Congressional Republicans are once again targeting Hillary Clinton – but this time, some in the party are being careful not to overreact.
If there’s potency to Clinton’s close guard of her emails, using a personal address on a private server to keep strict control of what’s made public, it’s that the ordeal makes her look secretive and untrustworthy – exactly the line of attack Republicans have been employing against her for decades.
But House GOP investigators’ eagerness to put Clinton in their crosshairs and keep the details of her latest scandal front-and-center is a reminder that they face a risk, too: Turning Clinton into a sympathetic figure, instead of allowing her to do the damage herself.
Over the years, Congress and the Clintons have gone a number of rounds. And while the Clintons have endured, past congressional Republicans have been burned.
Newt Gingrich was at the top of the political world when he became speaker of the House in 1994. Four years and a Monica Lewinsky investigation and Bill Clinton impeachment later, Gingrich was done.
More recently, the GOP’s unchecked desire to attack its least-favorite Democrats has backfired with President Barack Obama in office, too – most recently when a push to use Department of Homeland Security funding as leverage to undercut Obama on immigration failed. Facing self-imposed political fallout, House Republicans were forced to concede just hours before the key anti-terrorism agency was to shut down.
That the right was champing at the bit to go after Clinton over her private emails was evident this weekend.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Saturday in Iowa that the Justice Department should “absolutely” investigate whether Clinton broke the law by exclusively using a personal email address on a private server.
The attacks continued on Sunday news programs. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, chairman of the House panel investigating the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “there are gaps of months and months and months” in the Clinton emails the State Department has turned over.
“If you think to that iconic picture of her on a C-17 flying to Libya – she has sunglasses on and she has her handheld device in her hand – we have no emails from that day. In fact, we have no emails from that trip,” Gowdy said.
Gowdy subpoenaed Clinton’s personal emails last week.
Another House Republican investigator said he’s been frustrated with Clinton for years. Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who previously helmed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, complained on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Clinton “wasn’t forthcoming two and a half years ago” when his panel subpoenaed her records related to Benghazi.
“She, in fact, hid the very existence of this until she was caught,” he said on Sunday.
Other Republicans, though, took a softer approach to Clinton.
Among them was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who said during an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that his concern is the security of the former secretary of state’s emails.
“They would have been prime targets for cyberattacks,” the Kentucky Republican said. “But I don’t know what the law is. I think the administration is taking a look at that. And, hopefully, we will find out in the coming weeks just what the legal situation is.”
Another risk for Republicans is sullying their own presidential candidates in the dig for Clinton dirt.
Jeb Bush, while he was governor of Florida, often used a personal email address connected to a home-brew server – and, like Clinton, gave his top aides addresses, too. It has allowed him an unusual level of control over what’s released and what’s kept private.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his aides set up their own private internal email system while he was a Milwaukee County executive, and mixed official government business with campaign politics. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his aides’ private communications became a focus of the “Bridgegate” investigation. Texas Gov. Rick Perry sometimes used a personal address, too.
Senators, such as Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Cruz of Texas, don’t have much room to talk, either, since Congress exempts itself from federal open records laws.
The parallels aren’t perfect.
Only Clinton, after all, was working on high-wire diplomacy as secretary of state, though she has said none of her emails contained any classified information.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – who drew on The Godfather’s Michael Corleone to describe his home-state battles with the Clintons, saying “it’s not personal, it’s just business” – argued on “Fox News Sunday” the emails are part of Clinton’s bigger image problems.
“Once this shadow of doubt has been placed, I think it’s going to linger throughout a presidential campaign, should she decide to run,” Huckabee said.
He said Clinton may ultimately be forced to bring in an independent agent to inspect the emails from her time as secretary of state and confirm that she’s released each one connected to her official role, rather than allowing Clinton and her staff to take the lead.
“If you’re depending upon somebody who is under investigation to be in charge of the investigation, you don’t have much of an investigation,” Huckabee said. “It just doesn’t have the credibility.”
But even the prospect of a so-called independent investigation can carry risk.
Back in the 1990s when the Clintons were under investigation, House Republicans were undermined in the public’s eyes in part because their lead investigator – Kenneth Starr – conducted such an overtly political quest. Starr was appointed by a three-judge panel to investigate the suspicious death of a top White House official and a real estate investment deal known as Whitewater. But his years-long inquiry expanded to Bill Clinton’s personal life and exposed the Lewinsky affair.
A move to find a truly independent investigator by the GOP this time around would go far in giving Republican attacks on any findings more credibility and thus political potency. At least some in the GOP seem to have taken these past lessons into account as they head into their next face-off with the Clintons.