Longtime allies of Hillary Clinton are coming to her defense amid new reports suggesting the State Department, under her stewardship, altered talking points about the attacks in Benghazi to remove references to terrorism and al Qaida.
Democratic strategists and former Clinton aides interviewed about whether the testimony this week from three State Department officials could prove politically damaging blamed right-wing groups for stirring up controversy, even as new information came out suggesting political motivation behind downplaying the terrorist links to the attack. Some of the defenses sounded reminiscent of Clinton’s own famed allegations of a “right-wing conspiracy” in the late-1990s after reports her husband had an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“It will probably help some right-wing organization build their direct mail list,” said former Clinton campaign adviser Ann Lewis. “Do I think it will change what people think about Hillary Clinton? I think at this point the American public has good perspective on who Hillary Clinton is.”
Asked what political advice he would give Clinton if she were running in 2016, longtime Clinton strategist Paul Begala said her testimony to Congress in January serves her well.
"I think the way she has dealt with this has been admirable. And Republicans are treading awfully close to the tin foil hat," said Begala.
The stakes for Clinton are high, if she decides to run for president. Hours of testimony this week gave voice to political concerns raised by Republicans, who argue the full story has not been told about the administration’s response to Benghazi. When Clinton testified in January, a key line of GOP questioning centered on why U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice linked the storming of the consulate with protests elsewhere in the Middle East, when there was evidence that wasn’t the case -- a point amplified by former Libyan deputy chief of mission Greg Hicks’ testimony this week. Today, ABC News reports that those talking points underwent at least 12 revisions with input from the State Department.
That contradicts what White House spokesman Jay Carney has said -- that the talking points were drafted almost exclusively by the CIA, a claim that gave cover to both President Obama and Clinton.
Democrats are betting that enough time will have passed between the attack and 2016 that the public won’t punish Clinton for an issue they argue is complex and hard to explain. In the post-hearing spin, they’ve argued the real issue is ensuring embassy security.
“I don’t see the voters in Florida and Ohio and Virginia thinking this event that took place more than four years earlier says something about her ability to be president,” said veteran Democratic strategist Tony Podesta.
Begala pointed to the Iran Contra affair during the Reagan administration, which did not prevent then-Vice President George H.W. Bush from winning the presidency in 1988.
“Benghazi is certainly worthy of investigation. I don’t denigrate that at all,” Begala said. “When you cross the line, from honest oversight into what looks like mistakes into these kind of bizarre politically motivated theories, you jump the shark.”
Republicans are doing as much as they can to keep the issue in the spotlight, pressing for answers about whether there was a politically motivated cover-up, keeping political pressure on Clinton.
House Speaker John Boehner, for instance, called on the White House to turn over emails related to the attack in Benghazi, a sign that the GOP leadership is serious about backing Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa’s pledge to keep the investigation going. “More to do. More to learn. Truth is what we are seeking,” Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, an Oversight Committee member, tweeted after the hearings.
Meanwhile, Karl Rove's American Crossroads released a video ad today jabbing Clinton over her response to the attack, conservative outside groups American Rising and American Crossroads sent out emails blasting Clinton. Tea party stalwart Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas rebuked Clinton in an op-ed for National Review and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina criticized the White House for politicizing the attack.
The testimony this week of former deputy chief of Hicks and former regional security officer Eric Nordstrom provided GOP with particularly poignant political fodder. In January, Clinton responded to Sen. Ron Johnson's questions about the talking points with a now-well-known question. Raising her voice and arms, Clinton asked, “What difference, at this point, does it make?"
Nordstrom offered his reply at the hearing.
“It matters to me personally and it matters to my colleagues at the Department of State,” Nordstrom said, choking up. “It matters to the American public for whom we serve and most importantly, it matters to the friends and family of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Woods, who were murdered on Sept. 11.”
(He talks about why the attack "matters" at 2:04.)
Hicks, too, offered the GOP fodder when asked about his response to Rice's comments on the Sunday shows days after the attacks.
“I was stunned,” said Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya. “My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed."
Last December, a CNN/ORC International poll showed Americans said they’re not happy with how the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack – well before all the fresh information has come out this week. Fifty-six percent of Americans do not think the Obama administration intentionally misled the public with its statements after the Benghazi attacks, but 50 percent said they were dissatisfied with how the administration responded to the attacks.