The Cable

Citing Benghazi Gaffe, McCarthy Withdraws From House Speaker Race

McCarthy's suggestion that the Benghazi probe is political cost him the House speaker post.


Turns out the congressional Benghazi investigation is kryptonite for more politicians than Hillary Clinton. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew Thursday from the Republican race for House speaker, citing a gaffe he made last week suggesting the probe was politically motivated as a factor in abandoning his bid for the third most powerful post in the United States.  

McCarthy had more liabilities than the Benghazi blunder in his corner, and chief among them was his admitted inability to unite the deeply divided Republican caucus. A faction of conservatives have chided the California representative for being too close to current Speaker John Boehner, who is viewed by some as overly willing to cave to President Barack Obama on domestic policy issues — most notably on budget and debt ceiling showdowns.

But it was a Sept. 29 interview on Fox News that may have been the final nail in the coffin of McCarthy’s ambitions to become speaker. In it, he suggested that an ongoing House investigation into the deadly September 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Libya was motivated by GOP efforts to wound Clinton’s Democratic campaign for president.

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said in the Fox interview. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought.”

The comments infuriated many Republicans, who believe the true causes of the attack were deliberately obscured by the administration, and allowed Democrats to claim the remarks vindicated their long-held belief that the investigations into Benghazi were politically motivated.

In his comments to reporters Thursday, Benghazi was the only specific issue McCarthy cited as a factor in his decision to drop out.

“I mean, I could have said it much better,” McCarthy said. “But this Benghazi committee was only created for one purpose: to find the truth on behalf of the families for the four dead Americans. I should not be a distraction from that, and that’s part of the decision as well.”

He acknowledged fractures within the House Republican caucus and said that “we probably need a fresh face” to bring the party together.

“If we are going to be strong, we’ve got to be 100 percent united,” McCarthy said.

He said he will remain majority leader; Boehner, meanwhile, postponed the speaker vote while lawmakers regroup and rally around new contenders. Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida also are vying for the post. McCarthy’s withdrawal shocked even his supporters within the Republican caucus; Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida said some of their colleagues were moved to tears.

The House speaker wields enormous influence over foreign policy, with the power to bless or block the president’s agenda in global affairs. When the speaker is from the opposition party to the president — as is the case now — the post serves as a prominent counterweight to the White House. The speaker can reschedule hearings and give a domestic microphone to international guests who want to opine on U.S. policy; earlier this year, for example, Boehner didn’t consult the White House before he invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lobby a joint session of Congress against the Iran nuclear deal.

Whoever ultimately gets the job will have to decide whether — and, if so, how intensely — to continue probing Benghazi.

House Republicans have been doggedly investigating the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed then-U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans, including two security contractors. Clinton was secretary of state at the time.

Last year, the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee cleared the Obama administration, including Clinton, of any wrongdoing. But reports earlier this year revealed that Clinton used a personal Internet server at her home to send emails to her staff instead of corresponding with them through her government account, including messages about Benghazi. That, in turn, has raised questions about whether classified information was illegally passed through insecure channels that could be hacked or otherwise compromised.

Clinton’s favorability ratings plummeted this year when she acknowledged the personal email accounts, and Republicans accused her of trying to hide details about the Benghazi attack. Under court order, the State Department is releasing 55,000 documents from Clinton’s personal email account for public review.

And that’s how McCarthy made his misstep. Democrats seized on Fox News interview, accusing Republicans of playing politics with the investigation and forcing a vote on whether to end it. That campaign failed Wednesday when Republicans easily blocked it.

“What he really did … is lay out for the American people that this is a taxpayer-funded political hit job,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said on MSNBC in response to McCarthy’s comments. “And the most disgusting thing about it is that it’s being done on the deaths of four brave Americans.”

Even Clinton had capitalized on McCarthy’s gaffe. On Tuesday, she posted a new 30-second television spot titled “Admit” on her YouTube page that contained parts of his statements.

The comments also rankled McCarthy’s fellow Republicans. Chaffetz has been one of the most vocal critics of McCarthy on Benghazi and on Oct. 1 told CNN that political considerations were “not the reason we started.”

“We started because there were four dead Americans and we didn’t have answers,” he said then.

McCarthy had tried to walk back his comments almost as soon as he had uttered them. On Oct. 1, the same day Chaffetz opened his attack, McCarthy told Fox News: “This committee was set up for one sole purpose, to find the truth on behalf of families for four dead Americans. Now, I did not imply in any way that that work is political — of course it is not.”

It wasn’t enough. McCarthy was widely expected to secure the 125 votes he needed to win the GOP nomination for speaker. But the conservative competition from Chaffetz and Webster, who entered the race after McCarthy’s Benghazi comments, would have left him short of the 218 votes he would’ve needed for the House-wide vote for speaker on Oct. 29.

It was never clear how McCarthy planned on securing those additional Republican conference votes. But in recent weeks, his team had sought to highlight the California native’s hawkish foreign-policy views to bolster his conservative credentials — a strategy that had its ups and downs.

“He just realized that he wasn’t going to be able to unite the conference in the current conditions,” a GOP congressional aide told Foreign Policy. “Too many blocs pulling in too many directions. And there are no easy answers. Not for him and not for anyone else.”

FP senior reporter John Hudson contributed to this report. 

Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

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