Democrats should not make Niger ‘Trump’s Benghazi.’ Here’s why. – CNN
Wilson is the Florida congresswoman who first made public the details of Trump’s apparent mess of a phone call to the widow of slain Sgt. La David Johnson. But the controversy over their exchange is quickly receding into a much broader question — whether the administration has been fully forthcoming about the circumstances surrounding the attack that killed Johnson and three other members of his team.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats are agitating for an open inquest, and some Republicans, like Sen. John McCain, have made plain their frustration with the White House. Each day that passes without a clear explanation feeds into a growing outrage and calls for Congress to intervene with its own investigation. By further invoking Benghazi, though, Democratic officials and their liberal allies risk a critical miscalculation.
The irony should be clear enough. For years, Democrats worked to make sure that “Benghazi,” in the context of the political culture, became a shorthand for cynical partisan overreach. And they mostly succeeded. The conspiracies attached to it, peddled largely by the far-out right, inspired one of Twitter’s longest running absurdist jokes. It has become synonymous with the era’s toxic tribal politics.
For Democrats to now slap that poisonous brand on their own efforts would seem, to put it mildly, bewildering and unwise.
Still, the immediate appeal might be too strong. Even as the mystery blanketing the deadly attack remains unresolved, despite a trickle of new details on Monday, there is a growing sense among liberals that Niger is the GOP’s just deserts; that a tit-for-tat response to their long string of often cynical allegations about Benghazi would be well within bounds. That a protracted public inquiry might stall the Trump agenda and sow further doubt over the administration’s competence and compassion would, in this estimation, be foolish to pass up.
But those impulses — already on display online and in a long (and confounding) segment on MSNBC — are ultimately short-sighted and, if indeed pursued beyond the bounds of sincere concern, risk damaging Democrats more than congressional Republicans or Trump.
The deadly ambush in Niger, reportedly carried out by ISIS-alighed fighters, keeps some close parallels with the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. Four killed. Confusion over who was where, precisely, and why.
As in Niger, the attack on Americans in Benghazi came at a time of acute partisan rancor. Former President Barack Obama was two months away from re-election when Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues were killed. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is a long way from 2020, but exists in a constant state of political angst.
Obama officials stumbled (see: Susan Rice on the Sunday after) over their initial public response to Benghazi. Trump and his top aides took a different route with Niger, going silent for almost two weeks — before the President’s condolence call fiasco kicked off. But in both cases, when top officials spoke, they immediately made matters worse. All the while, questions over the circumstances surrounding the respective attacks mushroomed. Armchair investigators, with conspiracy theorists close at hand, jumped headlong into the void created by the absence of clear, satisfying answers.
Five years ago, Republicans seized the Benghazi story in part because it prominently featured a secretary of state who, almost immediately upon leaving office, became the Democratic presidential frontrunner for 2016. There’s a good argument the persistent crush of questions and the optics — Clinton answering under oath, again and again — hurt her candidacy. But those Republicans were operating in a different political universe.
To start, they already controlled Congress and could order up hearings and high-profile testimony at their leisure. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the speakership was dealt a grave blow when he gave up the game in the fall of 2015, but his description of the GOP plan was mostly met with a knowing shrug.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said during an interview with Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought and made that happen.”
Brazen, yes. A game-changer? No. McCarthy wasn’t saying anything anyone who was paying attention didn’t already know. Republicans clearly came through it no worse off, but the definition of “Benghazi” in the vernacular was changing.
Over time, and with a kick from McCarthy, it became less evocative of those who perished there, or why. It also drifted further from the GOP’s initial intended purpose, to put a spotlight on alleged Clintonian mendacity. Today, “Benghazi” represents something distinct, especially for Democrats — the weaponization of Capitol Hill’s powers of institutional oversight. The party makes a claim for that chalice at their own risk.
And this speaks to a more elemental danger.
In the Trump era, Democrats, for all their internecine policy battles, have uniformly sought to position themselves as a moral, honest alternative to the President and his allies. And even with the political center shrinking to a narrow band of the electorate, a party like the Democrats, so widely out of power, should be holding tight to its most basic stated principles.
Or they could embrace what they so recently claimed to detest. Politics is a savage sport, and parties are not rewarded for good behavior alone. They are, however, and especially when trying to rebuild their brands, often punished for betraying their ambitions.
So when the question pops again — “Is Niger Trump’s Benghazi?” — and it inevitably will, Democrats should very carefully consider their answer.
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