Hillary Clinton takes on the House Benghazi committee in political showdown (Los Angeles Times)

Hillary Rodham Clinton won’t be campaigning Thursday, but her performance will be critical to her presidential run, as she spends the entire day sparring with a congressional panel that has proved one of the biggest threats to her White House bid.

The House Select Committee on Benghazi will fire hour upon hour of questions at Clinton about her handling of the attacks in the Libyan city in September 2012, while she was secretary of State. The violence that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans has become one of the most dissected foreign policy mishaps of the Obama administration.

There have already been hundreds of pages of government findings published in nine reports pinpointing what went wrong and what needs to be done differently. But Republicans argue the seven previous congressional inquisitions don’t tell the full story. They are eager to lay more of the blame on Clinton. The private email server Clinton set up at her house while she served as the nation’s top diplomat has given them a fresh line of attack, and questions about why and how she used it will play big in Thursday’s exchange.


But GOP giddiness about the panel’s work has ultimately damaged its credibility. The seven Republican lawmakers on the special committee are heading into the hearing on the defensive, after comments by some overeager colleagues – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, presidential candidates, Republicans in the congressional rank and file – have bolstered charges by Democrats that the inquiry is a partisan hit job.


Those who watch the hearing on cable news networks in several early voting states will probably see advertisements placed by a pro-Clinton super PAC that mostly feature McCarthy, bragging about how much damage the committee is doing to Clinton. Says the narrator: “Republicans are playing politics over Benghazi.” Even Donald Trump says he is not as excited about the hearings as he once was, as the Republicans running them seek to reposition themselves as nonpartisan.


Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor from South Carolina, insists the investigation is not focused on Clinton. But he also says he has unearthed new evidence that the prior investigators either did not have, or overlooked. Over the weekend, he said he will be asking Clinton about emails from Stevens to the State Department warning that the security situation at American installations in Libya was deteriorating and needed to be bolstered. The administration did not heed his warnings.


Gowdy says he will juxtapose those messages against emails that were getting Clinton’s attention from her longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist and Clinton administration operative whom the Obama White House banned from working at the State Department. Blumenthal offered voluminous advice to Clinton on Libya, including how she could use the overthrow of its dictator to her political gain.


The attacks in Benghazi began when dozens of attackers overran guards at the U.S. diplomatic compound there and ran through it, setting fire to buildings, including the one in which Stevens and another State Department employee were hiding. The two died of smoke inhalation. The attacks continued into the next morning, when mortar rounds were fired at a nearby CIA annex, killing two more Americans.


Clinton last testified about the Benghazi attack in January 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was a heated exchange. Republicans on the panel accused the administration of botching the U.S. response to the attacks. They took aim at its confusion about what happened, and its early explanation – later proved wrong – that the embassy was overrun not by a terrorist attack but an unruly demonstration that got out of control.


Clinton famously scolded the committee for its focus on the motivations of the attackers and how the Obama administration initially got it wrong. “What difference, at this point, does it make?” she said in a testy back-and-forth with committee Republicans. “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.”


Although Gowdy and committee Republicans are under pressure to break new ground with their investigation, it will prove difficult. The issues Gowdy has been raising in the run-up to Clinton’s appearance before the committee were mostly covered in earlier reports.


Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, pointed out Wednesday that the Senate Intelligence Committee, under her chairmanship at the time, conducted a 16-month, bipartisan review in the aftermath of the attacks that pinpointed administration failings and made 18 recommendations. She said House Republicans are treading back over the same ground merely so they can rewrite a similar report in a way that places blame squarely on Clinton.


“I’m appalled that House Republicans are wasting time and money in an effort to disparage Secretary Clinton,” she said in a statement. “We know what happened in Libya and we know what needs to be done to prevent future tragedies. I hope that once Secretary Clinton has testified, House Republicans will finally turn their attention to implementing existing recommendations and support the funds needed to protect our diplomats.”


Democrats on the committee have repeatedly attacked the direction of the investigation. They accuse Gowdy of failing to interview key potential witnesses with firsthand knowledge of what happened in the attack and instead using committee resources to drag top Clinton operatives into closed-door interrogations, in a bid to generate headlines. On Friday, the committee spent hours interviewing longtime Clinton advisor Huma Abedin and even alerted the press to the location of the questioning, which was closed to the public.


The five Democrats on the committee are contemplating whether to resign from it altogether in protest. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) said whether the Democrats remain on the panel may depend on “just how long they intend to keep this thing alive.”


“At a certain point, we may very well reach the conclusion that the diminishing returns of our continued participation don’t outweigh the liability of giving it any respectability,” he said.