CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — In a heated and defiant appearance, Hillary Clinton said she is the victim of a political witch hunt, and vowed to fight it.
She criticized a congressional committee’s pivot from investigating Benghazi to focus on her use of a private email server. “Now I’m in their crosshairs again,” said the former secretary of state. “It’s not about Benghazi. You know what? It’s not about emails or servers either. It’s about politics.”
“Here is what I won’t do: I won’t get down in the mud with them,” she said. “I won’t play politics with national security or dishonor the memory of those who we lost.”
This week, Clinton handed over the server and a thumb drive containing a copy of 30,000 emails sought by the Justice Department and FBI. The intelligence community’s inspector general passed the case to the Justice Department in early July amid concerns that classified information may have been compromised due to Clinton’s private email set-up while secretary of state.
Clinton emphasized the lengths to which she has gone to respond to the allegations and investigation, in her speech Friday night at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding, an annual presidential candidate cattle call.
“I will do my part to provide transparency to Americans,” she said. “That’s why I’m insisting 55,000 pages of my emails be published as soon as possible. I’ve even offered to answer questions for months before Congress. I’ve just provided my server to the Justice Department.”
Clinton was more combative on the issue than she has been previously, with a broad speech building in volume and intensity. She punctuated her words with such punch that she sent herself into a coughing fit. “You guys have been revving me up,” she quipped, between coughs, “I’ve been talking too much.”
Her anger was clearly audible when she raised the email issue in the context of Benghazi. Clinton was secretary of state in September 2012 when attacks on the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
“Now, they’ll try to tell you this is about Benghazi, but it’s not,” she said. “Benghazi was a tragedy. Four dedicated public servants lost their lives, and we have to be focused on how to prevent future tragedies. But let’s be clear: seven exhaustive investigations, including a Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee and the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee, have already debunked all of the conspiracy theories.”
The more recent email controversy, however, continued to give Clinton’s Benghazi critics fresher material and has the campaign on the defensive. Clinton will testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October. In lengthy Wednesday statement intended to combat “a lot of misinformation,” spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said, “The truth matters on this.”
Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C, said on CNN Wednesday that they discovered Clinton’s use of the private server, defending the committee’s expanded investigation into whether she sent or received classified information. The Clinton campaign initially claimed she did not, but the inspector general found two with contents considered top secret. Clinton’s campaign and defenders such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have noted the emails were not marked as classified when they were sent to the secretary of state. Federal regulations stipulate it’s the sender’s responsibility to label messages’ classification.
“Unfortunately, much of the coverage has missed key points,” Feinstein said in a statement Thursday. “None of the emails alleged to contain classified information include any markings that indicate classified content. As someone who regularly reviews classified material, I can say that those documents are always clearly marked as containing classified information … The emails identified did not contain these markings.”
The email issue has piled onto prior revelations about foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation to raise her unfavorable numbers and perceptions of untrustworthiness. And these issues rank high for Iowa, a state unique in its early voting and purple political tinge, and one that haunts her 2016 presidential bid.
In 2008, when Clinton was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, then Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., pulled off an upset in Iowa that surged him from longshot to contender. On Friday, former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin endorsed Clinton for president. On Saturday morning they are scheduled to appear together at the Iowa State Fair.
GOP presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also in Iowa Friday, sought to reinforce the theory of an email coverup, contrasting himself with Clinton on transparency.
“I think she needs to come clean,” he told MSNBC. “Mrs. Clinton seems not to be able to have integrity and to tell the truth. If she’s not done anything wrong, just be honest about it … She had a duty to be a high-level secretary of state. … She had a duty to protect the information.”
But Clinton’s speech served to turn another page in a new, more aggressive chapter in her campaign, challenging Republican attacks on her national security experience.
“I won’t pretend that this is anything other than what it is – the same old partisan games we’ve seen so many times before,” she said. “So I don’t care how many super PACs and Republicans pile on. I’ve been fighting for families and underdogs my entire life and I’m not going to stop now.”