The House Select Committee on Benghazi has had glaring credibility problems from its inception. Even if you ignore the thicket of conservative Benghazi conspiracy theories Republicans spent years fueling, their interest in this one tragedy, plucked from a vast expanse of U.S. foreign policy tragedies over a decade, would have aroused suspicion that it was selected for its potential to damage the most powerful Democrat in the country (Barack Obama) and his presumptive heir (Hillary Clinton).
When the committee began to drift from its nominal investigative purpose—the 2012 attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed—and focus on unrelated aspects of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state from 2009-2013, it invited comparisons to the GOP-led fishing expeditions of the 1990s, which culminated in the partisan impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and discredited his leading critics.
The comparison became inescapable this weekend, when the top Democrat on the Benghazi committee revealed that its Republican chairman, Trey Gowdy, had fabricated a redaction to Clinton’s emails to make it look like she’d endangered a spy, and the CIA had busted her. Gowdy even mimicked intelligence community vernacular, designating the redaction as undertaken to protect “sources and methods,” without disclosing that he was the redactor or that the CIA had cleared the name he redacted for release.
This flagrant misconduct has barely pierced the consciousness of the political scribes who have treated every selective Benghazi leak with as much credulity and legitimacy as lower-fanfare congressional investigations, even after their media peers have been burned—repeatedly—by intentionally deceptive leaks. Conservatives, too, are ignoring or brushing off the impropriety. But Benghazi committee errors are piling up so rapidly, and timed so impeccably for Hillary Clinton’s public testimony before the committee this Thursday, that it seems for once like Republicans might tamp down on the Hillary misdirection of their own volition, much as they did in the 1990s when a similarly unfocused obsession with the Clintons damaged their party.
Back in 1998, House Republican leaders had to dial back an investigation into the Clintons’ campaign finance practices after then-oversight committee chairman Dan Burton tried to hoodwink the press with heavily edited transcripts meant to implicate Hillary. That botched operation forced Burton to fire his top aide David Bossie, who went on to become president of Citizens United, and prompted an angry backlash from Speaker Newt Gingrich on behalf of an embarrassed Republican conference.
The recent blows to the Benghazi committee’s self-styled credibility are at least as severe, beginning with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s admission that Republicans empaneled it to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, running through well-substantiated allegations that Republicans have been using committee resources to investigate Clinton at the expense of the actual attacks on the U.S. facility in Libya.
In the nearly two decades since the last Clinton investigations went nowhere, social media has made it easier for events like congressional hearings to become defined by key moments, rather than by overall substance, and if Republicans are able to embarrass Hillary on Thursday once or twice, the dividends will dwarf any reputational damage the committee has suffered. Ever since Watergate, Republicans have been consumed with the certainty that a similar scandal will one day befall Democrats, and have gone to great lengths to make it so. But when their inquiries run aground, or devolve into partisan witch hunting, they eventually relent, and allow the investigations to fizzle out. The Benghazi committee is flirting with the same fate.