Since Hillary Clinton last came up to Capitol Hill, we’ve learned senior State Department officials sought to scrub references to terrorism from the infamous Benghazi talking points to insulate Foggy Bottom from political criticism — citing concerns of their “building’s leadership” to justify the demands.
The rising temperature of the scandal means it’s possible that Hillary could be asked to return and testify again. If she comes back, she had better be prepared, says House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Darrell Issa.
“We’re going to go through . . . that so that if we bring Secretary Clinton back, we bring her back when we have a lot of questions, including who told her what, or, more importantly, who didn’t tell her something, and why” Issa says in his office in the Rayburn House Office Building, his foot propped up on a table.
Generally speaking, the chairmanship of the oversight committee is a job that holds a lot more appeal when it’s the other party’s guy in the White House. Issa has held the coveted position for over two years, but it’s only now that Obama-administration scandals have truly consumed Washington.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer was peppered with questions about a trio of scandals on the Sunday shows this week, and his performance actually prompted pity from some members of the media. (“It’s abusive of Obama to send him on Sunday shows with no more to say than he had today,” tweeted Fox News’ Brit Hume.)
“He was spinning truth into lie, wasn’t he? He was like Baghdad Bob!” says Issa, who figured prominently in Pfeiffer’s responses. After it was revealed that senior Treasury Department officials knew about the IRS inspector general’s inquiry prior to the November election, Democrats have suggested that Issa knew, too.
Issa says he knew about the investigation only because he asked for it in the first place. “It was a completely opaque process to us and we had no pre-warning that the IG was nearing” the end of his work, the congressman says, “or that he’d reached conclusions.”
A May 8 hearing on Benghazi was probably Issa’s biggest success yet as chairman. In closed-door meetings with chairmen of other committees, he has attributed the success to careful planning and urged his colleagues to take their time with investigative hearings.
That involves rigorous preparation, including coordinating questions among the GOP’s committee members. “There’s an old expression among lawyers, ‘Don’t ask a question unless you know the answer.’ Going to a hearing and going fishing for five minutes, knowing that a good witness and a bad witness both want to ramble on for a long time, is kind of a waste,” he says. “When [Representative] Trey Gowdy asks questions, to the greatest extent possible, he knows what the truth is, so he can cut off, agree or disagree with, a witness and move on using 30 seconds to a minute at most, and you can get five good questions and answers in” during each congressman’s five minutes, Issa explains.
Issa’s groundwork started a long time ago: Early in this Congress, he struck what he describes as a “truce with skirmishes” with Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings, his ranking-member foil on the oversight panel. Issa agreed to give Cummings a chance to provide input on committee actions, and Cummings said he’d do his best to defend the committee’s prerogatives.
While Republican members of the committee have won some success on Benghazi, Issa shies away from suggestion of impeachment — despite the fact that one member of his committee recently told National Review Online it was on the table.
“We’re doing many investigations and most of them are sins of omission — failure to do a job, failure to have a plan, failure to tell the truth. And, for the most part, failure to do things doesn’t rise to impeachment,” he explains.
“But more importantly, that’s not a decision that I expect to ever be the first to reach. I expect to be the person who works with my staff, uncovering — pealing the layers of the onion, so to speak — then presenting the information to the public and to the members of Congress,” Issa says, while still urging his fellow Republicans not to “jump to impeachment.” But don’t think that means he’s going easy on President Obama.
Asked what he knows about how the president spent the night of the Benghazi attack, Issa says Obama generally just twiddled his thumbs.
“From what we can tell he went to the residence. From what we can tell, between 5:00 in the evening and when he got on a plane for fundraisers in Las Vegas, he pretty well ignored his responsibilities as commander-in-chief,” Issa relates.
“And by the way, I’m not accidentally saying ‘ignored his responsibilities as commander-in-chief.’ George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would have required constant, periodic — you know, every hour — reporting,” he explains. “I use George W. Bush because he’s the most recent in people’s memories,” he says. “George W. Bush, if he said ‘use all measures necessary,’ he’d want to make sure we use all measures necessary.” Under the current regime? “Clearly we didn’t use any measures.”
On the Sunday shows, Pfeiffer said the president was being briefed on the situation, and that what he did and where is therefore “irrelevant.” The White House did not respond to Issa’s remarks or a request for more information about Obama’s activities that night.
I ask him, “what difference, at this point, does it make?” echoing Hillary Clinton’s famous non-answer to Senator Ron Johnson at her Benghazi testimony in January.
At the time, much of the media celebrated Clinton’s combativeness, thinking she had put an impertinent opponent in his place. But her words have lingered since as a symbol of an administration trying to get beyond a scandal that has dogged it for more than eight months.
“The difference is, public confidence comes from telling the truth as best you know it,” Issa says. “We didn’t tell the truth as best we knew it in the days and even weeks after” Benghazi, and it seems until Congress does, Darrell Issa won’t rest.
— Jonathan Strong is a political reporter for National Review Online.