For more than 20 years, whenever Bill and Hillary Clinton have gotten into real political trouble, they have found an unlikely ally in House Republicans.
Over and over again, from Bill Clinton’s darkest hours as president to Hillary Clinton’s worst moments as secretary of state, House Republicans ended up helping the Clintons by turning them into victims of overzealous partisan investigations.
Into that history steps Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and the other Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who have called a snap hearing Thursday to receive testimony from FBI Director James B. Comey. Comey announced Tuesday that he would not recommend charges against Hillary Clinton after an investigation into her use of a personal email server while she was secretary of state.
“I think Director Comey’s press conference raises more questions than provides answers,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Wednesday.
Ryan also said he would work with Republicans to find out whether there are ways to block the former secretary of state from receiving top-secret intelligence briefings, typically granted to presidential and vice-presidential nominees, once she officially becomes the Democratic nominee later this month. And next week, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch will appear before the House Judiciary Committee.
Taken together, the actions show that House Republicans hope to keep prosecuting the case against Clinton right up to Election Day. The first shot begins with Comey’s testimony.
With almost no preparation, Republicans seem to be betting that the FBI director will crumble under their questioning or end up looking like a partisan hack who tried to protect someone who might be the next president.
Chaffetz said Comey’s decision to recommend closing the case was “surprising” given how strongly he refuted some of the former secretary’s positions. “The fact pattern presented by Director Comey makes clear Secretary Clinton violated the law,” Chaffetz said Wednesday in a statement. “Individuals who intentionally skirt the law must be held accountable.”
Democrats were stunned by the move, leaving both sides with a day to figure out questions for one of the most accomplished legal minds of his era.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the oversight panel, said in an interview. “I think they want to continue to drag out the story.”
The House Oversight Committee’s first entanglement with the Clintons came in the mid-1990s in a series of probes that produced mixed results. Most infamously, the panel chairman at the time, Dan Burton (R-Ind.), bought a cantaloupe because it was shaped like a human head. He shot it to try to determine whether Vincent Foster, a Clinton family friend and deputy White House counsel, had committed suicide.
In 1998, the House impeached Bill Clinton, on an almost party-line vote, for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but the Senate did not convict and Clinton remained popular in his final two years in office.
Of the 13 House GOP impeachment managers, only three remain active in politics — Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) — while Bill Clinton is more popular than his wife and the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump.
More recently, the House Benghazi committee discovered the limits of pursuing a Clinton, after the 2012 attacks in Libya that left four Americans dead. Hillary Clinton appeared before the panel for nearly 11 hours, acquitting herself well enough that the issue faded away until last week’s release of the Republican majority’s report. It barely touched on Clinton’s handling of the attack.
Now House Republicans are stepping into the email imbroglio, throwing together a last-minute hearing. There are just seven days left in session before lawmakers break for the political conventions and the usual August recess, so their options were to hold a hearing now or wait two months. They’re rolling the dice on now.
The problem for Republicans is that Comey’s stature, both legally and physically, tends to establish him as in command wherever he appears. And, with bipartisan credentials, he is not easily knocked off balance. The 6-foot-8 FBI director, with a booming voice honed growing up in Yonkers, has previously served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, helping prosecute terrorists and organized-crime figures, and as deputy attorney general during the George W. Bush presidency.
Comey later opposed, and testified publicly against, other senior Bush administration officials who had tried to get then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to sign off on extending a counterterrorism program while Ashcroft was recovering from surgery at George Washington University Hospital. During Ashcroft’s illness, Comey took on the role of acting attorney general.
It was a riveting moment of congressional testimony that came about randomly. Comey first appeared before the House Judiciary Committee and never told the story of that hospital-bed confrontation, because no one asked about it. A few weeks later, Comey appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where his former deputy, Preet Bharara, worked for Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Bharara, now the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, primed his boss on which questions to ask.
It’s a lesson Republicans should be wary of Thursday: Ask the wrong question, or fail to ask the right question, and Comey will not offer up what they want to hear.
“James Comey has proven to be a consummate professional when it comes to prosecutions,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee. “Any member of the House or Senate who wants to challenge him on these subjects will have their hands full.”
On Tuesday, Comey said that any “reasonable” prosecutor would not bring a criminal case, because it could not be proved that Clinton intended to expose classified material through her private email server, but he also delivered a crushing blow to her credibility in the middle of a presidential campaign: He described Clinton and her aides as “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Anything Comey says Thursday that softens the criticism of Clinton could be something that Republicans end up regretting — but it wouldn’t be the first time.