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GOPers scramble to denounce Benghazi comments as Clinton pounces

Republicans are scrambling to undo the damage from some too-candid comments made by a top House leader about the Benghazi committee. It may be hard to pull off.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy before speaking about foreign policy at the John Hay Initiative in Washington D.C., Sept. 28, 2015. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty)
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy before speaking about foreign policy at the John Hay Initiative in Washington D.C., Sept. 28, 2015. 

Republicans are scrambling to undo the damage from some too-candid comments made by the likely next speaker of the House about the Benghazi committee, and Hillary Clinton is already looking to take advantage.

"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Sean Hannity on Fox News Tuesday night. "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 any of that had happened had we not fought."

On Thursday, Speaker John Boehner tried to clean up McCarthy's comments by pointing the finger at the Obama administration.

"This investigation has never been about former Secretary of State Clinton and never will be," Boehner said in a statement. "Indeed, the Select Committee’s very existence is only the result of the Obama administration’s obstruction of routine congressional investigations and its failure to properly comply with subpoenas and document requests. The fact remains that Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration have done everything they can to delay, derail, and stop this investigation. They’ve failed to turn over documents in a timely way, and their own actions have needlessly prolonged this panel’s work." 

"The core Republican goal in establishing the Benghazi Committee was always to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign ..."'

Rep. Jason Chaffetz was another Republican trying to get his party back on message, after Clinton allies seized on the comments as proof that the investigation is, as pro-Clinton super PAC president Brad Woodhouse put it, a "political hatchet job."

"I’m very supportive of Kevin McCarthy, but those statements are just absolutely inappropriate, they should be withdrawn, Mr. McCarthy should apologize," Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said in an interview with msnbc Thursday. “We started because there were four dead Americans and we didn't have answers.”

"I think he needs to express how wrong it was, and it was never the intention, it’s not what we’re doing," Chaffetz added.

The comments could hardly have come at a worse time for McCarthy. He’s the top candidate to succeed the retiring Boehner as speaker of the House when Boehner steps down later this month. But he needs to reassure his colleagues that he can handle the post without making the kind of mistakes that hand political ammunition to Democrats. His remarks on Fox, which seemed intended as an effort to impress conservatives, did exactly that.

Democrats have long seen the Benghazi committee, established last year by Boehner amid pressure from his right flank, as a purely political effort to tarnish Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. But Boehner and Rep. Trey Gowdy, the committee chair, have been diligent about portraying the probe as even-handed and focused on the facts. “This will not be what people on the left fear it is going to be,” Gowdy said at the outset of the investigation. That's meant Democrats have lacked a smoking gun to prove that the committee is politically motivated -- until now, perhaps.

In an interview with MSNBC's Al Sharpton on Wednesday, Clinton pounced on McCarthy’s remarks, which she called “deeply distressing.”

“When I hear a statement like that, which demonstrates unequivocally that this was always meant to be a partisan political exercise, I feel like it does a grave disservice and dishonors not just the memory of the four that we lost, but of everybody who has served our country,” said Clinton.

RELATED: Kevin McCarthy announces run for speaker of the House

Clinton is set to testify before the Benghazi committee later this month, and it’s all but certain that Democrats on the panel will use McCarthy’s comments to paint the proceedings as a political witch-hunt.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, piled on.

“This stunning concession from Rep. McCarthy reveals the truth that Republicans never dared admit in public: The core Republican goal in establishing the Benghazi Committee was always to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and never to conduct an even-handed search for the facts,” Cummings said Wednesday. 

Senate Democratic leaders released a letter to Boehner in which they called on the speaker to disband the Benghazi committee in light of McCarthy's comments.

And David Brock, the Washington Democratic operative who runs an organization supporting Clinton, released a letter Thursday calling on McCarthy to end his bid for speaker.

In a sign that the brouhaha is spilling into the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Jeb Bush, too, denounced McCarthy’s remarks.

"I don't quite understand why he said that,” Bush, the former governor of Florida, said Thursday. “That's the problem with Washington right now."

McCarthy himself tried to walk his comments back Wednesday. His spokesman put out a statement saying the Benghazi panel “has always been focused on getting the facts about the attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Libya that led to the death of four Americans,” and adding: “These inquiries have nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the consequences of what [Clinton] has done and her confusing, conflicting, and demonstrably false responses.”

On Fox News Thursday evening, McCarthy himself addressed the comments. "Now I did not intend to imply in any way that that work was political. Of course it is not, look at the way they have carried themselves out," he told Bret Baier.

But his fellow House Republicans seemed to feel the need to go further.

McCarthy "needs to reread the job description of speaker of the House if he thinks it's to bring hearings that help us denigrate Democrats that are running for president," said Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie. "We need to focus on what we're supposed to do in this chamber."

“I totally disagree with those comments,” Rep. Justin Amash, a leader of the party’s conservative wing, said Wednesday. Asked whether the comments could threaten McCarthy’s chances of becoming speaker, Amash said, “I think it should be a concern.”

Even Rep. Darrell Issa, who himself drew frequent charges of inappropriate partisanship when he chaired the House Oversight Committee, sought to distance himself.

"I might have said it differently," Issa said. "Any ancillary political activity that comes out of it is, in fact, not the goal of the committee and is not what the committee is seeking to do."