This story has been updated.
Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton's campaign is claiming vindication after Kevin McCarthy, a top Republican lawmaker on track to become the next speaker of the House, credited the Select Committee on Benghazi for damaging Clinton’s poll numbers — a surprising admission from a party that has sought to portray the investigation as even-handed and non-partisan.
“Let me give you one example,” McCarthy said, citing his conservative credentials during an appearance on Fox News with Sean Hannity Tuesday night. “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. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would’ve known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.”
As the current House Majority Leader, McCarthy is considered the favorite to replace retiring Speaker John Boehner, and he promised to be a more conservative speaker than Boehner, whom he gave a “B minus” grade. McCarthy vowed to put in place a “strategy to fight and win.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy, who chairs the Benghazi committee, has worked assiduously to make his investigation appear as nonpartisan as possible. He and current Speaker John Boehner have insisted the committee is not about targeting Clinton, but finding facts about the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic in Libya.
“This will not be what people on the left fear it is going to be,” Gowdy told The New York Times in July 2014, promising a fair investigation.
Clinton campaign press secretary Brian Fallon told MSNBC that McCarthy's comments were a "damning display of honesty by the possible next speaker of the House." He added that "Kevin McCarthy just confessed that the committee set up to look into the deaths of four brave Americans at Benghazi is a taxpayer-funded sham. This confirms Americans' worst suspicions about what goes on in Washington."
With Clinton set to testify before the Benghazi committee on Oct. 22, the comments could be a political gift for Clinton, who has suffered under questions about her private email server. Her campaign has long identified the testimony as a possible turning point in the email controversy, and McCarthy's comments could help their effort to portray the Republican-led investigation as politically driven.
Clinton allies and Democrats on the committee went into overdrive Wednesday morning to capitalize on the rare opening. After being on defense for years over the Benghazi attack and Clinton's emails, they were thrilled by the possibly that McCarthy might finally convince the press and Americans what they could not in years of political hand-to-hand combat.
“The political hatchet job at taxpayer expense that is the current Benghazi investigation in the House has been officially exposed by who else — the future Speaker of the House,” said Brad Woodhouse, the president of the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record, which coordinates directly with the Clinton campaign.
“We have been saying for years that Republicans were exploiting the deaths of four Americans for political gain — Kevin McCarthy just admitted it. Disgraceful,” Woodhouse continued.
David Brock, who founded Correct the Record, went even further in calling for a House ethics investigation into the Benghazi committee. The ethics committee is almost certain not to heed Brock's call.
The Democrats on the committee on Monday noted that the Benghazi committee had recently surpassed the committee to investigate Watergate to become one of the longest — and they claim least effective — investigative select committees in history.
The committee has not held any hearings since January and spent $4.5 million since its authorization 72 weeks ago, the Democrats said. A final report is not expected until 2016, during the presidential campaign.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, said McCarthy's comments finally confirm what he has long claimed. "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.
Meanwhile, some colleagues have urged Gowdy to run for majority leader, but he says he's not interested and plans to stay on the Benghazi committee.
In a new interview with MSNBC's Al Sharpton, released Wednesday afternoon, Clinton herself joined the fray.
"I have to tell you I find [the comments] deeply distressing," she said. "I knew the ambassador that we lost in Benghazi. along with him we lost three other brave Americans who were representing us in a very dangerous part of the world."
"So 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 we lost, but of everybody who has served our country," Clinton added.