Opinion

The Benghazification of Hillary Clinton's emails

Congressional Republicans have announced that five — five! — separate congressional committees will investigate the FBI's handling of the case. This is madness.

Just as Obama-era Republicans have made George W. Bush look like a much more reasonable figure than he seemed when he was president, the rapid redeployment of the anti-Clinton scandal machine might cause one to reevaluate the relationship between Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress. While it's true that they've been relentlessly attacking the president since he first took office in 2009, it's now clear that while Republicans were waging an ideological, personal, and at times legal battle, what they didn't do — not to the extent they might have, anyway — is use their institutional tools to create a never-ending aura of scandal around the Obama administration. We can realize that now because, with four months to go until the election, we've just time traveled back to the 1990s.

It's not that Republicans haven't held hearings on potential Obama administration scandals. But one after another, they came to nothing. Solyndra, Fast and Furious, the IRS — they all played out pretty much the same way. Republicans thought they had unearthed something big, an event that would prove the true wickedness of Obama and his underlings. But then upon investigation, there just wasn't much there — a regrettable series of events, some bad bureaucratic decisions, but no criminality and nothing that got anywhere near the Oval Office. So the non-scandals faded away, to live on only in fundraising appeals for obscure conservative groups and those breathless email chains your crazy uncle gets.

There was one exception, though: Benghazi. Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi, spoken like a mantra and invoked to represent all that is dark and twisted and heartless about... well, not about President Obama, actually. About Hillary Clinton. It's no accident that the one pseudo-scandal that truly spurred congressional Republicans to action — and eight separate investigations — was the one where they could focus all their attention on her. If the attack on Benghazi had happened six months or a year later — when John Kerry was secretary of state — would there have been eight separate congressional investigations into it? Not on your life.

And now that there's nowhere else to go on that, Republicans have turned their attention to Clinton's emails, where she actually did something inappropriate. They got what they were hoping for, an investigation by a large team of career crime-fighters at the FBI, who surely would make it clear that Clinton ought to be in jail, as Republicans had been saying for so long. But then when FBI director James Comey concluded what every lawyer in sight had been saying for months — that whatever you might say about Clinton's emails, it wasn't a crime and she wouldn't be prosecuted — Republicans were furious.

And how did they react? The only way they know how when it comes to the Clintons. Comey was hauled before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where instead of using the opportunity to replay and magnify his criticisms of Clinton, Republicans attacked him for not putting her in leg irons. And that's just the beginning: They've announced that five — five! — separate congressional committees will investigate the FBI's handling of the case. The Benghazification of Clinton's emails has begun, and it won't stop, at least not until there's something else that can become the focus of their unflagging belief that if only they look hard enough, her criminality will become clear to all.

If you were around in the 1990s, this has a very familiar feel. For much of Bill Clinton's presidency, Congress was practically one giant Select Committee on Getting the Goods on Bill and Hillary. There were hearings on anything and everything — Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, this gate and that gate. At one point a prominent congressman conducted a home experiment that involved firing a bullet through a cantaloupe, in an attempt to prove that the Clintons killed their friend Vince Foster (seriously — that actually happened). As The Boston Globe noted in 2005, once George W. Bush was president, Republicans could rouse themselves for only 12 hours of hearings on the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a scandal that did incalculable damage to America's image around the world, but a few years earlier they took 140 hours of sworn testimony on the pressing issue of whether the Clintons had misused the White House Christmas card list.

So get ready, because we're already getting back into that pattern. Whenever there's an allegation (no matter how ludicrous) that Hillary or Bill Clinton did something wrong, there will be a congressional investigation of it, complete with televised hearings, witness badgering, and rising voices expressing righteous anger. For as long as Hillary Clinton is president, those investigations will continue, whether they find anything or not.

They won't accuse her of not being American or sympathizing with our enemies, as they did with Barack Obama. For her, it will be all about the congressional investigations, built on the conviction that if they look hard enough and cut deep enough, they'll reveal the pulsing core of evil that must surely lie within the Clintons. That's just how Republicans confront her; they know no other way.

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