whole thing. It was a textbook performance.

Chairman Gowdy -- I probably shouldn't say this because he's probably watching, Chairman Gowdy has handled this so poorly. He's a guy who is a former prosecutor. He's reported to be desirous of being a federal judge one day, and he should have conducted himself like a federal judge.

Instead he was arguing with the Democrats looking nakedly partisan, allowing Hillary to float above it. Here's my prediction, save this tape. The next time Hillary Clinton appears before Congress, it will be January 20th, 2017 to take the oath of office.

CARPENTER: I will say this, the committee should be judged on its final report, which will be available to the public, not by one single hearing or one interview or one transcript.

TAPPER: Let's talk about some of the cogent points being made. Peter Roskam in this first round of questioning Jeff started talking about the Libya policy and in his view what a disaster it is. That does seem to be something that merits some exploration.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right. I thought what was interesting is that the shift in sort of what Republicans have been talking about. You know, for the summer we've been hearing essentially nothing but the e-mails, did she abuse classified information, should the FBI investigate, that has come up almost not at all.

So the accusation has not been Hillary Clinton is a criminal. The accusation has been Hillary Clinton was a bad secretary of state. And that has really been the focus of the inquiry. That seems to me a very legitimate question for the political campaign coming ahead.

It's somewhat less clear why that's relevant to what happened in Benghazi on 9/11/2012. This is supposed to be an investigation of those events in particular and the inquiry has gone very far afield particularly with this, I have to say, bizarre obsession with the former journalist Sidney Blumenthal whose name has been mentioned far more often than al Qaeda or the actual attackers.

TAPPER: Let me ask you, Amanda, many members of the committee, Republican members, have made it very clear that they think it's strange that Sidney Blumenthal who is a long-time confidant of the Clintons, who is barred from joining the Clinton administration by the Obama White House -- I mean, barred from joining the Obama administration by the White House even though Clinton wanted him on her team.

That it's strange that he had access, direct access, e-mail access to Hillary Clinton while Ambassador Stevens did not. Do you think that that is a point that the American people care about? What do you think is the larger issue going on there? I am a little bit at a loss as to why this is getting so much focus.

CARPENTER: The larger issue they're trying to get at is what was Hillary Clinton's judgment in keeping Ambassador Stevens on the ground there? The fact that someone who did not have great knowledge, had direct access to her e-mail whereas numerous State Department officials who were clamoring to get attention that the security situation was deteriorating somehow didn't get on her radar.

I mean, if you look at the Senate intelligence report, you see you had the CIA, you had multiple intelligence agencies and numerous reports saying things are getting worse there.

TAPPER: Sure.

CARPENTER: In the run-up to the attacks, four major incidents, car bombs, RPGs --

TAPPER: The British pulled out, Red Cross pulled out. Right.

CARPENTER: All kinds of things were happening. And the fact that every agency was seemingly warning about this, an attack happened.