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The GOP hunt for a Watergate-scale scandal continues

It was no surprise that White House spokesperson Jay Carney spent a healthy portion of his press briefing today talking about the latest White House email on Benghazi that has conservatives on the attack once again. As you’d expect, Carney described the whole thing as “an attempt by Republicans to politicize a tragedy,” adding: Like so many of the conspiracy theories that have promulgated by Republicans since the beginning of this, this one turned out to be bogus.”

Republicans, however, see it very differently. “We now have the smoking gun” on Benghazi, says Sen. Lindsey Graham. And the press is echoing this view. If you do a news search on “Benghazi smoking gun” you’ll come up with hundreds of articles from the last 24 hours. We’re talking about an email by national security adviser Ben Rhodes, written just after the attack in September 2012 and just released. As Dave Weigel demonstrates at length, there isn’t any smoking gun here.

But while the email doesn’t actually demonstrate anything criminal or corrupt, it does show that the silliness of spin goes all the way up near the top — on both sides.

This email is actually interesting, if not for the reasons Republicans want you to believe. The section of Rhodes’ email, written two days after the attack, that has people interested is some bullet points under the heading of “Goals”:

  • To convey that the United States is doing everything that we can to protect our people and facilities abroad;
  • To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy;
  • To show that we will be resolute in bringing people who harm Americans to justice, and standing steadfast through these protests;
  • To reinforce the President and the Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.

What follows is a series of answers to potential questions about the attack and the administration’s response, always stressing the President’s strength and steadiness and steadfastness and statesmanship. Yes, this is what some of our top White House officials spend their time on.

Now, spinning, and advising others on proper spin, is part of Rhodes’ job. Is there something a little unseemly about that? Well, you might think so. But it’s a bipartisan endeavor, one undertaken in every White House and every member of Congress’ office, where communication staff spend their every waking moment wondering how they can make sure their boss looks good no matter what.

But to Republicans, when the White House does it, it’s not just unseemly, it’s downright criminal. They believe that because they are convinced that Barack Obama and everyone who works for him are corrupt down to their very core. And one of their great frustrations of the last five years is that this president, whom they loathe with such intensity, has not been caught actually doing anything that would warrant his impeachment, at least to that portion of the American public not scanning the skies for black UN helicopters coming to take their guns and force their kids to gay marry a Marxist Kenyan abortionist.

Over the last year and a half since the attack occurred, I’ve gone back and forth on what conservatives really think about Benghazi, in their quiet moments. At times, it has seemed like they genuinely believe that this was one of the worst cases of presidential malfeasance in American history. When I compared it to other genuine scandals, I can’t tell you how many wingnuts have poured into my Twitter feed with, “How many people died in Watergate? Huh? Huh?” When I attempted to patiently explain what Watergate was actually about and why it was such a big deal, they were unconvinced.

But at other times, I’ve gotten the sense that they’re making whatever they can out of Benghazi not because they really believe that they’ll find some criminality if they keep searching, but just because it’s all they’ve got. To their chagrin, this administration hasn’t had a major scandal on the scale of Watergate or Iran-Contra. While scandals like those got more and more serious the more they were investigated, the opposite happened with the ones in this administration: the closer we looked, the more it became apparent that we were talking about simple screw-ups, not corruption and malfeasance. That’s what happened with every one of the mini-scandals, from Solyndra to the IRS to Benghazi. The administration even managed to dispense $787 billion of stimulus money without so much as a hint of theft or double-dealing, which was a pretty remarkable achievement.

If Republicans had anything better to work with to show America that Barack Obama really is the pulsing heart of evil at the center of an administration riven with criminal wrongdoing from top to bottom, they wouldn’t be crying wolf at every new Benghazi email they get their hands on. Even after all this time, the “cover-up” they claim occurred wasn’t actually covering anything up, which is kind of the whole point of a cover-up. Yes, the White House was spinning in those first few days when it was still unclear exactly what had happened in Libya, spinning for all it was worth, to show how “resolute” and “strong” they were. They wanted to make sure no one thought there was any “broader failure of policy.” And did they mention that President Obama is strong and steadfast? Oh yes, he most certainly is. That may be silly, but it isn’t a crime.