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The long-anticipated report from the House Select Committee on Benghazi, released Tuesday, may not have produced a smoking gun on Hillary Clinton, but it could exacerbate one of Clinton’s key weaknesses by dragging her back into a harmful debate about what she has called the “biggest regret” of her tenure as secretary of state.
The 800-page report, written by the Republican majority on the Benghazi committee, reveals embarrassing bureaucratic confusion as the Obama administration scrambled to respond to the attack, such as the repeated changing of uniforms by Marines waiting to deploy, who received conflicting orders.
Still, as Clinton aides were quick to proclaim, the report offers little new information on Clinton’s involvement in the attack.
“After more than two years and more than $7 million in taxpayer funds, the Committee report has not found anything to contradict the conclusions of the multiple, earlier investigations,” said Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon.
The release of the committee’s findings coincide with another politically perilous narrative for Clinton, too. In an unfortunate bit of timing for Clinton, Huma Abedin, her closest aide, is scheduled to be deposed Tuesday in a tangentially related probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Much of the political damage from the Benghazi incident is likely already baked into her presidential candidacy. But together, the report and deposition create an unhelpful distraction for Clinton that could fuel Donald Trump’s attacks on a key strength, foreign policy, as well as a major weakness, perceptions of her honesty.
Even as Clinton carves out a lead over Trump in national public polling, questions about her trustworthiness remain an acute weak spot as voters assess her candidacy.
In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this week, only a quarter of voters picked Clinton as the more honest of the two candidates, while 41 percent of respondents called Trump the more trustworthy contender.
Nearly seven-in-ten voters, including 43 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of independents, said that questions about Clinton’s honesty are serious enough to concern them about her election to the presidency.
“The last thing Hillary Clinton needs is for the focus of the presidential campaign to return to Benghazi where conversations about her trustworthiness and competence will begin anew,” said Ian Prior, the spokesperson for the GOP super PAC American Crossroads, which spent more than $100 million in 2012.
Participants in a focus group convened last year by American Crossroads gave some of their highest marks to ad the group produced which argued that scandal followed Clinton like a “shadow.”
Perhaps aware the report was coming, Clinton on Monday addressed the public skepticism that has dogged her campaign, acknowledging that “a lot of people tell pollsters they don't trust me.”
“You can't just talk someone into trusting you, you've got to earn it,” she said during an event in Chicago. “So yes, I could say that the reason I sometimes sound careful with my words is not that I’m hiding something, it's just that I'm careful with my words. I believe what you say actually matters.”
“And a lot of what people read about me in certain corners of the Internet and a lot of what Donald Trump says about me is just that same nonsense. But, I know trust has to be earned.”
On Tuesday, Clinton responded to the report in Denver by saying “it is time to move on.” Her campaign released a video calling the committee’s investigation a “political charade.”
Republicans will work hard to prevent Clinton from success “earning” back the confidence of those voters.
America Rising, a Republican group founded in 2013 to dig up dirt on Clinton, will use the report to “begin prosecuting Clinton’s entire record at State, which she has made the centerpiece of her resume,” said spokesperson Jeff Bechdel.
Still, it’s unclear how much new damage can be done to Clinton on this front, who continues to lead in polls against Trump despite dismal honesty ratings.
“This is going to be uncomfortable for her, and it’s another set of news cycles she has to deal with on this Benghazi question,” said Patrick Murray, the polling director at Monmouth University. “But I’m not so sure there and many more voters to persuade on that question. Her numbers are already so low, how much more can you sink that in?”
Murray added that most voters, including independents, are unlikely to see the report as fair. “They're predisposed to see this as politically motivated,” he said.
Benghazi is a complex, heavily politicized issue in which neither side can even agree on a common set of facts, let alone broader conclusions.
That leaves most Americans with a muddled picture of what actually happened, allowing them to easily fall back into their partisan camps, or alternatively dismiss the whole thing as partisan squabbling.
As Clinton prepared to testify before the Benghazi committee last year, a CNN poll found nearly three-out-of-four Americans thought the committee was more interested in scoring political points than conducting an impartial investigation. Republicans themselves often gave Americans reason to believe that.
And those who are likely to care most about Tuesday’s report are probably already voting against Clinton.
Republicans are far more interested in news about Benghazi than independents or Democrats, according to surveys from Gallup and Pew. And over the nearly four-years since the attack, interest in Benghazi has been largely concentrated in Republican-leaning states like Alaska and Wyoming, according to Google searches data.
Benghazi Committee Chairman said the report “should fundamentally change the way you view what happened in Benghazi."
But views on the incident polarized along partisan lines almost immediately, when the attack became an issue during the 2012 presidential campaign. After four years of entrenchment, it will be hard to change voters’ perception of it.
If nothing else, however, the report and related questions around Benghazi can help rally Republican base voters against Clinton at a time when the party could use a boot to unity.