For the first time on Monday morning, Cummings called explicitly for the committee to disband, a comment that kicked off the week’s busy news cycle.
“No witnesses we interviewed substantiated these wild Republican conspiracy theories about Secretary Clinton and Benghazi,” the Maryland Democrat said in a statement, citing a brand-new report by Democratic staff. “It’s time to bring this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition to an end.”
Republicans, meanwhile, including Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), said they intend to conduct a fair, fact-based hearing with Clinton when she takes the witness chair on Thursday.
Panel Republicans said they will grill the former secretary of state about the administration’s plans for a post-Gaddafi Libya, pre-attack security requests, and e-mails regarding the Sept. 11-12, 2012, attacks that weren’t originally provided to State.
Also likely to be fodder: Republicans announced Tuesday that they received nearly 1,300 new pages of printed e-mails via the State Department from U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, one of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attacks.
“The Committee just received nearly 1,300 new pages of Ambassador Stevens’ emails, proving it is breaking new ground despite the Obama administration’s many delays,” said Gowdy spokesman Matt Wolking in a statement.
Republicans have suggested that Benghazi panel Democrats are directly coordinating with the Clinton presidential campaign and outside groups in an effort to protect Clinton.
“I would not give up this committee, despite the fact there have been some dark days recently,” Gowdy told The Washington Post earlier this month. “I’m sure most political advisers would say, ‘Gowdy, this is a perfect out. You’re going to get banged on with this Benghazi Committee for months. You’ve got an entire presidential machine that is going to make your life miserable. Jump out now and get into leadership.’ But I don’t want to do that.”
“It’s abundantly clear that several members of the Committee are focused solely on her poll numbers instead of getting the truth – and they’re all Democrats,” Wolking e-mailed.
A Democratic aide said both Democrats and Republicans have been in touch with counsel for Clinton. The aide did not comment on allegations of strategic coordination with the campaign.
“As with all witnesses, staff on both sides routinely communicate with counsel for witnesses ahead of their interviews, depositions and testimony,” the aide said on background. “Democratic members are leading the congressional effort to fact check false statements and defend the truth.”
As Republicans have continued to put their foot in their mouths on Benghazi, Democrats must also be careful not to overreach.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released May 31, 50 percent of those surveyed disapproved of how Clinton handled questions about the Benghazi attacks compared with 33 percent who approved. Last June, 50 percent said they disapproved of how she handled the attacks compared with 37 percent who approved.
Still, Clinton heads into Thursday’s marathon hearing in a fairly strong position. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found the former secretary of state leading the Democratic field with 54 percent, an increase of 12 points since September. She’ll face Republicans as a seasoned debater and congressional witness who has already testified twice before Congress on the Benghazi attacks.
Democrats say the idea of “correcting the record” sums up their strategy for Thursday’s hearing. With cameras rolling, lawmakers are expected to walk through evidence that is favorable to Clinton, but also ways in which they believe Republican investigators have abused their power to nurture negative impressions of her performance at the State Department.
In a series of exchanges with lawmakers and staff with The Post, Democrats indicated they will not hold back from pointing out what they consider poor treatment of Clinton during the investigation. Republican efforts to cut off her answers or questions unrelated to Benghazi will not stand, Democrats said.
“Democrats, as we have all along, will seek to find any productive ground not covered by the prior eight investigations,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member of the committee, in a statement. “We will also endeavor to make sure the Secretary is given fair opportunity to answer all questions and that the hearing stays within the scope of the committee’s jurisdiction.”
“If the Committee continues its abusive line of investigation, Democrats will have to consider how much longer our participation makes sense,” Schiff added. “We have no interest in lending legitimacy to a committee devoid of any.”
A Democratic aide affirmed this approach, asking for anonymity in order to discuss committee strategy.
“Democrats will take a professional tone and give Secretary Clinton the opportunity to fully answer questions. From our experience – we expect some Republican members to pepper Secretary Clinton with questions and not give her the time to fully answer,” the aide said.
Democrats began moving in for the kill when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) credited the Benghazi panel with lowering Clinton’s poll numbers, a comment that later contributed to his decision to remove himself from the House speaker contest.
Despite Gowdy’s protestations, Democrats took McCarthy’s comments as a sign that Republicans saw the panel the way they did: as a tool for undermining Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
The majority leader reversed himself and apologized repeatedly to Gowdy, but the damage seemed irreparable, particularly after two more developments. First, a former Republican staffer with the Benghazi committee, Bradley Podliska, accused his former colleagues of focusing exclusively on Clinton rather than conducting a comprehensive investigation. Then, a rank-and-file Republican lawmaker, Rep. Richard Hanna (N.Y.), said that Gowdy’s investigation was “designed to go after” Clinton.
Fearing further gaffes, Gowdy gave colleagues sharply worded guidance on Sunday.
“I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends, ‘Shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about.’ Unless you’re on the committee, you have no idea what we have done, why we have done it and what new facts we have found,” Gowdy said during an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Three developments since last week have given Democrats more ammunition.
First, the Central Intelligence Agency contradicted Republicans’ claim that the identity of a CIA source sent in one of Clinton’s e-mails was classified. The ruling deflated a key Republican attack line.
Second, Gowdy’s staff appeared to accidentally publish the CIA source’s name online after Gowdy said its release could could jeopardize “not only national security but human lives.” The name was quickly taken down, and staffers blamed an error by the State Department.
And third, The Washington Post reported that Gowdy has past ties to the treasurer of the Stop Hillary PAC, which created a Benghazi-themed attack ad that ran against Clinton during the first Democratic primary debate. The treasurer, Dan Backer, also handles finances for three other PACs that each contributed $2,000 to Gowdy in May. Gowdy returned the donations on Friday after an inquiry by The Post.
–Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.