American politics truly is a blood sport. Hillary Clinton emerged unscathed from the first Democratic debate in the White House race but now faces a showdown with Republicans that could see her fighting for her political life or leave her opponents licking their wounds.
It’s all about email security and the loss of American lives at the US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi, according to Republicans, while Democrats are calling it a political witch-hunt.
The showdown will take place on Capitol Hill on Thursday when Ms Clinton appears before the House of Representatives Benghazi committee probing the 2012 attack that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
There have been seven other congressional investigations already into the attack and whether Clinton, as the nation’s top diplomat, could have done more to beef up security at the consulate that might have thwarted it.
She has already testified before one of these investigations in January 2013.
None came up with anything damaging on her or the US State Department.
The fresh ingredient in this investigation is her emails and the disclosure that she used her own email system for her official work while secretary of state so the committee is exploring whether this compromised security.
But the committee has been moving at a very slow pace, with Democrats charging it wants to keep the issue alive as long as possible to snarl up Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The chairman, South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, rejects this. His panel was left red-faced, however, when it emerged that members had enough time on their hands that some attended a wine club nicknamed “Wine Wednesdays” and were drinking from glasses imprinted with the words “Glacial Pace.” The probe has already been running longer than the Watergate investigation—at over 17 months—and at a cost so far of $4.7m.
And now, with only days to go before its showdown with Ms Clinton, the committee seems to be tearing itself apart. The turmoil within its ranks has already resulted in one former member, Bradley Podliska, a major in the US Air Force Reserve now serving in Germany, saying he was fired as an investigator for the panel for suggesting it was motivated not by security concerns but by a desire to damage Clinton.
This revelation came hard on the heels of damaging comments about the panel’s work from none other than the Republican Leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, who suggested it had the political aim of damaging Ms Clinton’s presidential campaign by driving down her poll numbers.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said on Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi Special Committee…a Select Committee…what are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” His remarks sent shockwaves though the Republican Party and boosted Ms Clinton’s contention that this was about politics not about investigating the deaths of Americans.
In another twist to the drama, Mr McCarthy’s intervention triggered his own political demise some days later. He had been running to replace John Boehner in the top job of Speaker of the House and looked like a shoe-in but in the firestorm after his remarks he withdrew from the race in a dramatic about-turn.
But it wasn’t over yet. Another Republican jumped into the fray last Wednesday when New York congressman Richard Hanna said Mr McCarthy was speaking the truth about the committee.
“Sometimes the biggest sin you can commit in DC is to tell the truth,” Mr Hanna said. “I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.”
The Clinton campaign wasted no time in firing its own salvos. “House Republicans aren’t even shy anymore about admitting that the Benghazi Committee is a partisan farce,” said spokesperson Brian Fallon. “Hillary Clinton will still attend (Thursday’s) hearing but at this point Trey Gowdy’s inquiry has zero credibility left.” Adding to the congressional probes and an FBI inquiry, Clinton has also been engulfed in a slew of lawsuits by conservative groups like Judicial Watch and Citizens United seeking more of her records from the state department. The FBI’s inquiry focuses not on Clinton specifically, but on how classified information made its way into her email account.
Neither has Clinton done herself any favours by dodging the email question or dismissing it initially, though now she has taken a more contrite approach. But clearly she desperately wants the saga to go away and got help in the Democratic debate last week when rival-turned-ally Bernie Sanders declared that Americans are “sick and tired of hearing about your damned emails” and want to focus on jobs and the economy. President Barack Obama has also weighed in on the controversy. He recently called her use of a private email server “a mistake,” but said it had not endangered national security and had been “ginned-up” into a political attack by Republicans eager to keep her from being president.
“It’s like open warfare here,” one Washington political observer told me. “And Hillary Clinton hasn’t even testified yet.”