By Ian Swanson - 05/03/14 06:00 AM EDT
The Benghazi controversy has exploded back into the public eye with the release of new emails, energizing Republicans and complicating the White House’s hopes of building momentum ahead of the midterm elections.
It’s part of a clearly coordinated effort by Republicans to tar the administration as scandal-plagued.
In addition to appointing a select committee to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Libya, Republicans next week plan to vote on a resolution calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups.
Separately, the House will vote to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt for refusing to testify about the targeting controversy.
The focus on controversies in the administration could hurt President Obama, who is suffering from poll numbers that are stuck in the low 40s. A Washington Post poll released earlier this week found his approval rating was at an anemic 41 percent — potentially a bad omen for Democrats in the midterm elections.
Yet reasons for optimism have emerged for Democrats in the past few weeks.
While ObamaCare remains unpopular, 8.1 million people enrolled in the health exchanges, much more than had been expected. The late surge in enrollment has allowed Democrats to move to offense on the issue, arguing that Republicans are trying to take away people’s health benefits with efforts to repeal and replace the law.
Additionally, a jobs report released Friday found the economy added 288,000 jobs in April, the most since January 2012. Those figures could indicate the economy was held back in the first quarter by a brutal winter, and could be poised for rapid improvement ahead of November.
That makes the Benghazi story all the more important for Republicans, who don’t want to see the White House and Democrats gain any momentum that might save their Senate majority in the fall.
Boehner had previously resisted calls to appoint a special committee on Benghazi, fearing a focus on the attack could blow back on Republicans.
But new emails unearthed by Judicial Watch allowed him on Friday to paint a picture of a White House that is holding back information.
Boehner argued the emails showed the administration has not fully complied with House subpoenas searching for information on the Benghazi attack, which Republicans say the White House didn’t initially link to terrorism for fear it would hurt Obama’s 2012 reelection effort.
“Americans learned this week that the Obama administration is so intent on obstructing the truth about Benghazi that it is even willing to defy subpoenas issued by the standing committees of the People's House,” Boehner said in a statement.
“These revelations compel the House to take every possible action to ensure the American people have the truth about the terrorist attack on our consulate that killed four of our countrymen,” he added.
That’s catnip for a Republican base that views Obama’s White House as having an aversion to the truth. The focus on the controversies could also help the GOP win the votes of Independents who could make the difference in close races.
The actions and statements of White House staffers have helped the GOP effort.
In the key email unearthed by Judicial Watch, White House official Ben Rhodes outlines “goals” for the talk-show appearances of Susan Rice, who was serving as ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the Benghazi assault. After the emails, Rice appeared on television and linked the attack to protests of an anti-Islamic video that were occurring in the Middle East.
Rhodes said in the email that Rice should “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”
Asked about the emails, White House press secretary Jay Carney argued that they were not about Benghazi, but about “the general situation in the Muslim world.”
That explanation didn’t hold water with Republicans, particularly since the Rhodes email was part of the administration effort to brief Rice ahead of her talk show appearances.
Republicans were given more ammunition to hit the administration on Thursday, when former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told a Fox News host that he didn’t remember changing word choices in Rice’s preparation materials.
When Fox host Bret Baier expressed incredulity, Vietor replied: “Dude, this was two years ago.”
Vietor’s appearance did no favors for the White House, as his comments were played up on the right as an example of the administration’s dismissive attitude toward the Benghazi controversy.