There’s a not-so-subtle theme in much of the day’s political coverage, which is tough to miss.
House Republicans say they will not overreach on probing the Obama administration, having learned lessons from investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton administration.
The most pressing question for Congressional Republicans is no longer how to finesse changes to immigration law or gun control, but how far they can push their cases against President Obama without inciting a backlash of the sort that has left them staggering in the past.
Republicans are worried one thing could screw up the political gift of three Obama administration controversies at once: fellow Republicans. Top GOP leaders are privately warning members to put a sock in it when it comes to silly calls for impeachment or over-the-top comparisons to Watergate. They want members to focus on months of fact-finding investigations — not rhetorical fury.
As a strategic matter, this certainly makes sense. Congressional Republicans don’t have any real incentive to overreach — much of the media is already eagerly running with the “White House in crisis!” narrative; the GOP base is already riled up; the stories can be dragged out for months with investigations and hearings; and all of this happening despite no evidence of wrongdoing from anyone at the White House.
Indeed, Republican leaders have every reason not to overreach. It’s easy to imagine the Democratic base rallying in response to a perceived effort to tear down President Obama, without cause, thanks to dubious scandals embraced by the GOP and the Beltway media. It is, after all, what happened in 1998, so there’s recent precedent to be aware of.
What’s more, don’t underestimate the potential for a backlash from mainstream voters outside either party’s base, who may also have a limited appetite for endless investigations. Incumbent Republicans running in the 2014 midterms should probably be cautious about telling voters, “I ignored job creation, but vote for me anyway because I participated in 11 Benghazi hearings.”
And yet, despite all of this, many congressional Republicans are already overreaching and the advice about caution is already being ignored.
I can appreciate the image GOP leaders are eager to convey: congressional Republicans are being serious and deliberate, seeking answers to legitimate questions without flying off the handle and making wild, baseless accusations. The more Americans see a reasonable and methodical process, the less likely they are to perceive an unhinged partisan vendetta.
But aren’t we well past that point? Can anyone seriously characterize congressional Republicans as “serious and deliberate” when it comes to alleging Obama administration wrongdoing?
TPM ran a list the other day of GOP lawmakers who are already speaking publicly about possibly impeaching President Obama. Has the president committed any high crimes? Well, no. In fact, none of the current controversies seem to relate to the White House at all. But the list of Republicans throwing around the “I” word is already pretty long. Indeed, Republicans can’t seem to make up their minds as to why they should impeach the president, but they seem to enjoy talking about it anyway.
It’s against the backdrop that Boehner & Co. are urging caution and hoping to avoid overreach? I think it’s a little late for that.
Update: GOP lawmakers have spent the last couple of days trying to argue that the IRS mess is a good reason to undermine the Affordable Care Act. That’s foolish, but more importantly, it’s also a good example of overreach.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 17, 2013
“Not Half As Clever As They Think They Are”: Does Anybody In Washington Know How To Run A Conspiracy?
In case you’ve forgotten, what took Benghazi from “a thing Republicans keep whining about” to “Scandal!!!” was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn’t contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a “scandal” no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They’re forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout “Aha!” no matter what.
But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl’s source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS’s Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).
Let me just explain quickly in case you haven’t been following this, and then we’ll discuss what it means. Two changes to the emails were made, one in an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and one from State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Rhodes actually wrote, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” That was changed to, “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.” In the Nuland email, she actually wrote, “the penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency [CIA] warnings so why do we want to feed that either?,” which was changed to, “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.”
So the changes have the effect of making it look like 1) the CIA was tying the attack to al Qaeda, but the State Department wanted to play that down publicly, and 2) the White House was taking special pains to protect the State Department. Neither of these things appear to be true, but there’s a logic to the Republican staffers wanting to paint that picture. Their argument, after all, is that the wrongdoing here consists of the White House (Obama!) and State Department (Clinton!) trying to fool everyone in America into thinking Benghazi wasn’t a terrorist attack, because Obama’s re-election hinged on the false belief that he had defeated al Qaeda forever, and if there’s any al Qaeda left then Mitt Romney would have won. And yes, that’s ridiculous, but it’s what many conservatives seem to believe.
Kevin Drum offers a good explanation for how this probably happened:
Republicans in Congress saw copies of these emails two months ago and did nothing with them. It was obvious that they showed little more than routine interagency haggling. Then, riding high after last week’s Benghazi hearings, someone got the bright idea of leaking two isolated tidbits and mischaracterizing them in an effort to make the State Department look bad. Apparently they figured it was a twofer: they could stick a shiv into the belly of the White House and they could then badger them to release the entire email chain, knowing they never would.
And then the White House called their bluff, because why not? It isn’t like there was anything incriminating in the real emails. But in their zeal to expose an imaginary White House/State Department conspiracy to mislead the public, the Republicans made their own little conspiracy to mislead the public. Or maybe it wasn’t a conspiracy, but just one person. We don’t know yet, because Karl hasn’t said who his source is. That’s his call to make; I’d argue that while in ordinary circumstances, the confidential relationship between reporter and source is sacrosanct, the reporter has every right to expose the source if the source lies to the reporter and makes him a party to a deception.
This is one of those times when you have to ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” Did the Republican staffers think they could get away with this? That once the White House noticed the alterations, they wouldn’t release the originals and use it to discredit their whole investigation? It’s another reminder that as a general rule, in politics nobody is half as clever as they think they are. Every once in a while you get a real honest-to-goodness conspiratorial scheme like Iran-Contra, but most of the time people are just bumbling about, making one poorly thought-out decision after another. The reason there aren’t more conspiracies is that people aren’t smart enough to put them together.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 17, 2013
I have watched in recent days as a parade of conservatives have used specific and real governmental missteps to justify their wide-ranging paranoia and irrational hostilities. “Aha!”
You have to take their glee in sorrow with a grain of salt. For them this is more about their scandal lust than what’s scandalous. These people have been searching for a scandal — Kenyan birth certificates and a Michelle Obama “whitey” tape — for years. The fact that they now have something solid and not made of sand is going to make sad souls happy. That’s to be expected.
What’s not to be expected — but has become depressingly predictable — is to watch liberals rending their garments and gnashing their teeth in woe-is-us doom chanting. The overreaction is exhausting and embarrassing.
Let’s say what this confluence of missteps is and what it is not — at least as the evidence now suggests.
First, the three issues — Benghazi, the targeting of conservative groups by the I.R.S. and the Department of Justice’s monitoring of Associated Press journalists — appear to be completely unrelated, try as politicians and pundits may to connect them. Second, the president does not appear to have had any direct involvement in any of the episodes. Third, their weight and resonances differ greatly, although all could be diminished by their emerging concurrently.
At this point, this is about flaws of procedures — some possibly illegal, all very disturbing — and problems of perception. But they are neither fatal nor unfixable.
Now, let’s separate the well-worn Benghazi witch hunt from the other two. From all appearances that is just a callous use of a tragic event to take a political slap at President Obama and a stab at the likely Democratic presidential heavyweight Hillary Clinton. It is being conducted by hyperpartisan politicians and aggravated by Fox News, both with a stake in justifying their unjustifiable contempt for this Democratic administration, and foiling the next one.
But Americans appear to be tiring of all that chasing of smoke and little finding of fire.
According to a Pew Research Center poll issued this week, the percentage of Americans closely following the Benghazi news has continued to fall. Less than half of the respondents believe that the Obama administration has been dishonest, while almost as many say that the Republicans have gone too far in the hearings. At least one in five don’t know either way.
According to the Pew Poll:
“About half (56 percent) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they regularly watch the Fox News channel, and this group is particularly frustrated over the Benghazi situation. Fully 79 percent of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say the Obama administration has been dishonest, compared with 60 percent of Republicans who don’t watch Fox regularly. Nearly half (46 percent) of Republicans who regularly watch Fox News say they are following the story very closely — compared with 23 percent among other Republicans. Those who regularly watch Fox News are also far more critical of the news media: 59 percent say the hearings have not received sufficient coverage by the news media.”
On the I.R.S. scandal, however, it certainly appears that the agency behaved stupidly. Not because they sought to scrutinize the mockery that is these 501(c)4 “social welfare” groups, but because they did so unevenly. But what will be left after all the hue and cry? As the Notre Dame law professor Lloyd Mayer told the Christian Science Monitor this week:
“What has been missed in the outrage is the recognition that this problem arose from much deeper sources than the poor judgment or possible partisan bias of a handful of I.R.S. employees.”
“Congress has given the I.R.S. the difficult task of applying an incredibly vague definition of political activity and an uncertain standard for how much political activity tax-exempt social welfare organizations may engage in.”
That, in the end, is the real scandal.
And now to the Associated Press scandal. The Justice Department was just wrong in the employ of its dragnet, and the administration — as represented by a spokesman, Jay Carney — was disingenuous in its insistence that the administration supports “unfettered” journalism. It just doesn’t. But we’ve always known that, at least we in the media have. The scandal here is that an atmosphere of intolerance for leaks — which Republicans ironically accused the Obama administration of encouraging — seems to have overtaken the Justice Department.
On Wednesday the White House took steps to mitigate the damage, releasing more than 100 pages of Benghazi talking point e-mails, seeking to revive a shield law for reporters who refused to disclose confidential sources, and having the president himself deliver a statement on the I.R.S. In it he announced the resignation of the acting commissioner of the agency, the implementation of new safeguards and a pledge to work with Congress in investigating the matter. As the president said, “The good news is that it’s fixable.” And, it is.
That’s it — the gist of all three as far as we know at this point. These are not administration-enders. People can be punished, or fired or even jailed, if Speaker John Boehner has his way, but at this early stage signs are not pointing to any of those people being in the White House.
Even if I had hair, I wouldn’t be setting it on fire, not yet anyway.
By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 15, 2013
We talked yesterday about last week’s ABC News reporting on emails related to the Obama administration’s Benghazi talking points, which are now very much in doubt. I’ve heard from ABC, so let’s follow up.
ABC’s reporting on Friday, which touched off a major political firestorm, pointed to a top White House official who reportedly sent an email siding with the State Department and recommending the removal of specific references to terrorist organizations and CIA warnings from the talking points. Jake Tapper at CNN reported yesterday that ABC was wrong — the “actual email differs from how sources characterized it” to ABC’s Jonathan Karl.
ABC last night referred me to this statement from Karl.
I asked my original source today to explain the different wording on the Ben Rhodes e-mail, and the fact that the words “State Department” were not included in the e-mail provided to CNN’s Tapper.
This was my source’s response, via e-mail: “WH reply was after a long chain of email about State Dept concerns. So when WH emailer says, take into account all equities, he is talking about the State equities, since that is what the email chain was about.”
As Josh Marshall explained, “I guarantee you Karl had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw that explanation. Because that explanation by reference to earlier comments in the thread is pretty weak. Karl’s follow on piece is entitled ‘More Details on Benghazi Talking Points Emerge’ but the substance is, ‘How the Story Changes When I Realize the Notes I Was Using Weren’t Reliable.’ The answer here is that Karl pretty clearly got burned by his source. But he at least seriously singed himself by making it really, really look like he was looking at the emails themselves when he wasn’t.”
Right. ABC’s Karl originally told his audience that he’d “obtained” White House materials, when in fact he’d seen summaries, apparently provided by a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, which we now know were misleading. Karl received unreliable information, and seems to have been incomplete in how he characterized his direct knowledge of the information.
I wouldn’t ordinarily focus on one flawed report like this — we all make mistakes — but ABC’s coverage on Friday became the basis for a media firestorm, which now appears to have been a mistake.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 15, 2013
The American Psychiatric Association’s latest handbook — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — is about to be published. It is the handbook of mental health, and if you’re not in it, you are among the fortunate few. Even though the hour is late, I beseech the DSM’s publishers to consider one additional entry, the seriousness of which will be apparent to anyone who watches Fox News: Benghazi Syndrome.
Benghazi Syndrome is a grave malady of the noggin, the symptoms of which are a compulsion to grossly exaggerate matters and to compare almost anything to Watergate (see Watergate Syndrome, DSM-IV). Patient Zero in this regard is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a usually affable Republican from South Carolina who has suggested that the Benghazi episode warrants an investigation by a special congressional committee, just like Iran-contra and — drum roll, please — Watergate.
Others have gone even further. Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma and a man who once suggested the Environmental Protective Agency has something in common with the Gestapo, called the Benghazi whatchamacallit the “most egregious cover-up in American history” and possibly an impeachable offense. These charges are so serious we can only conclude that l’affaire Benghazi has the potential to bring down the Obama administration — the proverbial thread that, if pulled, could unravel the entire garment. Such drama!
So what is Benghazi? It is the place in Libya where the United States maintained two installations — a consulate and a much larger CIA outpost. Both of these were attacked on Sept. 11, 2012, a date of some significance. The assaults, we all now know, were conducted by a jihadist group and were not — as the Obama administration initially maintained — a spur-of-the-moment thing precipitated by the airing of an anti-Muslim video. We also know that the administration either was unsure of the facts or simply didn’t like them. So it knitted together the infamous talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice repeated on all the Sunday talk shows. Aside from “good morning,” little of what she said was true.
President Obama was then really Candidate Obama and he surely did not want the words “terrorist attack” uttered during the presidential campaign. In addition, the CIA and the State Department were in a cat fight and could not agree on the wording of the talking points — or even, from a fair reading of their clashing e-mails, who the fanatical enemy was: al-Qaeda or members of Congress?
In all this, it’s almost possible to forget that four Americans died in Benghazi. The event was a tragedy and it hardly matters, as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vociferously maintained, if the attack occurred spontaneously or was planned. Either way, it was a success for the terrorists and a debacle for the United States.
It is good to find out how this happened — who’s responsible for the inadequate security, etc. — and it is also good to hold the Obama administration accountable for putting out a misleading statement. But the record will show that a thorough report was, in fact, compiled. Its authors were Thomas Pickering, an esteemed retired diplomat, and Adm. Mike Mullen, an equally esteemed retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They found the standard mistakes and snafus — but no crime.
Watergate, though, was a crime. Iran-contra was a crime. Government officials were convicted and some of them went to jail. Fudging a press release is not a crime. Compromising on wording is not a crime. Making a decision — even if wrong — that there was no time to call in the cavalry is not a crime. And having inadequate security is not only not a crime but partly a consequence of congressional budget cuts.
It is not a crime either to make a mountain out of a molehill, but this particular one is constructed of a fetid combination of bad taste and poisonous politics. Dig down a bit and it becomes clear that some — many? — Republicans suspect that Barack Obama and-or Hillary Clinton are capable of letting people die to cover up a terrorist attack. Either that, or this is what they want us to think.
In the end, it all comes down to an irrational and absolutely rabid dislike of Obama that so clouds judgment that utterly preposterous statements are uttered, usually within the precincts of the Fox News studios. This, as you might have guessed, is classic Benghazi Syndrome. There is no known cure.
By: Richard Cohen, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, May 13, 2013