Hillary Clinton will be testifying before the Select Committee on Benghazi on Thursday, and by the time she walks out of that hearing room, chances are that all the Republicans’ hopes of using this issue to bring Clinton down will be officially gone.
The timing of Clinton’s testimony couldn’t have worked out better for her, coming as it is after a string of revelations and embarrassments for the committee. First, then-presumptive Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy said on Fox News that the committee’s purpose was to bring down Clinton’s poll numbers, a “gaffe” that had an extraordinary impact, especially when you consider that he was only acknowledging what everyone in Washington already knew. Then we learned that the Select Committee has all but abandoned investigating Benghazi to focus on Clinton’s emails (and that committee staffers are so busy they’ve formed a wine club and a gun-buying club).
Then we learned that a former staffer for the committee is suing them, alleging that he was fired because he wanted to keep investigating Benghazi and not Clinton. Over the weekend, we learned that Democrats are questioning committee chair Trey Gowdy’s accusation that Clinton recklessly used the name of a secret CIA source in an email. According to Democrats, the CIA says the information isn’t sensitive. “I would say in some ways these have been among the worst weeks of my life,” Gowdy told Politico. No wonder.
And what’s going to happen on Thursday? Understand that most of the time, congressional testimony makes the witness look much better than the questioners. There are exceptions here and there, but a well-prepared witness who knows the facts will usually look almost heroic when posed against a bunch of grandstanding blowhards trying in vain to trip her up. The Republicans on the committee will be trying so, so hard, but their main problem is that they just don’t have the thing they hoped they would find: evidence that Clinton committed some act of malfeasance or corruption that led to the deaths of four Americans on that night in Benghazi three years ago.
Which is why, when they originally began negotiating over this testimony, Gowdy wanted it to be in private. If it was, then committee members could do what they’ve been doing all along: selectively leak out-of-context snippets of her testimony to the press in an attempt to make her look bad, while keeping the full context secret. Clinton insisted on testifying publicly, and so she will.
The discussion about this committee has changed profoundly in the last couple of weeks, and not because the committee itself suddenly changed what it was doing. Don’t forget that there have been seven separate investigations into Benghazi, most of them run by Republicans, and all have failed to deliver the shocking revelation that would destroy Clinton’s presidential hopes. From the beginning, Democrats belittled the Select Committee as one more desperate attempt to do what the other investigations couldn’t, while the Democrats on the committee itself, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings, regularly criticized how the committee was doing its work, including the selective and misleading press leaks and the focus on Clinton. Today those committee Democrats released a new report documenting yet again the committee’s failure to substantiate any of the spectacular claims Republicans have made about the administration’s alleged misdeeds and Clinton’s in particular, from the imaginary “stand-down order” to the fictional cover-up.
So what changed? McCarthy’s comments gave people in the media permission to talk about the committee in a different and more realistic way, one that accorded with what they already understood to be true. Before, the story was framed by Republican allegations about Clinton, but now the committee itself has become the issue. The operative question is no longer, “What is Hillary Clinton guilty of?”, because that has been asked and answered a thousand times. Whether you think she ought to be president or not, there’s simply no evidence that she committed any misdeeds before or after the Benghazi attack. The question is now, “What the heck is going on with this committee?”
It’s possible that Clinton could perform terribly in her testimony on Thursday, just as it’s possible that the committee will discover some shocking new information that none of the prior investigations managed to find. But it’s more likely that the committee’s Republicans will seem more angry about their inability to catch her in a crime than about whatever awful thing she was supposed to have done, while she succeeds in making the whole investigation look like a farce.
Her testimony will be the big story in the news on Friday. Then it will be the subject of a hundred think pieces over the weekend. By next week, the only real question Republicans be asking themselves is, how did we screw this up so badly?