White House will use an old playbook to handle the new Benghazi committee

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
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The House of Representatives' select committee on Benghazi has had a rough rollout. Chairman Trey Gowdy, R- S.C., announced he had proof of sweeping White House wrongdoing — then said he could not actually share his secret evidence. The GOP’s fundraising arm for House races drew fire for politicizing the effort by inviting donors to give the $50-$500 necessary to become a  "Benghazi watchdog." And media outlets noted that many of Gowdy’s supposedly unanswered questions about the tragedy in the eastern Libyan city had been answered by previous investigations or media fact-checkers.

And this is all before the committee is officially up and running.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, White House officials have watched all of this with barely contained amusement. Aides have quietly noted that, while Republicans nursed self-inflicted wounds, there were zero Benghazi-related questions at press secretary Jay Carney’s briefings on Monday and Tuesday of this week.

But already President Barack Obama’s strategists are dusting off a well-worn playbook to use when the committee — with or without Democratic members and staff — is finally up, running and demanding reams of documents and access to key officials and witnesses.

The White House has carefully been keeping its powder dry until the fateful day when Gowdy, a respected career prosecutor, can gavel his committee to order.

What then? To paraphrase a line from a long-ago scandal, it depends on what the meaning of the word “cooperate” is.

“We have always cooperated with legitimate oversight and will continue to do so,” Carney said in his May 5 briefing. But he went on to describe the new Benghazi investigation as “like a conspiracy theory without a conspiracy.”

Does that mean the select committee is not “legitimate oversight,” one reporter asked. “What I’m not going to do is speculate about what might come, or what Republicans are going to do, or how that’s going to play out,” Carney said.

The State Department broadcast a similarly mixed message.

Secretary of State John Kerry declared on May 6 that “we have absolutely nothing to hide whatsoever” and proclaimed: “I’ve guaranteed that we would cooperate in every single way. We have, and I will, and the Department will. That’s our obligation.”

At the same time, Kerry urged the media to “take a hard look” at the Republican-driven approach, calling it “very partisan” and warning that handing documents over to a congressional committee “doesn’t happen automatically.”

Behind the scenes, Obama aides have said they suspect that the committee will be a partisan circus but don’t want to start an unnecessary fight by saying, even before the panel comes together, that they will not cooperate. White House officials have told some House Democrats that Gowdy’s investigation “could end up being totally aboveboard,” according to one congressional aide.

The White House also doesn’t want to overpromise cooperation and underdeliver, which could hand political ammunition to Republicans. And officials at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue emphasize that cooperating with a congressional committee is not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Instead, the White House playbook calls for a case-by-case assessment of requests for documents and witnesses. Officials are prepared to comply with some demands while resisting those that they think improperly delve into internal executive branch debates or decide are designed to unnecessarily overburden West Wing staff.

It’s a playbook the administration has used before in clashes with Congress over the investigation into the Fast and Furious operation that permitted questionably legal gun sales in order to track the weapons to Mexico’s drug cartels, and the probe into failed green-energy firm Solyndra — as well as during the previous investigations into Benghazi by other congressional committees.

That certainly might not sound like cooperation to Republicans, who have left little doubt that they hope the exercise will fire up their base ahead of November’s elections — and perhaps damage Hillary Clinton’s 2016 prospects in the bargain.

At the White House, though, there is no sign that officials see the select committee as markedly different — apart from the electoral context — from what they’ve seen before.

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