After being courted by Republican Benghazi investigators for nearly three years, all the time benefiting from endless committee leaks on Capitol Hill, the Beltway press now faces the prospect of a messy break-up. With Benghazi Select Committee chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) under increasing outside fire from Democrats, who claim his inquiry has jumped several sets of rails, and under internal fire from a whistleblower who alleges the committee's investigative work is overwhelmingly partisan, the committee stands poised to lose its remaining credibility.
That flashpoint might come next week when Hillary Clinton returns to Capitol Hill more than 30 months after testifying about Benghazi -- in order to once again testify about Benghazi. Or more specifically, to testify about her private emails, which have become the all-consuming focus of Gowdy's inquisition.
By any commonsense standard Gowdy's inquiry has been a Congressional bust. ($4.6 million spent to hold just a handful of public hearings?) If that's effectively highlighted during Clinton's nationally televised testimony, and if Democrats continue to press forward with their procedural attempts to dismantle the costly committee, Gowdy's time in the spotlight might be quickly ending.
And that's where the messy break-up looms. The Benghazi committee has been very good to a Beltway press corps anxious to pursue storylines about Clinton's supposed incompetence and crooked ways. This year, the Benghazi committee has helped pundits produce months' worth of baseless speculation about looming email indictments and the potential for a Clinton campaign "collapse." The Benghazi committee has provided institutional cover for the press to game out wild, what-if scenarios in which Clinton inevitably plays the villain, or a bumbling bureaucrat in over her head.
In other words, Gowdy provided the contours for the media's beloved "scandal" narrative. And Gowdy's committee has been generous with leaks that always make Clinton and her team look bad, even when upon closer examination the leaks don't hold up to scrutiny.
So think of Trey Gowdy as this decade's Ken Starr. He's an obsessive Clinton chaser who teamed up with a grateful press corps to produced endless "scandal" coverage. But like Starr, the facts are finally running out on Gowdy.
I mean, have you seen Gowdy's growing list of woes?
- Appearing on Fox News, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) accidentally told the truth and boasted about how successful the Benghazi committee has been at sabotaging Clinton's political career: "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."
- During a Wednesday radio interview, Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) admitted the Benghazi committee was "designed to go after" Clinton. "I think that's the way Washington works," Hanna said, "But you'd like to expect more from a committee that spent millions of dollars and tons of time."
- A former committee investigator, Bradley Podliska, recently went public with the blockbuster allegation that Gowdy's team unlawfully fired him because he wasn't sufficiently obsessed with chasing the Clinton email story. "He said he was fired for refusing to go along with the new direction of the committee's work, as well as for taking leave to meet his military service requirements," the Los Angeles Times reported.
- Podliska insists the Benghazi committee is run with an unprofessional, "Animal House"-type atmosphere: "He described to CNN an office environment in which employees spent their days Web surfing and sometimes drinking at work. He said staffers joined a 'gun buying club' for 'chrome-plated, monogrammed, Tiffany-style Glock 9-millimeters,' and some would spend hours at a time at work designing the personalized weapons."
- Responding to Podliska's claims, Gowdy and his team launched a media counter-offensive, calling the whistleblower a "lousy employee" and divulging details about his committee employment. That brought a cease-and-desist letter from Podliska's attorney. "Both Representative Gowdy and the committee have clearly violated terms of the confidentiality agreement and the Congressional Accountability Act," Peter Romer-Friedman, one of Podliska's attorneys, told MSNBC.
- After Gowdy and the committee objected to CNN's reporting on Podliska's claims and alleged that the network had not bothered to contact the committee before airing its story, CNN responded with a statement strongly refuting Gowdy: "'We categorically deny Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy's statement about CNN,' a network spokesperson said. 'We reached out to the committee for a response prior to publishing or broadcasting, which the committee provided. That response was included in our reporting. In addition, Chairman Gowdy was invited to discuss this on CNN and declined. Chairman Gowdy is wrong.'"
"Unravel[ing]." "Thoroughly discredited." A "charade." A "laughable crusade."
Describe it however you want, but Gowdy's Select Committee, which has been in session longer than Congress'Watergate investigation, is done. And it's done because its cover has been blown and because the scandal plots won't line up the way he wants. And the sooner the press admits that and moves on, the better because journalists have allowed themselves to be played for too long.
"The reality is that the Republican staff and majority of the committee have made it function as an oppo-research arm of the Republican National Committee, far more interested in whatever it might dig up about or against Hillary Clinton than any remaining mysteries on the four Americans killed in Benghazi," wrote James Fallows at The Atlantic.
Yes, Gowdy's sudden laundry list of bad news is long, but as the New York Times' Paul Krugman noted, "We shouldn't have needed McCarthy blurting out the obvious for the press to acknowledge that the Benghazi investigations have utterly failed to find any wrongdoing."
And we shouldn't have needed Bernie Sanders declaring, "the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!" at the Democratic debate this week for the press to acknowledge that its never-ending flood of coverage has been wildly out of proportion for the plodding process story.
Gowdy's blind, partisan pursuit has been hiding in plain sight for years. Just like Ken Starr's blind, partisan pursuit of the Clintons was easily detectable. Yet the press played along because the Clinton gotcha game generates buzz and it's good for journalists' careers.
And since there's a collective Beltway mindset, being wrong when chasing Clinton inquisitions means rarely being held accountable, or being forced to defend wildly erroneous charges.
So most often, the fling is win-win for Republicans and press. And it has been for years. But there comes a time when the Republican pursuer loses all creditably and threatens to tarnish journalists who don't break things off.
For Gowdy and the press, that time is now.