Democrats on Monday began to lay out the strategies they will use to blunt Republican criticism ahead of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s scheduled testimony on the Benghazi terror attack, portraying the GOP-led House committee as a politically motivated sham and pushing out positive reviews of Clinton’s time as secretary of state.
Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, sought to turn the tables on the Select Committee on Benghazi by releasing a new video with high-profile testimonials about her leadership of the State Department. Her campaign is also helping organize public appearances and outreach by prominent surrogates to make a case this week that Clinton’s four years as the nation’s top diplomat are a benefit rather than a liability.
The deaths of four Americans in the restive Libyan city of Benghazi are not mentioned in the video, although Clinton has called the 2012 attack her greatest regret as secretary of state.
Clinton is set to testify on Thursday before the House investigative panel, whose work led to the revelation this year that she had exclusively used a privately owned email system for her government work while at the State Department. Questions surrounding that decision, and Clinton’s handling of it as a candidate, have contributed to an erosion of her political support, especially in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Conflict between Republicans and Democrats on the Benghazi committee is threatening to dominate Thursday’s hearing, as tensions rise over accusations that the GOP’s probe is a partisan instrument designed to damage Clinton’s standing in the 2016 election.
“I really don’t know what to expect. I think it’s pretty clear that whatever they might have thought they were doing, they ended up becoming a partisan arm of the Republican National Committee with an overwhelming focus on trying to, as they admitted, drive down my poll numbers,” Clinton said in a CNN interview broadcast on Sunday.
Democratic lawmakers have adopted a strategy of trying to shame Republicans, accusing committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and other GOP members of using the fatal attack for political gain and planning an offensive of their own at Thursday’s hearing.
The committee’s top Democrat argued on Monday that the investigation is a waste and that the panel should disband without calling Clinton as a witness.
“Republicans have now admitted repeatedly that they are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to damage Secretary Clinton’s campaign for president,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings,D-Md.
Cummings previously had not explicitly demanded the end of the investigation. His comments came with the release of a 124-page Democratic report that pushed back on Republican criticism of Clinton’s handling of Benghazi.
The report defends Clinton against suggestions that she personally approved a reduction in security in Benghazi before the attack and that she or her aides oversaw an effort at the State Department to get rid of embarrassing documents. The report includes the text of exchanges between Democratic staffers and witnesses for the investigation in which the witnesses denied having evidence to support GOP claims against Clinton.
The former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya, who was not named, for example, was asked by staffers: “Do you have any evidence that Secretary of State Clinton ordered Secretary of Defense Panetta to ‘stand down' on the night of the attacks?” and “Do you have any evidence that Secretary of State Clinton issued any kind of order to Secretary of Defense Panetta on the night of the attacks?” The witness answered “no” in both cases.
Leon Panetta, defense secretary at the time of the attack, is among the prominent Democrats who praise Clinton’s decision-making and negotiating skills in the five-minute video, which places Clinton at the center of national security decisions during President Obama’s first term.
Former defense secretary Robert Gates, a Republican, also offers an admiring review, and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright says, “I don’t think I have ever met a person more prepared to be president.”
The campaign’s effort is a way to remind voters that Clinton left the State Department in early 2013 with approval ratings well above 60 percent and that she took the job after losing the 2008 Democratic nomination to Obama.
The 2012 attack on two U.S. compounds is a blot on Clinton’s record that has also become a political weak spot as she runs for president. She is expected to try to turn Thursday’s session to focus on her record and to discuss foreign policy more widely than has been the norm in the Democratic contest this cycle.
Clinton talked about foreign policy at some length last week during the first Democratic debate, including the long conflict in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State and Russian motives. She cast herself as a tough negotiator, including with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said her enemies include both “the Iranians” and “the Republicans.”
Republicans have been on the defensive since House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., credited the Benghazi committee with helping to drive down Clinton’s poll numbers - providing fodder for Democrats who argue that the panel’s work is partisan. A former GOP committee staffer accused his onetime colleagues of focusing on damaging Clinton, while Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., said Gowdy’s investigation was “designed to go after” her.
Over the weekend, Gowdy and Cummings engaged in a dispute that Democrats believe lent momentum to their side.
The controversy centered on a partial email released by Republicans in which they said Clinton forwarded the name of an alleged CIA source in Libya. Gowdy said that the name was classified and that its release “could jeopardize not only national security but human lives.”
But Saturday, Cummings called on Gowdy to apologize after the CIA told Republican and Democratic committee staffers that the name of the alleged source was not classified.
“Unfortunately, you sent your letter on Oct. 7 without checking first with the CIA,” Cummings wrote to Gowdy. “Now that we have done so, we have learned that your accusations were incorrect.”