Focus Will Be on Questioners, Not on Hillary

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senat
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This Thursday, Hillary Clinton will appear (once again) in front of the latest congressional committee to investigate Benghazi. The first seven investigations have turned up precisely nothing, but that didn't stop Republicans from trying one last time to do political damage to Clinton. This latest committee was necessary (obviously) to keep the issue alive right into the 2016 campaign season. But now the committee itself is under the public's microscope, which means that the focus will be more on the Republican questioners this Thursday, and not so much on Clinton.

This turnabout was possible because a few Republicans admitted the true political nature of the committee to journalists. This gave the media permission to stop pretending the committee was created for any other reason than to take Clinton down. The public saw through this a long time ago, but it's now impossible for the media to ignore anymore.

Hillary Clinton, of course, has already testified before Benghazi committees before. She's answered all the questions, and it's hard to imagine there are going to be many new Benghazi issues brought up on Thursday, because this ground has already been so thoroughly covered. What was supposed to happen, as far as the Republicans were concerned, was a thorough grilling of Clinton, exposing her for the arch-fiend they truly knew she was. Embarrassing soundbites would be in the news, and anti-Clinton PACs would have lots of fodder for attack ads to run against her. That was the plan, at any rate.

Now, however, the focus will be on the questioners themselves. Hillary can now afford to play offense while they have been reduced to playing defense. The soundbites on the news may be the most partisan and slanted questions asked, and not the answers. Republican committee members may even now be revising the questions they were planning on asking, because they likely won't be able to get away with saying what they really wanted to say.

Much of anyone's testimony before a congressional committee (on any subject) is political posturing on the part of the members of the committee. Read a transcript of any of these hearings to see what I mean -- a congressman will have five minutes to ask questions and get answers, and they'll use over four minutes of that time to essentially read a prepared statement, before offhandedly asking the witness "What do you think about that?" at the end of it. Sometimes committee members use up their entire time blathering, and fail to even ask a single question. That's how the Clinton hearing was supposed to play out, too. Lots of criticism followed by a sneering question designed to have no acceptable answer.

Clinton was sounding pretty confident about her ability to face this hearing, even before Kevin McCarthy and Richard Hanna let the cat out of the bag. Now that they both have admitted what everyone knew anyway -- the investigation is nothing more than a political hit job -- Clinton will have a much easier time of it.

The focus on her emails is also just going to show how far the committee has strayed from what it was supposed to be investigating. "Hillary Clinton's use of classified material in emails" was not exactly the committee's original purpose, to point out the obvious. This focus on the emails is an admission that the committee hasn't found any other scandal worth talking about, in fact.

Throughout its long life, the Benghazi committee has operated in nakedly partisan fashion, but up until now they've been able to get away with it. They take some testimony behind closed doors and then out of many hours of this testimony a few sentences will be leaked to the media without any context, in an effort to cause Hillary Clinton political damage. The media largely went along for this ride, in far-too-credulous fashion. Democrats on the committee scrambled to keep up with these leaks, and demanded that all the testimony be made public. The Republicans running the committee refused to do so.

This week, the Democrats on the committee struck back and released their own extensive summary. This extraordinary document, filled with excerpts of testimony, is a thorough debunking of all the conspiracy theories Republicans have been trading ever since Benghazi happened. This is a mountain of evidence that shows the Republicans have been searching for a smoking gun which simply does not exist.

Hillary Clinton was also asked to testify behind closed doors. She refused, and successfully demanded a public hearing instead. This means leaked soundbites won't be possible, because the context of any statement will also be on the record. As I said, Hillary sounded pretty confident of her ability to face the committee, even before the committee's motives were exposed by House Republicans. This exposure put a lot of pressure on Trey Gowdy, the committee's chair, who tried valiantly to insist (without convincing anyone, of course) that politics had nothing to do with his investigation.

Oddly enough, this may pressure not just Gowdy but all the Republicans on the committee to dial it back a bit on Thursday -- making Hillary's job even easier. The Democrats on the committee will doubtlessly use their question time to pick apart the partisan nature of everything the Republicans say. Now that the media is primed for the story, a few of these might actually become the go-to soundbites out of the hearing.

As long as Clinton doesn't lose her cool or have some other spectacular bad moment on Thursday, she's largely already won the public relations battle. She was helped enormously by the open admissions from Republicans that the committee was partisan in nature. Republicans have spent a monumental amount of time and energy (not to mention the taxpayers' money) chasing conspiracy theories about what happened in Benghazi. They've investigated it over and over again, and unearthed nothing of substance. Their continued insistence on further investigating is probably the biggest argument that the entire thing is a political witch hunt -- because if it wasn't, objective people would have stopped investigating by now. This investigation -- and this testimony, in specific -- were scheduled to do maximum damage to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. However, the ones getting politically damaged by the entire exercise now seem to be the Republicans. This Thursday, the spotlight will be on them, and not so much on Clinton. That's a pretty stunning turnaround.

Maybe they should just be honest, and rename the investigation the "Committee To Politically Defeat Hillary Clinton." When even Republicans are admitting this is the case, why not just call it by its true name?


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