WASHINGTON – As Hillary Rodham Clinton begins her presidential campaign, Republicans are vowing to intensify their latest investigation into the former secretary of state’s response to the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“We have a mission, and it’s deadly serious,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican and member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Republicans have been trying for more than two years to prove that Clinton failed to bolster security before the assault and should share blame for the Obama administration’s initial, erroneous account of what happened.
A committee report last year found little evidence that Clinton did anything wrong, and it seemed as though she had escaped serious damage from the incident — welcome news to the Democrat before starting her anticipated presidential run, which was announced formally on Sunday.
The questions about Clinton’s actions got fresh fuel recently as it was revealed she used a private email server for every email she sent as Secretary of State — giving Republicans a new avenue to question her handling of the job, and adding an element of lack of transparency to the accusations surrounding her.
“Many questions remain unanswered and I applaud the Select Committee’s continued diligent efforts to find the truth,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said in a memo April 9 to fellow House Republicans.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. compound in Libya. The Obama administration initially said the attack grew out of a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic video, an assessment that turned out to be incorrect.
Clinton has said she turned over all her government-related emails — some 30,490 messages — to the State Department, which is reviewing them for public release. Another 31,830 personal messages were deleted.
That led to cries of outrage from Republicans and others. Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, has asked Clinton to appear privately before the panel by May 1 for an interview about her emails.
The committee wants to “understand what the secretary did, when she did it, and why she did it,” Gowdy said in a March 31 letter to Clinton’s lawyer.
Clinton’s defenders contend the continued inquiry shows Republicans are trying to undermine the Democrat viewed as the party’s strongest potential nominee for the White House in 2016.
There is evidence that Clinton faces erosion of her standing in public opinion polls. A Quinnipiac University Poll released April 9 said her lead against leading Republican candidates has slipped in the key states of Colorado, Iowa and Virginia.
Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, attributed the change to “a further toll on her image from the furor over her e-mail.” He wrote on the Quinnipiac website, “In all three of these states, more — and in Colorado many more — registered voters say she is not honest and trustworthy.”
Republicans in the House and Senate aren’t letting up. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has asked the State Department’s inspector general to determine whether Clinton or the department violated any federal laws.
Before the Benghazi committee was created in May, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee had been looking into the Benghazi attacks. Clinton also testified before the House and Senate foreign affairs committees in January 2013.
Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee held a separate inquiry, and in November dismissed allegations that the administration deliberately misled the public about the attacks.
Gowdy’s committee has said it plans to interview dozens of people, including White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, former White House press secretary Jay Carney, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, former Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“We plan to interview at least 50-plus people before this thing is over,” panel spokesman Jamal Ware said in an email. House records show the select committee had spent more than $2.2 million through February.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, and others in his party question the intent and direction of the investigation. They note that Clinton has said she’s willing to testify before the committee.
“Rather than using the Select Committee — and its taxpayer-funded blank check — to target Secretary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election, Republicans should be using the Select Committee to help implement reforms to improve the safety and security of our officials serving overseas,” Cummings said in a statement.
Gowdy’s office said he wasn’t available to comment. Pompeo, in an interview, disputed the idea that committee Republicans were trying to string out their work to undermine Clinton’s presidential bid.
“The questions remain legion,” said Pompeo, who wouldn’t say how long the select committee’s probe might last.
Questions include “what she was doing that night” and “actions she might have taken,” the lawmaker said. The committee hasn’t yet had all of the relevant documents, limiting a full pursuit of its inquiry, he said.
Pompeo said committee members are pressing for more details about what information may have been sent in Clinton’s private emails that were not secured sufficiently.
James Thurber, a professor and director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in Washington, called the investigation “continued hardball, partisan politics by the Republicans with little impact, but it will continue.”
“It is so unlikely anything new will be learned,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Irvine School of Law. “But it led to the revelations of Hillary Clinton not using State Department email and destroying her emails. I believe that is a story that will remain important, though I do not see what the congressional inquiry is going to accomplish.”
Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University in Washington, said Congress is free to pursue what it considers relevant.
“Though in this case it’s safe to say there are clear legal and partisan reasons for pursuing Clinton’s emails,” Huder said.
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