Donald Trump says that “instead of taking charge” during the Benghazi attacks, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “decided to go home and sleep.” Clinton says she was continuously engaged in responding to the attack from the moment she learned of it in the afternoon and “did not sleep all night.”
Trump is certainly entitled to his opinion, but the evidence shows Clinton was fully engaged in the immediate response, and subsequent congressional investigations concluded the government response to the attack — including Clinton’s — was appropriate.
For other claims from Trump’s speech, see our separate story, “Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech.”
In a speech on foreign policy on April 27, Trump hearkened back to Clinton’s famous “3 a.m.” campaign ad in 2008 in which she claimed she was more “tested” and prepared than Barack Obama to handle a late-night call to the White House about a dire emergency.
Trump, April 27: After Secretary Clinton’s failed intervention in Libya, Islamic terrorists in Benghazi took down our consulate and killed our ambassador and three brave Americans. Then, instead of taking charge that night, Hillary Clinton decided to go home and sleep. Incredible.
Clinton blames it all on a video, an excuse that was a total lie, proven to be absolutely a total lie. Our ambassador was murdered and our secretary of state misled the nation. And, by the way, she was not awake to take that call at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Trump made a similar claim the previous day on “Fox & Friends.”
Trump, April 26: She’s a disaster. Remember the famous call at 3 o’clock in the morning? She was sleeping, OK? She was sleeping. You know, it was her ad. Who would you like at 3 o’clock in the morning? Well, the phone rang and she was sleeping.
Trump is echoing a frequent attack line against Clinton. In an April 12, 2015, appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Rand Paul said, “I think Benghazi was a 3 a.m. phone call that she never picked up.” And on Sept. 16, 2015, Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted at Clinton, “Where the hell were you on the night of the Benghazi attack?”
There have been numerous congressional inquiries into the Benghazi attacks and the U.S. response to it, and Clinton herself has testified twice about it. And so we now know quite a bit about where Clinton was on the night of the Benghazi attacks, and what she was doing.
The Immediate Response
For starters, we should note that the embassy in Tripoli alerted the State Department headquarters in Washington about the attack on the diplomatic facility in Benghazi at about 3:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Sept. 11, 2012, according to Clinton’s accounts and a Senate report on the attack. In her book “Hard Choices” (on pages 322-323), Clinton said she received the news in her office from the department’s executive secretary, Steve Mull.
Clinton wrote (page 323) that her first action was to use a secure phone on her desk to contact the White House, where she spoke to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. At 4:05 the State Department Operations Center sent an “Ops Alert” notifying senior department officials, the White House Situation Room, and others that the Benghazi facility was under attack.
Obama immediately gave an order to “do whatever was necessary to support our people in Libya” and to mobilize “all possible resources,” Clinton said in her book.
Clinton wrote that she led the State Department operations team to work with the embassy in Tripoli to “get our people to safety and to break down the doors of the Libyan government if necessary to demand more support.” At 5:41 p.m., Clinton also called CIA Director David Petraeus because she knew the agency had a nearby post with a heavy security force, and according to the Wall Street Journal, Clinton “wanted to make sure the two agencies were on the same page.”
Clinton described a frenzy of communications that followed news of the attack, including communication with various State Department officials, the White House, the Libyan president, the National Security Council, the CIA, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff and other agencies.
At around 8 p.m. (2 a.m. in Benghazi time), Clinton — with other senior staff on the line — called Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission at the Libyan embassy in Tripoli. Hicks testified that Clinton “asked me what was going on, and I briefed her on developments. Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens. It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi, and I told her that we would need to evacuate, and that was–she said that was the right thing to do.”
It should be noted that responsibility for the military response did not fall on Clinton, but rather on Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marty Dempsey.
The actions taken by Clinton and others have been scrutinized in detail in several investigative reports, including by Republican-controlled House committees. Congressional committees and an independent board detailed the rescue attempts that night, carried out despite U.S. military assets not being in position to defend the Benghazi facility. Those reports said there were no undue delays in responding to the attacks, and they pointedly rejected unfounded allegations that the U.S. response was deliberately thwarted by a “stand down” order.
“Quite the contrary: the safe evacuation of all U.S. government personnel from Benghazi twelve hours after the initial attack and subsequently to Ramstein Air Force Base was the result of exceptional U.S. government coordination and military response,” the independent Accountability Review Board concluded in its Dec. 18, 2012, report.
The “U.S. military performed well in responding to the attacks,” the House Armed Services Committee said in a February 2014 report. Separately, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said in its November 2014 report that the CIA — which was first on the scene of the attack — responded in a “timely and appropriate manner.”
Working from Home
At some point, Clinton made the decision to leave the State Department for the night and continue working from her home because, “I knew the days ahead were going to be taxing on us all, with the entire Department looking to me to lead them through this shocking tragedy while keeping everyone focused on what lay ahead,” Clinton wrote on page 328 of her book.
Clinton, “Hard Choices”: With our DS agents at the heavily fortified CIA post and our reinforcements from Tripoli on the ground at the airport, I decided to move from my office to my home in northwest Washington, only minutes away from Foggy Bottom. I knew the days ahead were going to be taxing on us all, with the entire Department looking to me to lead them through this shocking tragedy while keeping everyone focused on what lay ahead. When I became Secretary the Department outfitted my house with all the secure communications and other equipment necessary to work as easily from there as I could from the office.
I got on the phone with President Obama and gave him the latest updates.
On Oct. 22, 2015, during a House Select Committee hearing on Benghazi, Republican Rep. Martha Roby questioned Clinton closely about her decision to go home that night. For context, the questions came about nine hours into Clinton’s testimony.
Roby: And who else was at your home? Were you alone?
Clinton: I was alone, yes.
Roby: The whole night?
Clinton, laughing: Yes, the whole night.
Roby: I don’t know why that’s funny. I mean, did you have any in-person briefings? I don’t find it funny at all.
Clinton: I’m sorry — a little note of levity at 7:15, noted for the record.
Roby: Well, I mean, the reason I say it’s not funny is because it went well into the night when our folks on the ground were still in danger. So I don’t think it’s funny to ask you if you were alone the whole night.
Clinton: Well, Congresswoman, you asked if I had a SCIF. I had secure phones. I had other equipment that kept me in touch with the State Department at all times. I did not sleep all night. I was very much focused on what we were doing.
In regard to Clinton’s reference to utilizing a “SCIF” at her home, that’s short for a Sensitive Compartmented Informational Facility, a secure room that allows communication protected against leakage of sensitive security/military information.
In response to Roby’s follow-up questions, Clinton revealed that prior to her leaving the State Department headquarters for home, the death of U.S. Foreign Services Information Management Officer Sean Smith had been confirmed, and Clinton said she also knew U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens “was most likely not alive.” Clinton said she was at home when she learned of the second attack on the CIA annex facility, which began about 11:15 p.m. Eastern time and claimed the lives of CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Clinton said she talked to President Obama “late in the evening,” though she couldn’t recall exactly when.
We could find little in the available public documents to confirm Clinton’s engagement on the crisis after she went home — other than Clinton’s sworn testimony that “I had other equipment that kept me in touch with the State Department at all times. I did not sleep all night. I was very much focused on what we were doing.”
We know, for example that at 11:12 p.m., Clinton sent an an email to her daughter, Chelsea (who is identified in the email under her alias “Diane Reynolds.”) In that email, the secretary of state wrote: “Two of our officers were killed in Benghazi by an al Qaeda-like group: The Ambassador, whom I handpicked and a young communications officer on temporary duty w a wife and two young children. Very hard day and I fear more of the same tomorrow.”
We also know that at 11:38 p.m., Clinton emailed State Department officials Cheryl Mills, Jake Sullivan and Victoria Nuland to ask if the State Department should announce Stevens’ death that night or wait until the following morning.
We reached out to the Clinton campaign, which noted the 11:38 p.m. email Clinton sent from home, but provided no further evidence of communications through the early morning hours of Sept. 12. And because — as Clinton testified — she was home alone, there is no one to independently confirm her actions. We also reached out to the Trump campaign, but it did not respond.
Trump is entitled to his opinion about Clinton’s response to the Benghazi attack, but the evidence shows Clinton was fully engaged in the immediate response. And subsequent congressional investigations concluded the government response to the attack — including Clinton’s — was appropriate. Clinton testified that even after she went home that night, she remained awake all night, engaged and focused on the situation. Since there is no way to independently verify that, we’ll let readers decide for themselves, but we would note Trump has not provided any evidence to contradict Clinton’s account.