During CNBC's GOP debate, Sen. Marco Rubio attacked the media, suggesting it had covered up the fact that the Benghazi hearings had unmasked Hillary Clinton as a "liar." (CNBC)

One of Marco Rubio’s big moments at the GOP debate came when he played David to the mainstream media’s Goliath, launching a stone from his rhetorical slingshot that tagged the MSM between the eyes and brought it staggering to its knees. Rubio attacked the news media, suggesting it had covered up the fact that the GOP Benghazi hearings had actually unmasked Hillary Clinton as a “liar.”

This will continue to be a huge selling point for Rubio. It will be presented to GOP primary voters as evidence that he has the political killer instinct it takes to take on both Hillary Clinton and the liberal media, which will naturally want to destroy the GOP nominee.

But Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler has now published a careful examination of Rubio’s claim, concluding that there is “little support” for it, and adding: “he does not have enough evidence to label Clinton a liar.” Kessler’s verdict: Two Pinocchios.

Rubio claimed that on the night of the attacks, Clinton sent private emails to her family saying the Benghazi attacks were caused by terrorists, but publicly blamed spontaneous protests. Rubio said: “She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was the week she got exposed as a liar.”

[Why Marco Rubio is so effective — and so dangerous]

This claim actually constitutes two separate but intertwined assertions. The first is that Clinton told the victims’ families and the American people that the Benghazi attacks were caused by an anti-Islam video, to whitewash the administration’s anti-terror record going into the 2012 election. The second is that the Benghazi hearing is what exposed her lie, and that the media essentially covered this up in order to fluff Clinton’s performance.

On the first of those assertions, Kessler looks at a number of Clinton’s public statements just after the attacks and concludes that in fact, “it is clear she was very careful to keep the attacks separate from the video.” In other words, Rubio exaggerated at best. (Then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s statements are another matter; they clearly cross that line, but Rice subsequently retracted them, saying they were based on wrong real-time intelligence.) It’s true that the victims’ families have said she privately told them this, and to my knowledge the Clinton camp hasn’t denied it publicly, but we still have no direct proof of this. Clinton should be asked about it.

On the second of those assertions, it is true that the Benghazi committee presented new evidence of private communications in which Clinton blamed the attacks on terrorists. However, as Kessler shows, the underlying claim — that Clinton had reason to believe the attacks were terrorism — is not new. Previous evidence of this has been in the public domain for years. It was cited in a report on the attacks authored by a Republican-led House committee. It isn’t even really in dispute.

What is in dispute is whether Clinton knew definitively early on that the attacks had nothing whatsoever to do with the protests and deceived the public to the contrary. As Kessler shows, there was no definitive conclusion at that point. Early intelligence on what caused the attacks was conflicting and erroneous, with some intel concluding the attacks had occurred in the context of the protests, and other intel concluding they were terrorism. Clinton’s private statements about terrorism did not reflect certainty; they tracked with information that was coming in at the time; the administration’s public suggestions about the video also tracked with contradictory information. The Republican-led House probe concluded this. So did a Senate Intelligence Committee probe that bears the name of Marco Rubio, a member of that ommittee.

Thus, Kessler concludes, Clinton never explicitly and publicly blamed the attacks on the video, and the fact that she privately blamed terrorism is not evidence of a deliberate effort to mislead. Nothing presented at the Benghazi hearing changes this.

[The GOP’s Benghazi probe has a problem]

It’s important to understand that the claim that the hearing is what unmasked Clinton’s “lie” is crucial to the story Rubio is trying to tell, a tale told to the GOP base that Brian Beutler exposes in more detail. The narrative that the media deliberately obscured this on Clinton’s behalf helps discredit media scrutiny of Rubio’s own distortions, and that scrutiny will in turn likely be converted into evidence that Rubio poses a dire threat to Clinton — the liberal media perceives this threat, and thus wants to tear him down. But the highest-profile foundational claim Rubio has thus far offered to support this narrative structure just doesn’t hold up.

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Update: The initial version of this post mischaracterized the Senate intel committee probe into the attacks. While the House intel committee investigation took place while Republicans had the majority in that chamber, the Senate committee probe was released when Dems held the majority there. But it still bears Rubio’s name. I’ve edited the above for accuracy.

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MORNING PLUM CONTINUES BELOW:

* SENATE PASSES BUDGET DEAL AS CONSERVATIVES RAGE: Late last night, the RINO squish GOP establishment sellout continued apace as the Senate passed the budget deal, funding the government and raising the debt ceiling into 2017. This response is interesting:

“The bill is the product of an unfair, dysfunctional, and undemocratic process — a process that is virtually indistinguishable from what we promised the American people a G.O.P.-controlled Congress would bring to an end,” Sen. Mike Lee said from the Senate floor. He added that the legislation “represents the last gasping breath of a disgraced bipartisan beltway establishment on the verge of collapse.”

I don’t know about this. I’d say it’s more likely that we look back at this moment as the beginning of a serious, long-in-coming establishment effort to cut loose the Tea Party for good.

 * JEB’S ALLIES IN A SERIOUS PANIC: The Post has an interesting look at the panic that is setting in among Jeb Bush’s allies, after another lackluster debate performance raised more doubts about his long term chances. Notable:

His debilitating performance was for many allies a cause for alarm. He sowed serious doubts about his ability to effectively prosecute the case against not only his Republican rivals but also the potential Democratic nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in what is expected to be a brutal general-election campaign.

This is key: Watch for GOP establishment types to start saying that Rubio has the killer instinct it takes to go after Clinton, and Bush may not.

* DEMS’ SECRET WEAPON IN 2016: BARACK OBAMA? Bloomberg reports that the White House is preparing a very extensive campaigning schedule for Barack Obama in 2016. He’ll obviously be key to any effort to turn out the base in the presidential race. And:

Obama’s team anticipates that he also will campaign for Senate and House candidates in 2016, according to a Democratic strategist familiar with the administration’s planning who asked for anonymity. 

This shows we’re playing on a 2016 map now, as compared to 2014, when the President was nowhere to be seen. A key question in the presidential race will be whether the Dem nominee can turn out Obama coalition voters in Obama-like numbers, so he’ll presumably be key to that.

 * HILLARY TO CALL FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM: The Post reports:

Clinton will unveil new specifics of her criminal justice platform in an Atlanta speech Friday by calling for legislation to ban racial profiling by law enforcement, and for an elimination of the remaining distinction between crack and powder cocaine in drug sentencing.

In political terms, this suggests Clinton and Bernie Sanders (who called yesterday for the abolition of the death penalty) are battling for minority and liberal votes on the turf of criminal justice reform, another sign the Democratic primary process is proving a good thing.

* IRAN ARRESTS ANOTHER AMERICAN: An Iranian-American has been arrested in Iran, bringing to four the total of dual citizens that have been imprisoned in Teheran. The charges are unclear. Look for opponents of the Iran nuclear deal to cite this as proof of the folly of trusting Iran as part of any agreement. Of course, the deal isn’t actually based on trust, but that won’t matter, obviously.

* AND GRIFTERS GONNA GRIFT: Paul Krugman argues that Marco Rubio is enabled in his falsehoods by the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, whose imbecility and dishonesty is so glaring that it makes Rubio look respectable by comparison:

Insider politicians like Marco Rubio are simply engaged in a different, classier kind of scam — and they are empowered in part by the way the grifters have defined respectability down….There was a time when Mr. Rubio’s insistence that $6 trillion in tax cuts would somehow pay for themselves would have marked him as deeply unserious….But the Republican base doesn’t care what the mainstream media says….And in any case, Mr. Rubio sounds sensible compared to the likes of Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump. So there’s no penalty for his fiscal fantasies.

It will be on Democrats to make sure there is such a penalty.