Now that the House Benghazi committee held its grand showdown with Hillary Clinton, and the media consensus is that she held her own and little new ground was broken, the question is: What does the committee do now?
The problem for committee Republicans is that the longer the probe continues, the deeper it strays into the presidential election season, making it easier for Democrats to dismiss it as politically motivated. Democrats are well aware of this dynamic.
In an interview with me, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, called on GOP committee chair Trey Gowdy to wrap up the investigation by the end of the year — that is, before 2016, and the presidential race, get going in earnest.
“The best thing we can do is to set a date certain to bring this investigation to an end, because other than that, we’ll find ourselves going into 2016,” Cummings told me. “It will continue to appear to be an attack on the campaign of Hillary Clinton, to derail her efforts by any means necessary. It will be financed improperly by taxpayer dollars. I believe they should wrap this up.”
Republicans may be sensitive to this perception problem. Politico recently quoted anonymous GOP sources claiming that the committee was reconsidering its approach to probing Clinton’s email arrangement in the wake of her testimony. Republicans have long maintained their focus was never on her emails, and is only on the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attack. But Politico pointed out that Republicans had been planning to call as a witness an ex-Clinton campaign staffer who could shed light on the process by which her emails were turned over to the State Department, but were now reconsidering, suggesting Republicans had been partly focused on, but now want to move away from, the emails. Politico also quoted GOP sources indicating the committee would now redouble its focus on “purely Benghazi-related interviews with officials from the White House, the Department of Defense, and CIA.”
But in the interview with me, Cummings questioned the sincerity of this shift away from the emails. Cummings argued that the committee had already scheduled hearings with defense and intelligence officials to testify about the Benghazi attacks way back at the beginning of the year — but had cancelled them.
“We had a plan already to call these people to a number of hearings, and all of them got thrown out the window,” Cummings said. “We should have done this long ago. The credibility of the committee has been damaged.”
In fairness, some critics have argued that the questioning of Clinton did break new ground. They point out, for instance, that Clinton was questioned about a previously undisclosed email she sent to her family that claimed the attacks were carried out by “an Al Qaeda-like group.” This was meant to show that Clinton knew this was a terrorist group’s work, even though the administration subsequently discussed the attacks in the context of protests over an anti-Islam video. Republicans argue the administration cooked this up as a distraction to whitewash its anti-terror record heading into the 2012 election.
Pressed on this, Cummings argued that it has long been known already that right after the attack, there was conflicting information about what had caused it. Officials knew it was a terrorist attack but also thought terrorists might have hijacked spontaneous protests. “There were mixed messages coming to her from the intelligence over the course of days,” Cummings said. “She was writing her daughter with the information she had at that moment.”
A separate GOP-overseen investigation into Benghazi by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that concluded last year did not find evidence of an intentional effort to mislead the public about the cause of the attacks. It said the administration’s initial public explanation was not accurate and that the process producing that explanation was flawed. But it also concluded that some intelligence at the time did indicate that the attacks came amid a spontaneous protest, that the administration’s public explanation reflected that real-time intelligence, and that intelligence officials only changed this assessment well after the administration had first gone public. On this and many other Benghazi matters, this investigation “backed up many of the administration’s longstanding claims,” as the New York Times put it.
The grilling of Clinton also did turn up problems in her testimony. She claimed that the State Department had received “between 90 and 95 percent” of all her work-related emails even before she turned over her records to the department. But the department subsequently questioned this figure. A follow up statement from Clinton’s campaign suggested that she meant to say that all of those emails had been sent to or from a state.gov server, not that they’d been actively turned over.
Asked about this problem, Cummings said: “I’m not sure what the significance of that is. I do believe that Secretary Clinton has done her best to make sure that all of the appropriate emails have been turned over.”
It is always possible that Gowdy’s committee will come up with something new and very significant. If so, the probe will become a political problem, perhaps even a major one, for Clinton. But Cummings says he has seen pretty much every scrap of paper that Gowdy has. And asked if he thought the select Benghazi committee would produce anything new that wasn’t in the aforementioned 2014 report produced by the GOP-controlled intelligence committee, Cummings said he doubted it.
“I don’t see it,” Cummings said. “I’m very familiar with everything, and I don’t see how we can come to any other conclusion.”
UPDATE: Jamal Ware, a spokesman for Rep. Gowdy and committee Republicans, responds:
“Chairman Gowdy is committed to conducing a meticulous and fact-based investigation into the Benghazi terrorist attacks to provide the final, definitive accounting of this tragedy for the families and the American people. Meanwhile, Mr. Cummings and the Democrats have never been interested in conducting a serious investigation into Benghazi, including repeated threats to leave the committee and issuing a now discredited reported claiming all had been ‘Asked and Answered.’ If they were serious, they would have been a part of uncovering Clinton’s unusual and unprecedented email arrangement, which they were not, and requesting access to all of Ambassador Stevens Libya and Benghazi related emails, which they were not. When it comes to dogged pursuit of investigatory facts on Benghazi, the committee majority’s record is pretty clear.”