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Clinton isn't the one on the defensive in the Benghazi hearings

Clinton isn't the one on the defensive in the Benghazi hearings
Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi,has told colleagues to stop talking about theinvestigation. (Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

The House Select Committee on Benghazi has been furiously preparing for months to interrogate Hillary Rodham Clinton about private email accounts, the computer server in her house, and Americans killed in Libya, but on the eve of the hearing Thursday, it is not Clinton who is on the defensive.

It is the committee.

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Congressional Republicans have made so many missteps in the run-up to their marquee event of the presidential primary that the chairman of the committee finally implored his colleagues over the weekend, "Shut up talking about things you don't know anything about." The Clinton campaign now views the daylong grilling that once threatened to derail her White House bid as a veritable campaign stop.

The Democratic presidential candidate slipped out of public view this week to prepare answers for every line of questioning her team can imagine. The three-day cram session reflects the high stakes of the event, with a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing 44% of Americans are not satisfied with Clinton's response to the attacks in Benghazi and even more saying her email controversy will factor into their vote.

But Clinton is also strategizing how to use the hearing as a springboard to introduce her foreign policy vision. Clinton's team is betting that the committee, chastened by questions about its motivation, will focus more on Libya than on email — which is exactly what Clinton wants.

"This investigation has not unveiled a lot of new facts," said one senior Clinton advisor, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the preparations. "And no matter how many hours it lasts, she is not somebody who is going to break. Good luck trying to break Hillary Clinton."

The hearing that once promised to be a flashpoint in the email controversy, where Clinton would either put it behind her or sow more doubt in the minds of voters, is no longer quite that.

"A month ago, the stakes would have been much higher," said David Brock, who leads Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC. "The Republicans have been knocked back."

One big reason is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, who was poised to be House speaker until he bragged on cable news about the committee's effectiveness in damaging Clinton. That contradicted assurances by the committee chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), that the panel was not targeting anyone for political reasons.

Later, another GOP congressman, Richard Hanna of New York, also described the committee's work as partisan. Gowdy himself, days before the hearing, is returning campaign donations from a political committee — called Stop Hillary PAC — that recently ran ads attacking Clinton's handling of Benghazi.

Then there is the threatened wrongful termination lawsuit from a Republican investigator on the committee who says he was fired after refusing to bend to pressure to narrowly target his digging toward Clinton.

It's all left committee Republicans straining to define the hearing as about anything other than attacking her. "This isn't about Hillary," Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said on CNN on Tuesday. "She just happened to be there as secretary of State when this tragedy occurred." Gowdy sent an exasperated letter on Sunday to committee Democrats that began: "[O]ur committee is not investigating Hillary Clinton."

Yet more Americans think the investigation is overly partisan and unfair than believe it is fair and impartial, the poll found, with 36% calling it unfair, compared with 29% who see it as fair.

But roughly a third of the public, 35%, said they didn't know enough yet to judge the inquiry's fairness — an audience both sides presumably will be trying to influence.

The Clinton campaign, the super PACs supporting Clinton, and the Democrats on the Benghazi committee haven't stopped pummeling.

"The strongest indictment against the committee thus far is that after 17 months and $4.5 million, [it] still can't tell you what it's looking for — because it doesn't know," Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), a leading Democratic member of the panel, said in an interview. "That's the classic definition of a fishing expedition."

Clinton supporters are spending more than $1 million to blanket the cable news networks with ads attacking the committee on Wednesday and Thursday in key early-voting states and in Washington. The committee Democrats rolled out a 124-page, footnoted report concluding the investigation is a sham.

"Republicans on the committee are going to be under intense pressure to justify their very existence, to justify the existence of this committee and to prove to the American people that this committee is not just another arm of the Republican National Committee," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

Clinton won't be talking about any of that. She will play the part of stateswoman seeking to work with the legislative branch to strengthen American foreign policy. To her campaign, the hearing that was supposed to put Clinton on her heels, bait her into an unflattering confrontation and damage her credibility is now looking like a great venue to shift her focus to her foreign policy strengths.

"This is an opportunity to lean in and defend her approach to foreign policy," said the Clinton advisor. That includes defending a diplomatic presence in Libya and other dangerous places to protect American interests, as well as outlining her view of "smart power" — using diplomacy to build consensus with allies, backed by the appropriate level of military strength.

Clinton will also talk about J. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya killed in the 2012 attacks, as someone she knew personally. And she will strike a "solemn and substantive" tone in trying to work with the committee on solutions for keeping diplomats safe, while also insisting that the lesson to be learned from the Benghazi attacks is not that American diplomats need to retreat from such hot zones.

"She has to basically just be Hillary Clinton and give the facts as they have already been laid out multiple times, in multiple settings, in multiple hearings," said Tom Nides, a longtime confidant who was Clinton's deputy at the State Department and has testified about the Benghazi events in earlier proceedings. "She will do it again.... The bottom line is the facts are the facts. There was no conspiracy, no coverup."

Republicans on the committee are not the only ones rushing to position themselves as nonpartisan inquisitors. Democrats are doing the same. They will seek to do more than tangle with Republicans and lob softballs at Clinton.

Schiff plans to engage her on classification issues that are a common subject of interagency disputes, as well as on issues related to the Accountability Review Board that Clinton convened at the State Department after the attacks. Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Whittier), another committee member, says she is "interested, prospectively, at looking at how we can ensure the safety of the diplomatic corps."

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