WASHINGTON — If it’s true that politics is a contact sport, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got some extra protection Monday when her staff welcomed her back from medical leave with a personalized — and heavily padded — football helmet.
Clinton’s return came about a month after she fell ill with a stomach virus that led to a fall, a concussion and a brief hospitalization for a blood clot in her head. About 75 senior aides gave Clinton a standing ovation when she arrived for a 9:15 a.m. staff meeting, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The extra head protection was symbolic, but it could come in handy soon on Capitol Hill, where Clinton is expected to face bruising questioning from Republicans about security lapses at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in a militant attack there in September represent the largest blot on Clinton’s record as secretary, and Republicans have insisted that she testify in person about what went wrong.
“She will testify,” Nuland said Monday. “She will testify while she is still sitting secretary of state.”
Clinton also told her aides Monday that before she leaves she wants progress on all of the recommendations of an independent panel that investigated the Benghazi deaths, Nuland said.
Clinton’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is not likely until after Inauguration Day, because the Senate is out of session until then, Nuland said. That means Clinton is likely to remain in office until the end of the month or a bit beyond.
The confirmation hearing for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who has been nominated as her successor, would not occur until Clinton has completed her Libya testimony.
Kerry has spent several days at the State Department, preparing for a hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee, which he leads. He would step aside before the hearing, making way for the expected chairmanship of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Clinton had been scheduled to testify on Libya in December, but she postponed the appearance because of her concussion. She sent deputies in her place, which did not satisfy the administration’s toughest critics on Benghazi.
She pledged then to appear before the Senate panel and the Republican-led House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Questioning is likely to focus on what Clinton knew about the Sept. 11 attack as it unfolded and any role she may have had in shaping the administration’s public discussion of the events afterward. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others have accused the White House of attempting to blunt suggestions that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.
Republicans also are expected to ask Clinton what she or senior aides, including Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, knew about the deteriorating security conditions in Benghazi and whether blame for shortfalls should have extended further up the State Department bureaucracy.
The department’s security chief resigned last month, and three others were disciplined, but no official above the level of assistant secretary of state was sanctioned.
Top deputies gave Clinton the helmet and a jersey with the number 112, representing the number of countries she has visited during her tenure. Although Clinton has resumed a regular schedule, she remains under medical restrictions that are likely to prevent any more overseas travel as secretary.
“She loved it. She thought it was cool,” Nuland said, referring to the gift. “But then, being Hillary Clinton, she wanted to get right to business.”
Doctors for Clinton, 65, have said that she will recover fully. Her illness nonetheless prompted speculation that she was sicker than her spokespeople let on and that the episode may damage her political future. Clinton has brushed off questions about whether she will run for president in 2016, but she is widely considered a leading Democratic candidate.
A few conservative commentators accused Clinton of faking or overplaying her illness to avoid potentially embarrassing or politically damaging questions about the Benghazi attack. Nuland has called those charges baseless.