Among all the potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates, no one has a bigger case of Benghazi fever than Sen. Rand Paul. He more than others has made extensive use of the 2012 terrorist attack as a vehicle to attack his would-be general election opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Paul memorably squared off against Clinton when she testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the attacks in January 2013, telling her he would have fired her if he were president. At various points since then he’s declared with solemn gravity that the circumstances of the Benghazi tragedy preclude Clinton from ever holding office again. On “Meet the Press” in June, he said Benghazi would be key to the 2016 race: “I think if you want to be Commander-in-Chief the bar you have to cross is will you defend the country – will you provide adequate security – and that’s why Benghazi is not a political question for me.”
And so you can imagine that Paul was a bit put out when the GOP-controlled House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released its long-awaited report on the attacks, which dismantled just about every argument bolstering Republican allegations of the Benghazi “coverup.” In a Breitbart Op-Ed published on Monday, Paul tore into his Republican colleagues on the House committee:
The Associated Press claims the report debunks, “A series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the investigation of the politically charged incident determined that there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue, and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.”
None of these accusations contain even a modicum of truth?
I love that passage, particularly the “modicum of truth” bit, as it reveals, albeit unintentionally, the game Republicans play when it comes to Benghazi. Those accusations don’t have to be “true,” they just have to have a tiny bit of truth hidden somewhere deep inside them that opportunists like Rand Paul can seize on and amplify in order to create a distorted picture of what actually happened.
But that’s all standard fare when it comes to Republicans and Benghazi. Paul’s Op-Ed doesn’t get really interesting until the end, when he accuses the House Intelligence Committee – which, again, is controlled by Republicans – of helping the Obama administration cover up the truth about Benghazi:
From the beginning of this controversy, Obama officials have used smoke and mirrors at every opportunity to evade blame. They have ducked and weaved to avoid anything that could possibly cast the administration in a bad light.
“C.Y.A.” is a term many Americans are familiar with that was invented by U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. This new Benghazi “intelligence” report is little more than a C.Y.A. attempt designed to protect incompetent politicians and government agents at the expense of justice for the victims of September 11, 2012.
They will continue to cover up. I will continue to seek the truth until those at the top of this two-year chain of deception are finally held accountable.
That’s a wild allegation. Republicans and conservatives haven’t been shy about criticizing the committee’s report and suggesting – not without justification – that the people in Congress tasked with overseeing the intelligence community are far too sympathetic toward the targets of their oversight. Rand Paul, however, is going a step further in lumping the HPSCI in with the assumed (but never in any way proven) White House coverup. The conspiracy to hide the truth about Benghazi, according to Rand Paul, now spans two branches of government.
What’s amazing about this isn’t just the fact that Rand Paul says it, but that he says stuff like this all the time and somehow manages to maintain an image among reporters and pundits as a serious person and top-tier presidential contender. At what point does Rand Paul become publicly recognized for being the conspiracy theorist that he is?
Mother Jones’ David Corn addressed this phenomenon back in October, when Paul was the focus of glowing media profiles anointing him the standard-bearer of insurgent libertarianism and “the most interesting voice in the GOP.” Paul is barreling toward a campaign for the presidency, Corn wrote, and yet “one core component of his political personality has largely escaped exploration: The senator is close to being a full-blown conspiracy theorist.”
I’d argue that he’s crossed that line. The evidence Corn amassed is largely from Paul’s pre-Senate life, in which he enthusiastically promoted his father’s eccentric worldview. This included some hoary old tin-foil-hat standbys like the Bilderbergers and the allegation that unnamed forces were attempting to fuse the United States, Mexico and Canada into a single political entity, complete with its own currency. “If you talk about it like it's a conspiracy, they'll paint you as a nut,” Rand said. “It's not a conspiracy, they're out in the open about it. I guarantee it's one of their long-term goals — to have one sort of borderless mass continent.”
With the national spotlight constantly on him, Paul is more guarded in his comments than he used to be, but he still says outlandish things that, for someone with his ambition, cross into the conspiracy realm and seem problematic. On the Benghazi scandal, he was a huge believer in the allegation that the CIA was running guns through the Libyan city and into Syria, even though he had absolutely no reason to believe it was true. “I never have quite understood the coverup, or if it was intentional or incompetence. But something went on,” he said on CNN in May 2013. “I've always actually suspected, although I have no evidence, that maybe we were facilitating arms leaving Libya going through Turkey into Syria.” (The HPSCI report, for its part, says the CIA was in Benghazi to track weapons smuggling to Syria.) He’d been making the allegation for months by that point, always pointing out that he had no proof to back it up, but nonetheless insisting that was why the White House was engaged in a coverup.
During the Ebola freakout, Paul was arguably the most irresponsible and dangerously wrong public figure in the country, using his national profile and medical background to hype completely unfounded fears about airborne transmission of the virus. He actively worked to undermine trust in public health officials, saying they were lying to the American people about the ways you could catch the disease.
Seeing Rand Paul say crazy stuff like this and suffer no real blowback to his public image is incredible. Part of the reason why seems to be that large portions of the Republican electorate believe this stuff, and to a reporter’s eye, what he’s saying might seem like he’s just “playing to the base.” But it’s still puzzling for those of us who saw the early rise of Barack Obama attended by a thorough examination of every word he uttered and every sentence he wrote prior to becoming a public figure, all done in the name of sniffing out any hidden extremism in his background. You don’t have to look very hard for evidence of Rand Paul’s conspiratorial past, and more than a few vestiges of it have carried over into his life as a public figure. And yet he endures as a figure of mainstream credibility.