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 BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection 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 ClintonSamantha Bee roasts Trump at mock correspondents' dinner Dems seeing big increase in midterm House candidates When it comes to Israel, Trump’s first 100 days were one big fail 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 BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection 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 ChaffetzWhen political opportunity knocked, Jason Chaffetz never failed to cash in Chaffetz resting after 'successful' foot surgery Lawmakers reintroduce online sales tax bills 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 AmashBipartisan push grows for new war authorization The Hill's Whip List: 21 GOP no votes on new ObamaCare replacement bill Oversight Dems want vote on Trump tax return bill 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 ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road 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 GowdyRussia investigation 'back on track' after Nunes recusal Five questions for the House's new Russia investigator Chaffetz decision stuns Washington 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.”