Bowe Bergdahl is the new Benghazi — in almost all the ways Republicans would hope

June 4, 2014

A sign showing support for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl sits in front of a day care center along Main Street on June 2, 2014 in Hailey, Idaho. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It's been three days since news broke that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl had been released from Taliban captivity in exchange for prisoners from Guantanamo, and about as long since questions were raised about how President Obama effected the release. Over the past 80-plus hours, the political debate has seemed awfully familiar, given how closely it overlaps with the debate over the 2012 attacks on two U.S. compounds in Benghazi.

There are allegations that Obama behaved improperly.

A key question that has arisen about the administration's efforts to release Bergdahl is whether or not Obama complied with a legal requirement that he inform Congress about the release of Guantanamo prisoners at least 30 days before it happened, as Karen Tumulty reported on Tuesday. Obama defended his actions on Tuesday while in Poland, claiming that the "unique circumstances" of the situation allowed him to make the trade.

That will not appease his critics. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told MSNBC that Obama "broke the law by not informing Congress." CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin agrees with that assessment, saying that "he clearly broke the law," with the situation being "an example of a signing statement where the president is taking power for himself that the law didn’t give him."

Republicans have sought a similar point of leverage on Benghazi for some time. When the White House released new e-mails from shortly after the attacks, including one that outlined how staffers planned to talk about what happened, Republicans claimed that it reinforced their argument that Obama was more worried about reelection in 2012 than about revealing the truth of what happened. The broad spectrum of Benghazi theories includes more exotic ones: that Obama watched the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost as it unfolded live, or that he ordered American forces to "stand down" instead of rushing to the compound to assist. Neither of these things has been backed be any reliable evidence.

There is one legal argument that flared up when Obama revealed the existence of a sealed indictment against suspects in the Benghazi attacks. Nothing came of that, except that it made a list of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) of 76 "lawless" actions by Obama.

There will be hearings.

Among the remedies that McKeon proposed for Obama's action were congressional hearings. The nature of those hearings isn't clear, but McKeon does have an outlet for one: he chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

Similar hearings have been a hallmark of Republican opposition in recent years. There were a number of hearings on the events in Benghazi, spanning at least three House committees, including McKeon's. The effort escalated last month with the formation of a House select committee led by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).

Hillary Clinton is implicated.

The open-ended nature of the select committee on Benghazi has inspired speculation that one of its focal points is the then-secretary of state and (probably) soon-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The attention on her role in the Benghazi attacks prompted Clinton to leak a chapter of her upcoming memoir dealing with the attacks several weeks before the book comes out.


Clinton's already been looped into the Bergdahl situation, too. After Clinton and Obama were caught having a secret lunch meeting last week, it didn't take long before a line was drawn from Obama to Hillary. The Hill speculated that Clinton might have known about the deal, earning a link on the homepage of the conservative Drudge Report. It quoted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who made the case for why Clinton's knowledge was important: "It’s fair game to ask her, 'Did she know about this, what does she think about it, does she agree with the decision to withdraw troops in 2016?' These are all really good questions potential candidates for president need to answer." And a link between Clinton and possible impropriety by Obama certainly wouldn't hurt the Republican candidate in two years.

Clinton, incidentally, has defended the trade for Bergdahl.

Susan Rice's Sunday show comments are under question.

The star of Benghazi conspiracy theories is probably Susan Rice, who in 2012 was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In her appearances on Fox News' Sunday morning political talk show immediately after the attacks, Rice indicated that they evolved from a protest in response to an anti-Muslim YouTube video. That they didn't has been seen as an indicator that the administration was trying to deliberately cover up what happened.

Last Sunday, Rice (now national security adviser) again appeared on a Sunday morning talk show, this time stating that Bergdahl "was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield," who "served with honor and distinction." That seems to be at odds with other reports suggesting that Bergdahl walked away from his post. "Did the White House send Susan Rice out on another Sunday talk show fool’s errand?" Ed Morrissey asks at the conservative blog Hot Air.

Fox News is getting geared up.

Fox News, which has been by far the most dogged network in exploring the events in Benghazi, doesn't appear to have missed a stride in making the switch to covering Bergdahl. The first clip below is Bergdahl; the second, Benghazi. Same anchor, same reporter, same style.

And that attention from Fox, as much as anything, is a strong indicator that Bergdahl will not fade from the spotlight any time soon. Conservatives are running the same playbook, but this time may be more likely to score.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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