Before the presidential election, certain Republicans on the Hill were hammering at the ever-unfolding Benghazi scandal while Democrats offered condolences to the victims but deferred much more comment than that — citing the need to let an investigation take its course and hoping the passions would die down a bit.
Now, as many lawmakers are still trying to get at the facts, Dems are chiding GOPs for the continued furor, accusing them not just of trying to politicize the tragedy but of staging McCarthy-style Hill lynchings.
Or, as in the case of President Obama yesterday, all but challenging Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to a fight on the South Lawn over their threats to block any advancement of U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice.
The State Department’s Accountability Review Board investigation isn’t due until next month, and a lame-duck Congress freshly returned from the campaign recess is just starting to dig its teeth into the scandal, but Democrats have made clear this week that they’re willing to bite back on Benghazi.
And it was the threat to oppose a potential nomination of Rice as the next secretary of State that really got them going.
Nowhere was that more apparent today than at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which held the only open hearing of three Benghazi inquiries of the day. Two Intelligence Committee hearings in the House and Senate behind closed doors featured intelligence and counterterrorism heavyweights.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned down a request to testify before the Foreign Affairs panel, citing travel in Australia, but Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) announced that she has agreed to testify before the panel when the ARB report is released.
Committee Democrats wrote off today’s proceedings, which featured a Government Accountability Office official and a trio of think-tankers, as a political show — or worse.
“I just want to observe that a tragedy occurred. It ought to be something that brings us together, it ought not to be a political football. It ought not to be an opportunity to smear other peoples reputation, prevent other people from participating in a meaningful way in the formulation and annunciation of U.S. foreign policy,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said. “Those are tactics this Congress ultimately condemned during the Joe McCarthy era. Let’s not revisit that, let’s not return to that.”
“Let’s not devolve into a political spectacle. Friends, the campaign’s over, the signs have been taken down, TV commercials are again about Ginsu knives and exercise videos and Americans have had enough of it,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “They want us to solve problems and not go on political witch hunts. I am very disturbed that some of the political rhetoric that I hear. You know, Barack Obama was no more responsible for what happened in Benghazi than George Bush was for September 11 or that Ronald Reagan was with the blowing up of the U.S. Marines in Beirut.”
“Let’s just hang the guilty parties. You know, the stench of hypocrisy that hangs over this city, today emanates from this room,” blasted Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). “When I — I listened — and I did come here to try to learn. I’ve listened to my colleagues talk about the president of the United States and others in the administration; using terms [like] ‘deliberate,’ ‘lies,’ ‘unmitigated gall,’ ‘malfeasance,’ which is malicious and knowing evil-doing, ‘disgust,’ and ‘cover ups.’”
“Asking questions of, who is responsible in this town for what happened? Well, if you want to know who is responsible in this town, buy yourself a mirror,” the retiring Democrat continued. “Those of us who have been to these hearings, and briefings, and mark-ups hear time and time again from our colleagues that ‘this cost too much money, and we have to make cuts.’ Well, our evil-doing, American-citizen-hating administration requested a lot more money than we provided.”
One Democrat even questioned whether the administration should have corrected its meme about the cause of the attack from video protest to terrorists.
“I want to address this idea that somehow the confusion as to whether this was mostly a planned attack with some ad hoc help, or an ad hoc demonstration with terrorists coming in, or somewhere along that spectrum is somehow part of some intentional effort to mislead the American public for political reasons,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).
“I know of no political plan nor could I conceive of one that could ever be successful in trying to convince the American people that either of these problems weren’t there,” he said.
Republicans, though, showed they are definitely still in fighting mode.
“As late as yesterday, the president said that we would be learning all the details. He’d be cooperating with Congress, yet we have no witness from the administration here with us today to talk to us and to explain under oath what the details of this debacle really are,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). “What is clear is that this administration, including the president himself, has intentionally misinformed — read that, lied — to the American people in the aftermath of this tragedy.”
Addressing Ackerman’s charge, Rohrabacher also reminded the panel that the State Department itself, in recess testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, admitted that the refusal to send more security to Benghazi wasn’t a budget consideration.
“Anyone suggesting otherwise should not be pointing fingers at hypocrisy at this side of the aisle. Yes, this is not simply a cover-up of a third-rate burglary. We have four of our diplomatic personnel dead,” the California Republican said. “And it is not a McCarthy-era tactic to demand accountability, and demand that the American people are not misinformed about it, to the point that they don’t know what the threat is.”
“I’m sorry our friend from California — our other friend from California, Mr. Rohrabacher, takes umbrage at the comparison of McCarthyism but smears and character assassination, judgment before all the facts are in is McCarthyism,” Connolly shot back, decrying a House letter from Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) circulating in opposition to a Rice nomination due to her Benghazi muddling.
“That’s not an honest inquiry and that’s an attempt to besmirch, in my opinion, the reputation of very talented and capable public servants and I want no part of it,” Connolly continued. “And when we do that, and I understand why Mr. Rohrabacher might be upset, but he invites — not he personally — one invites the kind of reaction you will get from this side of the aisle.”
“If it wasn’t about money, if it wasn’t about budgetary cuts, why would we continue to put our ambassador at risk in an area that we took our security support team, special ops people, it wasn’t about the money, and we replaced them with $4 an hour Libyan nationals — who were unarmed, by the way,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.).
Ros-Lehtinen noted that more than two months after the attack, the State Department has failed to follow up on the GAO recommendation that they perform a strategic review of diplomatic security.
“Our front-line diplomats should be secure in the knowledge that the United States government will provide for their safety while they carry out their duties on behalf of our country,” she said. “Safety must not be sacrificed on the altar of vague and uncertain agendas or other pet projects from climate change, to bailouts, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose value is questionable. Our diplomatic personnel deserve no less.”
Outside of today’s hearings, one group of Democrats issued a statement calling Rice an “American treasure” and demanding GOPs back off.
Democratic women in the House will hold a news conference Friday morning to defend Rice.
“I am joining my colleagues in calling for an end to the scapegoating of Ambassador Susan Rice,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). “In a hearing by one of my committees on Benghazi, we got the documented intelligence that Ambassador Rice relied on from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Ambassador Patrick Kennedy testified that this was the same intelligence that he relied on, as well. Yet convincing evidence did not sway Republicans from partisan attacks. Ambassador Rice should not need to be defended, but I will be happy to stand with my colleagues to do so.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wrote an op-ed published this evening on the Huffington Post lashing out at her Republican colleagues for “hurtful rhetoric” about Rice.
“She was not spinning. She was not twisting the truth. She was simply being forthcoming with the best information available at the time. And for that, she is now being viciously attacked by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham,” Boxer wrote. “This treatment stands in stark contrast with their vocal support of Condoleezza Rice who — unlike Susan Rice — deliberately misrepresented intelligence.”
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Rice isn’t responsible for the talking points given to her by others.
“There’s always a certain amount of scapegoating that goes on in this town,” he said. “…That’s not her fault. That’s whatever intelligence agencies gave her that information.”
Republican senators canvassed news shows to convey that a Rice nomination faces a real filibuster threat in the upper chamber.
“I think her nomination should be held until questions are answered as to why she would do that on every major news network. I also raise the question based on the president’s news conference he said she didn’t have anything to do with Benghazi,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). “Why would she or the administration send her on every major news network to put out a certain narration of what happened when it wasn’t the case?”
“I would oppose her, unless she has some logical explanation,” McCain said on Fox. “I will listen to anybody tell their side of the story. But clearly right now, I would be opposed because the American people were told false information by her at the direction of the White House.”
“I have nothing against anybody, but do I have a desire to get to the truth. And I am going to hold this president accountable, Susan Rice and others for what I think is a national security breakdown of monumental proportions,” Graham said on Fox.
“What did Ambassador Rice know? Why is that what she knew? And why was she the person sent out to represent the administration?” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said on CNN. “The president doubled down on this yesterday by essentially saying she had the information we wanted to convey and she was representing him, and so let’s talk about him.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), however, told CNN he’s “not ready to make a decision on it.”
“I mean, the person who decided to have no marines guarding the ambassador should be fired. I mean, just plain and simple. But I don’t know if that’s Susan Rice,” he said. “I think we get involved with Ambassador Rice when we’re getting off subject.”
“President Obama has the gall to float the name as possible secretary of state the name of the person who is the actual vehicle used to misinform the American people during this crisis,” Rohrabacher said. “The arrogance and dishonesty reflected in all of this is a little bit breathtaking, and it’s about time that the president of the United States decide to level with the American people.”