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Republicans try to clean up McCarthy's Benghazi mess

Republicans are scrambling to contain the damage from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) remarks about the Benghazi Committee amid a firestorm of criticism.

Outgoing Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner compares Trump to Teddy Roosevelt Boehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 MORE (R-Ohio) was forced to defend the Benghazi panel on Thursday after McCarthy — his presumed successor for the gavel — linked the success of the investigation to Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton reappears on the Hill for Reid send-off Pressure grows on Perez to enter DNC race Biden: Republicans 'probably would have eaten me alive' if I ran MORE’s falling poll numbers.

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“This investigation has never been about former Secretary of State Clinton and never will be,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner compares Trump to Teddy Roosevelt Boehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 MORE said in a statement.

“The American people deserve the truth about what happened in Benghazi. That’s always been our focus, and that’s going to remain our focus.”

McCarthy gave an opening to critics of the Benghazi investigation during an interview late Tuesday on Fox News in which he said the panel had played a role in Clinton’s declining poll numbers.

"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping,” McCarthy said on Fox News. 

“Why? Because she's untrustable." 

The remark has undermined the GOP’s message that they are only seeking to learn what really happened when four Americans where killed during the 2012 assault in Libya. The attack occurred while Clinton was secretary of State.

Several Republicans have repudiated McCarthy’s remarks, saying they disagree with the implication that the investigation is politically motivated.

Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOversight panel demands answers on Pentagon waste report Chaffetz: Congress will ‘absolutely’ look at 5B in waste at Pentagon Clinton opponents vow to continue their pursuit MORE (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has called on McCarthy to apologize for the “inappropriate statement” that he says mischaracterizes the investigation.

“We started because there were four dead Americans and we didn’t have answers,” Chaffetz told host Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “The Situation Room” Wednesday evening.

"I think he should apologize. I think he should withdraw it. I think it’s an absolute inaccurate statement as to what we’re doing.”

“I totally disagree with those comments,” added Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashOversight panel demands answers on Pentagon waste report Electors: Stand up for Constitution, stand up to Trump GOP rep: Trump has 'extra-constitutional' view of presidency MORE (R-Mich.) on CNN. “I think it should be a concern."

Democrats, who fought the creation of the Benghazi committee from the start, have seized on McCarthy’s statement, portraying it as evidence that the effort is a partisan exercise aimed at taking down Clinton.

Pressing their advantage, Democrats have called on Republican leaders to disband the committee.

"It is unconscionable that the U.S. House of Representatives is continuing to use millions of dollars in taxpayer funds for political purposes, and we urge you to immediately disband the Select Committee on Benghazi," Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidClinton reappears on the Hill for Reid send-off Pressure grows on Perez to enter DNC race Overnight Tech: Last-ditch effort to get Dem FCC commish confirmed | Facebook's Sandberg on fake news | Microsoft completes LinkedIn deal MORE (D-Nev.) and other Democrats said in a letter to Boehner on Thursday.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) piled on, calling the Benghazi committee "unethical."

"It's just a stunning admission on the part of the Republican leader that the Benghazi Committee was created with a political purpose in mind. In fact, it's really an ethical question," Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "It makes the whole operation practically an unethical operation."

The controversy has emerged as an early test for McCarthy, who is seen as the favorite to be elected Speaker when Republicans hold closed-door leadership elections next week.

While McCarthy is popular with the House Republican Conference, the Benghazi flap has cast doubt on whether he is prepared to step into the line of fire as the next Speaker, with Republicans seeking a fresh start after years of turmoil under Boehner.

Pelosi declined to say whether McCarthy's comments mean he's unfit to serve as Speaker — “that's up to the Republican caucus,” she said — but emphasized that they might have uncovered "an ethical issue in the House."

"You ask any member, one of the things you have to be very specific about is that none of your taxpayer dollars are used for any political purpose," Pelosi said. "And I think he clearly, gleefully, claimed that this had a political purpose and had a political success."

McCarthy’s comments are sure to be used against Republicans when Clinton testifies before the Benghazi committee in an open hearing on Oct. 22.

Clinton said McCarthy's comments about the investigation are "distressing."

"When I hear a statement like that, which demonstrates unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan, political exercise, I feel like it does a grave disservice and dishonors not just the memory of the four that we lost but of everybody who has served our country,” she said in an interview with MSNBC.

Created by House Republicans in May of last year, the select committee is charged with investigating the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

Led by Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyOversight panel demands answers on Pentagon waste report Chatter grows that Ryan could step down Lawmakers press Lynch for briefing on Yahoo secret email scanning reports MORE (R-S.C.), the panel has homed in on Clinton's role in the attacks — a focus that launched the private email scandal that's dogged the former secretary of State on the presidential campaign trail.

“The fact remains that Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration have done everything they can to delay, derail, and stop this investigation,” Boehner said in his statement. 

“The members of this committee have worked diligently and professionally to fulfill this important mission and they will continue to do so.”