Eric Fehrnstrom

How will Benghazi hearings play out?

Hillary Clinton is scheduled to testify before the House Benghazi Committee on Thursday.
AP/file 2013
Hillary Clinton is scheduled to testify before the House Benghazi Committee on Thursday.

There’s a well-worn saying in politics that if your opponent is on the verge of self-destruction, get out of the way. Republicans on the House Benghazi Committee are about to test that assumption Thursday when Hillary Clinton testifies before them.

The committee gets credit for discovering the existence of Clinton’s private e-mail system, on which classified information was stored in possible violation of the law. The FBI is now in the midst of an investigation (sorry, Clinton defenders, not a “security review,” but a real investigation) that could very well result in criminal charges.

But in politics, not everything is what it seems. Here are five questions to ponder as the story continues to unfold:

1. Will Republicans overplay their hand?


When Republican Representative Kevin McCarthy of California praised the House Benghazi Committee for driving down Clinton’s poll numbers, he played right into Clinton’s hands, and Democrats have had a field day ever since. Committee chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina has a tough balancing act. He needs to focus on what happened that terrible night in Benghazi in 2012. What the e-mails reveal about Clinton’s bad judgment and decision-making on Libya is fair game. But the question of whether she violated the law by storing the nation’s secrets on a server in her home should be left to the FBI.

2. Would President Obama ever pardon Hillary Clinton?

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It’s not as if there isn’t precedent. After John Deutch left the CIA directorship in 1996, classified material was discovered on a laptop computer in his home. An investigation was opened, but Bill Clinton pardoned Deutch before charges could be brought. Obama recently told “60 Minutes” that the controversy around Clinton’s private server was “not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered” and that the case against her has been “ginned up” because of politics. If the e-mail investigation leads to charges, what do you think he’s going to do?

3. Does Hillary Clinton understand the gravity of what’s at issue?

When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Clinton last week about the e-mail investigation, she laughed through the line of questioning. Not for the first time, either. In August, at an Iowa dinner, Clinton joked that she loves using Snapchat because “those messages disappear all by themselves,” unlike the ones she purposely deleted from her server. I don’t think the agents trying to determine what sensitive messages had possibly fallen into the hands of the Russians were laughing about that one.

4. Will the Justice Department run an impartial investigation?

Given Obama’s prejudicial remarks, now would be the perfect time for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to make it clear the investigation is going to be fair, thorough, and no different than similar cases brought against government employees for mishandling classified information. That she hasn’t is cause for concern. In 2014, Stephen Kim, a State Department employee, was sentenced to 13 months in prison for talking to a Fox News reporter about a single classified report on North Korea – a document that a government official later described in court filings as a “nothing burger.” How quickly do you think Kim will object if Clinton’s case is swept under the rug?

5. Has the media coverage been fair?

TV and newspaper editors are mostly covering the story as if it were just more campaign fodder. Subjecting it to the usual “he said, she said” of a political race also plays right into Clinton’s hands. The way to ensure fairness is to put the very best national security and defense reporters on the job and then, as in all things, let the chips fall where they may.

Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.