Clinton allies pressured Dems on Benghazi
By: Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer
May 21, 2014 08:02 PM EDT
Hillary Clinton’s world was so worried about a Republican investigation of the Benghazi attacks, they sent a message to House Democrats: We need backup.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) publicly considered boycotting the panel, an idea that Clinton supporters feared would leave the potential 2016 candidate exposed to the enemy fire of House Republicans.
So Clinton emissaries launched a back channel campaign, contacting several House Democratic lawmakers and aides to say they’d prefer Democrats participate, according to sources familiar with the conversations. Pelosi’s staff said they have not heard from Clinton’s camp.
(Also on POLITICO: Pelosi picks Dems for panel)
On Wednesday, Pelosi appointed five Democrats to the committee, giving Democrats another crucial mission in the months ahead of what was already a tough election year: act as Clinton’s first line of defense.
“Republicans are making it clear they plan to use the power of the Benghazi Select Committee to continue to politicize the tragedy that occurred in Benghazi, which is exactly why Democratic participation in the committee is vital,” a Democrat close to Clinton world said. “Inevitably, witnesses ranging from Secretary Clinton to Secretary [John] Kerry will be subpoenaed to testify, and the Democrats appointed to the committee will help restore a level of sanity to the hearings, which would otherwise exist solely as a political witch hunt.”
As Republicans continue their high-profile probe into the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Clinton is center stage. Over the next few months, Republicans on the committee will work to build a case against her, and they will attempt to haul her to Capitol Hill to testify.
(Also on POLITICO: House GOP gears up on Benghazi)
Clinton and her allies know from experience the kind of damage an emboldened Republican House committee can inflict.
If Clinton testifies, it will almost certainly be one of the blockbuster moments for the committee and an important prelude as she considers a second run for the White House.
Some Democrats are already worried that they have been too slow to prepare for the expected partisan battles on Benghazi. Republicans have been teeing up for months.
Pelosi asked some Democratic lawmakers to be on the panel Wednesday and it is unclear exactly how they will handle staffing matters. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) announced last week that he was bringing on lobbyist Phil Kiko to be the majority staff director for the committee. Lawmakers in both parties are slated to huddle Thursday to discuss how they will proceed.
(PHOTOS: Clinton’s best Benghazi hearing lines)
Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that she doesn’t think Clinton or Kerry needs the help of House Democrats, but that she moved to appoint members to the panel for all the other people whom Republicans might call.
“And when it was not guaranteed that we would have access to who they were in sufficient time in advance to prepare … that really argued in favor of saying let’s not worry again about the Hillary Clintons and the John Kerrys, they can fend for themselves, but let’s make sure there is not an exploitation of information because we did not have access to these other people that were called,” the California Democrat said.
Pelosi picked Reps. Linda Sanchez and Adam Schiff of California, Adam Smith of Washington state and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois to fill the panel. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, will serve as ranking member.
Of course, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his Republican leadership team are keenly aware of the select committee becoming a witch hunt, focused solely on bruising and bloodying a potential presidential candidate. Furthermore, Boehner and his aides have made it clear that the committee members must become conversant in the facts of the Benghazi attacks before calling witnesses. One slip-up, Republicans say, could undermine their entire effort.
Gowdy, whom Boehner entrusted with the probe, said in an interview that Pelosi made “great picks.”
“The ones that I know well are very thoughtful and very smart, and I have a great working relationship with them,” Gowdy said.
The South Carolina Republican declined to address how he’ll handle any questioning of Clinton. He said that he believes closed depositions — not open hearings — are the best way to extract information from witnesses. Open hearings are best to have the public decide between two divergent views of the same situation, he said. But Gowdy declined to say whether Clinton will be deposed, cross-examined in a public hearing — or both.
“I’m not foreclosing any avenue of information,” he said.
Asked whether Clinton will he brought to Capitol Hill, Gowdy said, “without specific reference to any individual, if someone has knowledge surrounding a relevant fact, I would expect the committee to talk to them.”
“You’re a smart guy, do you think she has knowledge surrounding any relevant facts?” Gowdy said.
Democrats are hoping that Republicans turn this into a circus — and their affinity for bashing Clinton becomes clear.
“The creation of this committee is solely for propaganda, for politics,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a veteran of congressional oversight who lobbied Pelosi to seat Democrats on the panel. “It’s rather cheap, in my opinion, because after all the other committees held hearings and looked at the issue, and there was nothing there. But Republicans are trying to make a scandal there where there is none. And they’re doing it to go after Hillary Clinton, among others. It’s my view that since they they’re creating this committee, we shouldn’t stay away, we should be part of it. For no other reason than to point out how unfair it is.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) echoed Waxman’s position, saying that “even a kangaroo court would be better off with a defense attorney” and that it’s important for Democrats on the panel to step up and make sure Republicans on the panel aren’t badgering witnesses.
Pelosi eventually came around to their point of view, and appointed several Democrats who have investigated the attacks.
In an interview just moments before Pelosi announced him as the panel’s top Democrat, Cummings said while he’s “concerned about the attacks” against Clinton, he has “no hesitancy saying she’ll be able to deal with it.”
“Yeah it’s a concern because the Republicans will attack Hillary Clinton by any means necessary,” Cummings said, sitting just outside the House chamber. “But I think she can hold her own. And I think that the Clintons are so used to being attacked.”
New York Rep. Eliot Engel said Democrats “shouldn’t allow” the investigation to be “made about one person.
“I think the American public feels that Hillary Clinton did an outstanding job as secretary of state and if Republicans are using Benghazi to blemish her record, I don’t think it will stick,” Engel said. http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=1A290D7C-C0A9-4F14-9BD2-879F673FE484