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Clinton and Gowdy plunge into battle over Benghazi, emails

Battle lines were drawn quickly during Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLate night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study 10 steps toward better presidential debating Continuity is (mostly) on the menu for government contracting in the next administration MORE’s appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Thursday morning, with Republicans appearing eager to defend their panel’s reputation — and Democrats jumping to tear it down.

Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdySunday shows preview: Election integrity dominates as Nov. 3 nears Tim Scott invokes Breonna Taylor, George Floyd in Trump convention speech Sunday shows preview: Republicans gear up for national convention, USPS debate continues in Washington MORE (R-S.C.) began the hearing with the former secretary of State on a stern note, mentioning Clinton’s controversial use of a private email server and defending his committee’s mission.

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Despite claims that the committee is merely a partisan witch-hunt, “let me assure you it is not,” the panel chairman said.

“This investigation is about four people who were killed representing our country on foreign soil. It is about what happened before, during and after the attacks that killed them. It is about what this country owes to those who risk their lives to serve, and it is about the fundamental obligation of government to tell the truth, always, to the people that it purports to represent.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the committee's top Democrat, shot back with a series of attacks accusing the GOP-led panel of making “reckless allegations that are demonstrably false” to disrupt Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“The Republican caucus did not like the answers they got from [previous] investigations, so they set up this select committee with no rules, no deadlines and an unlimited budget,” Cummings said, “and they set them loose, Madame Secretary, because you’re running for president.”

Other Democrats on the committee echoed Cummings’s tone, largely offering a shield to Clinton.

Clinton maintained a steady calm through the morning hours of questioning, sending an early message that she wanted to stay above the fray.

“We should resist denigrating the patriotism or loyalty of those we disagree with,” Clinton said. “So I’m here.”

The former secretary steered clear of more aggressive rhetoric about the committee’s purpose — a noted change of tone from her political appearances, where she has called the panel “basically an arm of the Republican National Committee.”

“Despite all the previous investigations and all the talk about partisan agendas, I’m here to honor those we lost and to do what I can to aide those who serve us still.

“My challenge to you, members of this committee, is the same challenge I put to myself: Let’s be worthy of the truth the American people bestow upon us.”

Still, Clinton did make a point of standing her ground at points in response to sharp questions from committee Republicans.

Gowdy was quick to bring up Clinton’s “unusual email arrangement,” which he alleged prevented the panel from obtaining her emails for months.

“Not a single member of this committee signed up to investigate you or your email,” he told Clinton. “We signed up to investigate and, therefore, honor the lives of the four people we sent into a dangerous country to represent us.

“Your emails are no less or no more important than the emails of anyone else,” he added. “It just took them a little longer to get them.”

Later, Rep, Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) compared a tall pile of Clinton’s emails about Libya from 2011 with a shorter stack of her emails about the country in 2012 — the year of the Benghazi attack. 

“I’m troubled by what I see here,” Brooks told Clinton.

In response, Clinton said that she rarely used emails for official business, instead relying on in-person meetings, classified cables and other modes of communication.

Brooks was not the only lawmaker to come with props. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also used video clips — including snippets of media interviews — as well as charts and emails to make their points.

Republicans were under pressure to reveal a new smoking gun on Thursday after several figures in the party appeared to agree with Democrats that the committee was created for a political purpose.

The closest they got to a new bombshell in the early hours of the hearing was an email from two lower-level State Department staffers alleging that Clinton was unaware that the U.S. government had any presence in Benghazi.

“Of course I knew we had a presence in Benghazi,” Clinton retorted, adding that the State Department officials were not on her personal staff.

“I can’t speak to what someone either heard of misheard.”

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said that the chatter of two mid-level staffers “are certainly not things that should be used” during the committee’s investigation.

The episode showed “that it’s the obsession with email that takes us off what should be the task of this committee,” Smith added.

Clinton’s testimony on Thursday had been anticipated for months, and the Benghazi Committee had a circus-like atmosphere in the run-up to her appearance.

The session took place in the hearing room for the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee — the largest on Capitol Hill — and was stuffed with reporters, cameras and the general public eager for a glimpse.

Multiple lawmakers could be seen in the packed hearing room ahead of Clinton's testimony, including Reps. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) and Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands). Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was seated behind Clinton, next to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) — who is not a member of the Benghazi committee — was nonetheless seated alongside committee members on the dais, two seats over from Brooks.  

Outside, people had lined up for hours to get a seat.

The first man in line — an intern for Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) — reportedly slept in the hallway overnight, eating Cheetos for dinner.

This story was updated at 12:47 p.m.