When Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox News Tuesday night the House Select Committee on Benghazi's major accomplishment so far was discrediting 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, he might have expected moans and groans from Democrats. What the California Republican and expected heir to John A. Boehner's speakership might not have anticipated was the criticism from colleagues on his side of the aisle.
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who is running for majority whip in the event there's a vacancy in the post-Boehner leadership scramble, said Wednesday he would have chosen his words differently.
"I would not have drawn that conclusion myself to say that publicly, because I don't see that. I think the reason that Ms. Clinton is having problems is because she vacillates on providing information and telling the truth," Sessions said. "I don't agree with it."
"I think [McCarthy] should restore this institution, and stating that committee hearings are being held for political gain does not restore this institution, it's part of what's wrong with this institution," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who is supporting Florida Republican Daniel Webster for speaker.
McCarthy is taking heat specifically for telling Fox News host Sean Hannity that, for a sign of his leadership team's commitment to bold conservative ideas, to look no further than the 2014 founding of the select committee to investigate the deadly September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The panel's questioning ultimately uncovered Clinton's secret email server during her time as secretary of State.
"What you're going to see is a conservative speaker that takes a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win," McCarthy told Hannity, referring to himself as the future top House Republican. "And let me give you one example. Everyone thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a special Benghazi committee, a select committee."
He continued, "What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen."
McCarthy's comments were jarring to those Republicans who have worked hard to rebut Democrats' claims that the panel was only formed to embarrass Clinton, long considered the favorite to win the party's 2016 presidential nomination.
Republicans have countered they simply need to find out what Clinton knew or didn't know before or after the Benghazi attacks, and access to her emails while at the State Department could shed some light. It was in the process of trying to obtain these emails that the Benghazi committee stumbled on the bombshell discovery of her private server.
The No. 2 House Republican's remarks came at a particularly awkward moment, given his colleagues spent the day in a frenzy over whether the committee's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., would run for majority leader . Conservative lawmakers insisted he would agree to serve if he was "drafted," and the "will he or won't he" intrigue lasted for hours as members praised the former federal prosecutor for his work on the Benghazi panel.
Finally, Gowdy told fellow House Republicans to put the chatter to rest : Being majority leader would mean abandoning his chairmanship of the Benghazi committee, and he isn't willing to leave that post with so much unfinished business.
Republicans were quick Wednesday to defend Gowdy, and the integrity of the committee, against McCarthy's remarks.
It "diminishes Chairman Gowdy's work to message that way to the media," Massie said.
Another longstanding McCarthy critic, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., suggested some revisionist history was afoot.
"From what I remember, it took an awful lot of persuading for leadership to go with the Benghazi committee. And I don't think it had anything to do with the email controversy," Gosar told CQ Roll Call. "I think there’s some veterans who will say that a little differently. ... Mr. McCarthy may have a different idea about his input into what the Benghazi committee was created for."
Gowdy, for his part, declined to speak with reporters on Wednesday afternoon, referring them instead to an official statement put out by his spokesman, Jamal Ware.
Ware's response was simple: “People view the Benghazi Committee through whatever lens or spin they choose, meanwhile, the Benghazi Committee is focused on, and our work is driven, by the facts.”
Of course, not every GOP lawmaker was ready to lash out at McCarthy.
“I don’t want to get into how the comments were framed. The facts are the facts. She had top secret emails in her server. She violated government protocols and the American people needed to know that. And whether it’s expressed as smoothly as somebody would have liked is really irrelevant," said Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores of Texas.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. who was chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the previous congress with jurisdiction over the Benghazi investigation until the creation of the special panel, also didn't seem concerned: "I think [McCarthy] sees an effect of the revelations of Hillary Clinton's decisions to host a private system, to cover it up and send vast amounts of classified information over it."
"I'm telling you, it all led to this," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "Coincidentally, people have lost confidence in [Clinton]. I don't know how [McCarthy] put it, but that is a net result. We didn't set out to [say], ... 'Let's get the emails, let's find out what happened here.' I participated when it was with OGR so I know that much and how it was difficult to pry stuff loose. But it was accidental, nobody had any idea about email servers and all that."
McCarthy's office released a statement Wednesday morning stating the Benghazi panel has nothing to do with politics.
"The Select Committee on Benghazi has always been focused on getting the facts about the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Libya that lead to the death of four Americans. This was the right thing to do and the Committee has worked judiciously and honestly," said McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks.
"As a result of that work, there are now numerous investigations being conducted — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation," Sparks continued. "These inquiries have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the consequences of what the former Secretary has done and her confusing, conflicting, and demonstrably false responses.”
Sparks told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday evening McCarthy's press shop would have no further comment.