It has loomed over Hillary Clinton’s political ambitions for four years: the death of four Americans, including her friend Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, at a previously obscure outpost in Libya, all on her watch as secretary of state.
Benghazi is arguably the biggest black mark on her State Department legacy. And with Republicans on Capitol Hill digging in for a long and extensive examination of the September 2012 incident and her role in it, it has been a significant threat to her presidential candidacy from the start.
But today’s release of the long-delayed and extraordinarily expensive report of the House Select Committee on Benghazi suggests it will have limited, if any, political fallout for Clinton. The committee did not uncover any startling new details of her involvement or culpability, and the report appears unlikely to significantly alter public perceptions of a highly politicized tragedy.
The Benghazi committee, itself an answer to political pressures for a streamlined approach to GOP investigations of Benghazi, got tripped up in its own politics along the way.
Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a former prosecutor, maintained from the start that the committee wasn’t interested in politics. The public side of his actions bore that out, for the most part.
But the committee was already a year and a half old when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., famously cited its creation as contributing to Clinton’s then-suffering poll numbers.
“We put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today?” McCarthy said last fall in comments that contributed to his withdrawal from the race for House speaker.
When the committee finally got its shot at interviewing Clinton, the 11-hour grilling wound up eliciting enough sympathy for her to create a campaign talking point out of it.
She was lectured about her responsiveness and email habits. She was chided for finding it amusing to be asked whether she spent the whole night alone. And she was still standing at the end.
Even in releasing the report, the committee found itself enmeshed in politics. Committee Democrats, who once considered boycotting the panel, released a prebuttal report to protest not being allowed to review the report written by Republicans.
To further confuse matters, two conservative members of the Benghazi panel went out on their own to author a more politically tinged side report to blast a “tragic failure of leadership” by Clinton and the rest of Barack Obama’s administration.
Asked today about the politics of the committee — specifically whether he agrees with the rallying cry “Hillary lied, people died” — Gowdy deflected, insisting that the panel’s work was never about her in particular.
“You don’t see that T-shirt on me, and you don’t see that bumper sticker on any of my vehicles,” he said.
There were and continue to be serious questions worth pursuing about Benghazi — the Obama administration’s reaction to leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster, the commitment to that outpost in Libya when other countries were withdrawing, the political tinge of the administration’s reaction to the tragedy in the weeks before the 2012 election.
There’s nothing in the report or its release for Clinton to celebrate. The issue of her personal email, which is the subject of a pending Justice Department probe that may never have happened if not for the Benghazi inquiries, still casts a long shadow on the campaign, to say nothing of the foreign policy questions raised by the deadly attack.
In terms of public perception, judgments are hard to shake. Polling suggests that a strong majority of voters disapprove of her handling of Benghazi but also that they believe GOP inquiries into her conduct are politically motivated.
Many of the same political forces that led to the creation of the committee have limited the inquiry’s political impact. Benghazi will likely never fade as a conservative talking point, but neither is it likely to become much more than that again.