To hear Republicans tell it, a series of unfortunate events culminated in a rough day Thursday for the House Benghazi committee, leaving conservatives to wonder if they've lost their most potent political weapon against Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Seven months after the panel revealed that Clinton used a private e-mail server as secretary of state—a scoop that committee chairman Trey Gowdy repeatedly took credit for—bringing heaps of negative press to Clinton and a dip in her poll numbers, Clinton effectively turned the tables on her most nettlesome GOP inquisitors. During eight hours and 20 minutes of testimony, Clinton deftly handled some hostile and at times pointed questioning from Republicans, keeping her cool and letting Democrats on the committee handle the political attacks.
In the end, Republicans threw some red meat to their conservative base but failed to land a blow to Clinton's credibility or unearth a meaningful discovery about the 2012 attacks on a U.S. outpost that left four Americans dead in Libya. It wasn't just Clinton loyalists saying that.
“A hearing that was once a threat has really become an opportunity for her,” John Dean, a former White House counsel for Richard Nixon who is now a political independent, said on MSNBC hours into the hearing. “I think this is really Hillary's day. It's going to help her presidential campaign. As somebody who's been both a witness and a counsel, this is a textbook example of how to be a good witness.”
Among House Republicans, there were no high-fives: A half-dozen lawmakers surveyed offered a muted response when asked about the hearing on Thursday afternoon. Many conservative commentators were unimpressed, if not angry with the proceedings.
“So a hearing billed as an epic, High Noon-style confrontation—granted, the hype came from the media, not Republican committee members themselves—instead turned out to be a somewhat interesting look at a few limited aspects of the Benghazi affair,” wrote Byron York at the Washington Examiner. “In other words, no big deal. And that is very, very good news for Hillary Clinton.”
Conservative radio host Erick Erickson described the hearings as “a waste of time because everything about it is politicized and nothing is going to happen.”
“There will be no scalp collection,” he wrote in a blog post, adding: “It was all a political spectacle. God bless Trey Gowdy for trying to learn the facts and understand what happened. But the rest of it was just a carnival road show of back bench congresscritters playing to the cameras and Hillary Clinton working hard to play persecuted victim.”
Erickson lamented that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's recent comments on Fox News bragging about the Benghazi committee's deleterious effect on Clinton's poll numbers “discredited this episode before it began in the minds of the press.” McCarthy's remarks were followed by a second Republican congressman, New York's Richard Hanna, saying the panel was created “to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.” Meanwhile, a former Benghazi committee staffer says he's preparing to sue the panel for allegedly being fired because he didn't want to target Clinton.
Days before the hearing, Gowdy told Politico that “these have been among the worst weeks of my life” and went on CBS to instruct his colleagues to “shut up” about the work of the committee, insisting it was about fact-finding and not politics. The hearing didn't provide much to boost his outlook.
One exchange that drew digital eye-rolls featured Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas grilling Clinton on whether slain Ambassador Chris Stevens had similar “access” to her as her confidant Sid Blumenthal by way of private e-mail, phone number, and home address. This prompted a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, to tweet out a lesson in the way diplomats communicate.
Usually Republican-friendly commentators were equally, if not more, unimpressed.
Well-known conservative writer John Podhoretz, a former speechwriter for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was even more withering.
The most promising line of questioning for Republicans focused not on the security of the Americans who died on Clinton's watch at Benghazi but on Clinton's prolific correspondence with Blumenthal, a longtime confidant who had so many enemies in President Barack Obama's administration that the White House barred the secretary of state from hiring him, Clinton's former chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, told the committee in a deposition released earlier in the week. Gowdy pressed Clinton about Blumenthal's extracurricular role as her adviser, reading aloud some of the insults he e-mailed her about other members of the Obama administration. But she dissociated herself from the comments.
Another sign of the way political tides were turning: The Fox News channel, which has taken a special interest in the issue of Benghazi in recent years, cut away from the hearing midway through while other networks continued to carry it live.
Matt Lewis, a writer at the conservative Daily Caller, sounded the alarm mid-afternoon.
Referring to McCarthy's brag about the Benghazi committee's impact on Clinton's poll numbers—which Clinton and her allies quickly seized upon as corroboration of their theory that the panel was created to troll her—Lewis further noted:
When Republicans regroup after the hearing, the big question facing them will be whether their sharpest political weapon against Clinton so far has turned into a dull object—or worse yet, one that is now at serious risk of being used against them. The Benghazi committee is 18 months old.
Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh also sensed the ground shifting, telling listeners Thursday that the media had already decided that it wanted to “able to claim that the Republicans did not land a glove on Mrs. Clinton. That she showed up and that she looked good and that she was composed and that she triumphed over this, and the Republicans weren't able to do a thing about it. That is the objective.”