Clinton Email Probe Means Political Tightrope for House GOP

Republicans probing Benghazi and Clinton's emails insist they're not part of the party's 2016 campaign.

House Republicans probing the Benghazi attacks have a politically delicate task that goes well beyond investigating the 2012 incident that claimed the lives of four Americans. They have to make clear they're out to get Hillary Clinton's emails—not Hillary Clinton.

Thus far, Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy and his aides have taken pains to cast the overall Benghazi probe as a methodical one. It's even taken some criticism from the Right for not being more aggressive against the former secretary of State.

And that's by design. The panel wants to avoid the appearance that it is attacking Clinton by any means possible. That—ideally—means few leaks and little grandstanding.

"We are not putting out for the public bits and pieces of our investigation. That's not how a solid, fair investigation is conducted," said Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, one of seven Republicans on the panel. "I am very pleased with the professional nature and the civility of the investigation and how it is progressing."

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"If you look back at the three hearings we have had so far, I have mentioned Hillary Clinton's name a whopping zero times. We were interviewing witnesses that have nothing to do with Secretary Clinton when this story broke," Gowdy said on Fox News Sunday.

The emphasis on perception is a marked change from some previous House GOP investigations of the Obama administration, including probes into Fast and Furious and Solyndra, which were seen in some circles as political fishing expeditions. Many Republicans took note when House Speaker John Boehner announced last May that the Benghazi panel would be headed by Gowdy, not then-House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa—the author of those more controversial probes.

"They have to be careful not to make it look too nakedly partisan, and more specifically, not exclusively built around the prospects of Hillary Clinton winning the White House in 2016, even though everyone in this town knows that that's true," said Thomas Schaller, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

To that point, last week Gowdy sent a letter to Clinton's attorney asking for her private email server to be turned over to the State Department's inspector general or another "neutral, detached, and independent arbiter." Gowdy didn't, however, ask for it to be sent over to the House panel.

Schaller's recent book, The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House, argues that the increasingly powerful House wing of the GOP has hobbled the party's White House prospects in recent decades. But in this case, Schaller believes the House panel is poised to help the party's 2016 prospects.

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"This might be the one case where, if it is done right and it is done successfully, I suppose it could actually help the presidential wing of the party because it does look like Hillary Clinton was damaged by this revelation," he said of the discoveries about Clinton's email practices.

GOP strategist Rick Wilson framed it this way in Politico: "Let's try something new: maintain message discipline, hold focus and keep an eye on a bigger objective than your daily press release, social media hits or email fundraising drops."

David Marin, a former top GOP aide on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a veteran of congressional investigations, says the Select Committee has proceeded with integrity.

"I think they have proceeded exactly as I would have wanted to proceed if I were working for this committee. They are quietly, diligently doing their work. You haven't seen leaks from this committee in terms of documents, you haven't see any show hearings," Marin said.

"I think at the end of the day, this committee will be judged on the quality of its report, on the report's objectivity and utility, on whether the facts presented match the conclusions the committee reaches. Everything else is just theater and noise, and I do have a strong sense that Mr. Gowdy understands this," said Marin, who is now with the Podesta Group, a prominent lobbying and PR firm.

Democrats are having none of it.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democratic panel member, said on Fox News Sunday recently that the GOP-controlled committee has not yet had Clinton testify on Benghazi because Republicans want that to occur "as far into the presidential cycle as possible."

And GOP efforts to keep a lid on political talk or appearances may not make a difference anyway, given the personalities and strong feelings involved.

"It doesn't matter what we do," said committee member Lynn Westmoreland, a Georgia Republican. "It is going to be looked at as being political."