Republicans tone down Benghazi talk as elections near

Meredith Shiner and Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
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FILE - This May 8, 2013, file photo shows House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., left, confering with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, right, on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a House Oversight Committee hearing about the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. The testimony of nine military officers severely undermines claims by Republican lawmakers that a “stand-down order” held back military assets who could have saved the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans killed during the assult. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Just four months ago, the future chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi delighted core elements of the Republican base when he declared that the panel would be probing “what appears to be a White House cover-up.”

Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said he had secret evidence proving that President Obama’s administration had deliberately withheld key documents from lawmakers looking into the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in the eastern Libyan city.

"I have evidence that not only are they hiding it, there’s an intent to hide it,” he told Fox News in May. “I can’t disclose that evidence yet, but I have evidence that there was a systematic, intentional decision to withhold certain documents from Congress, and we’re just sick of it.”

Now, with the 2014 midterm elections fast approaching and the panel’s first hearing slated for September, the former prosecutor from Spartanburg, S.C., is taking a more tempered, bipartisan tone. He has declared he wants to avoid a media “circus.” Other House Republicans are sending out similar signals, denying that their creation of the special panel was ever political in nature.

“You want to get on the news, go rob a bank,” Gowdy told ABC News in August, after saying that he meant “no disrespect to the media.”

“If you take the approach 'Are we doing this to learn more and better ourselves as a people? And be respectful of their sacrifice?' then you won’t let it become a circus,” he continued.

When the House voted in May to authorize the select committee, which could cost taxpayers up to $3.3 million to operate, the media attention such a panel was sure to draw was a huge part of the attraction for the Republicans who pushed for it. They wanted a channel to attack Obama and the Democrats in the lead-up to the midterm elections — so much so that House Democrats weren’t even sure they wanted to appoint representatives to the panel out of fear it would legitimize the GOP’s charged rhetoric on the issue.

But the politics of Benghazi have shifted. Domestically, the GOP appears poised to win back the Senate for the first time in nearly a decade, and internationally, the foreign policy picture has become much more complicated, with unrest in the Middle East growing dramatically since the last election.

The attacks on two American facilities in Benghazi left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. In the nearly two years since, Republicans have held up the tragedy to argue that the Obama administration has failed to prosecute the war on terrorism, and accused the president of fighting tooth and nail to keep evidence of incompetence (or worse) from the public.

But a pair of reports from the House Armed Services Committee and the House Intelligence Committee – both of which are run by Republicans – has deflated many of the wildest allegations, with the intelligence panel publishing its findings in early August. In turn, these fact-finding operations have raised fresh questions about the purpose the special panel can serve.

Gowdy, in a written statement to Yahoo News, declined to say whether he would hold more public hearings than the first one, which is about a topic suggested by one of the committee’s reluctant Democratic participants.

“Public hearings are only one part of the work of this committee. The main work of an investigation involves much more outside the spotlight,” Gowdy said. “Depositions and witness interviews, both of which are not public, are more effective for gathering facts. The work of the committee will continue throughout the fall, whether it includes more public hearings or not.”

As American foreign-policy makers grapple with a new set of challenges across the Middle East, such as the rise of the brutal Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), there seems to be more risk for the GOP in looking political in its investigation.

Accordingly, House Republicans have publicly and privately worked to shore up the bipartisan credibility of Gowdy’s investigation and banish all of what one Republican aide called the “circus” surrounding past GOP probes.

“The timing is not completely right on this. There’s other stuff happening. There is ISIS happening. The most important thing for Republicans is to be careful with this. This could blow up in their face,” said John Feehery, a former senior House Republican aide who is now president of QGA Communications.

Republicans hope to draw in independents and turn out their base in large numbers in November in their bid to defeat Democrats, who traditionally vote in smaller numbers in midterm elections. With the president’s popularity already at a low ebb and the public unfazed by relatively good economic news, the last thing Republicans should do, some strategists say, is alienate potentially sympathetic voters or energize disaffected Democrats with a fresh over-the-top hearing on the inflammatory topic of Benghazi.

“Things are going pretty well for Republicans,” Feehery explained. “Why screw it up? This is the time when you take the three [club] out but don’t take the driver out.”

Gowdy has said he does not believe the committee will finish its work before the midterms. In order for the panel to continue its work during the next Congress, the House would have to vote again to reauthorize it. Given its cost and current existential predicament, though, that vote might not be as easy in 2015 as it was in 2014.

That’s a long way from where Republicans were even in May, when Speaker John Boehner of Ohio finally relented to rank-and-file pressure to create the panel. Leadership had been reluctant to vote to form the committee. Now there may be no greater example of the shift in tone for Republicans on Benghazi than Gowdy himself, who was once one of the most outspoken advocates for going after the administration.

Where he once invoked secret evidence of a cover-up, the chairman has put the rhetorical fireworks away and decreed that the committee’s first formal hearing will focus on how well the State Department has implemented the 24 recommendations of the independent Accountability Review Board formed to investigate Benghazi.

Whether the GOP can stop the “circus” it now seems so intent on preventing remains an open question. One of the long-standing challenges this House conference has faced is keeping its conservative, flame-throwing rank-and-file membership in check. Just because Gowdy or Republicans involved have changed their tune does not mean others have — or have to.

Moreover, with millions of dollars allocated to the operation of the panel, there’s still the need for Gowdy to produce some final product, beyond what regular committees have done.

Democrat Adam Schiff of California, the member who came up with the idea for the first hearing, told Yahoo News that while there seems to be an air of bipartisanship to the select committee now, that could change if and when Gowdy takes heat over the effectiveness — or lack thereof —of the committee.

"The challenge will come down the road. I think there's going to be enormous pressure on the chairman to deliver something to justify the time, the expense of the select committee. Whether he can withstand that pressure, or wants to withstand that pressure, will determine how the committee is ultimately viewed," said Schiff.

When he was asked whether it was a good idea for Democrats to participate in this effort at all, Schiff’s answer was revealing: "I guess time will tell whether the committee is constructive and whether our participation on it helps it be productive, or whether it degenerates into a circus."