Trey Gowdy’s Select Benghazi Committee is a disaster. Hillary Clinton is appearing today after weeks of insider admissions that the committee is a political hit job, and Gowdy’s last fig leaf of nonpartisanship has been blown off by disclosures of his links to Stop Hillary PAC. Forced to return donations from the organization this week, Gowdy whines that these have been the worst weeks of his life because his honor is being impugned. As recorded by Josh Marshall at TPM, Gowdy has consistently used the Stop Hillary PAC email list to raise funds and tout his committee, however, thus proving that his honor is simply nonexistent.
That Gowdy would work with an outfit like Stop Hillary PAC, which produces swiftboat-style travesties of advertising, belies all his claims of nonpartisan interest in ‘the facts.’ The organization is linked to all the key players in that “vast right wing conspiracy” that Hillary Clinton talked about in 1998, at least the ones who are still alive, as well as a cast of new players who have emerged in the years since. The usual suspects in the world of Hillary hatemongering have propelled the Benghazi hoax since it began, and Gowdy is merely a tool of their relentless campaign of personal destruction.
Benghazi and the fever swamp of right wing political organizing
At BU, we have tracked the activities of ‘billionaire free speech‘ lawyer Dan Backer since 2012 because his fingers were in so many malicious political pies, and that makes him as good a starting point as any to draw our picture of the machine that keeps pumping artificial life into the Benghazi narrative. Proudly describing his own style as “tasteless,” Backer is the attorney whose Carey v FEC lawsuit created so-called ‘hybrid’ Political Action Committees; he was the brains behind the McCutcheon v FEC case, in which a coal baron raised federal campaign contribution limits above the median US household income; his newest litigation effort would make it completely legal to fleece grassroots donors using a candidate’s name, removing one of the last remaining regulations the Federal Elections Commission is actually allowed to enforce.
But whereas he makes his name destroying American campaign finance law, Backer earns his bankroll in PAC management, and none of his political action committees favor Democrats. For example, Backer is the treasurer of Gowdy’s ‘leadership committee,’ Team Themis PAC, among dozens of similar entities; he is also the treasurer of Stop Hillary PAC. Just to underline his repulsion for Clinton, Backer is also the treasurer of Special Operations Speaks PAC, which does not get enough attention for its role in spinning the Benghazi web. Former Delta Force commander and religious fanatic Jerry Boykin, who retired in 2007 to become the executive vice president of the SPLC-listed hate group Family Research Council as well as a Fox News ‘military affairs’ analyst spouting anti-Muslim conspiracy theories about President Obama, is the chairman of Special Operations Speaks PAC and the grand master ninja of Benghazi hype.
Together with nativist Frank Gaffney, one of the nation’s most notorious birth certificate fantasists and Islamophobes, in 2013 Boykin claimed that he personally lobbied Speaker of the House John Boehner to form a special Benghazi committee during a midnight meeting. Boykin told this story to a gathering of Tea Party activists, Breitbart News journalists, and professional political operators held at the Washington headquarters of Judicial Watch, which has been conducting an anti-Clinton campaign of hysterical and vexatious lawsuits for more than two decades. Styled as ‘Groundswell,’ that meeting helped unify conservative media, voters, and politicians around a common set of talking points — with Ginny Thomas, wife of arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, presiding. Despite a shift in emphasis from deranging the public’s view of Obama to attacking Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, the rhetorical game plan today is essentially the same one that Boykin and friends contrived after the Benghazi attacks.
It’s worth noting that as one of the geniuses behind Tea Party.net, Dan Backer is among the best in the business at turning everyday conservatives into revenue streams via data capture and mailing lists.
Absolutist obstruction for ideology and profit
Groundswell could dream up a “30-front war against progressives” because there was a legislative caucus in place to transform its delusions into reality. Since it began, Stop Hillary PAC has used the Strategy Group for Media, a Columbus, Ohio-based political shop run by Rex Elsass, for its media work. As McKay Coppins reported for BuzzFeed, in 2013 the ‘born again’ Elsass fired three of his managers, and then filed a sensational lawsuit against one of them, for supposedly conspiring to usurp his leadership at Strategy Group. Coppins describes the company as
the largest, most combative, and perhaps most controversial band of messaging warriors in Republican politics. Their blandly named company […] has spent more than a decade developing a slashing formula for turning the party’s right-wing rejects into members of Congress. There are at least 40 Republicans currently in Congress who have worked with the Strategy Group, which serves as a campaign and strategy clearing house for the uncompromisingly conservative wing of the congressional caucus that has been at the center of American politics since 2010.
Though the Strategy Group’s ranks have swelled over the past year — as the company expands beyond its advertising roots and into public relations, voter contact, and research — it continues to be defined by its larger-than-life founder. Elsass is a round, loud, cigar-smoking good ‘ol boy with a private jet; a worldview rooted, he’ll be quick to tell you, in his Christian faith; and a shameless killer instinct that has turned his company into one of the country’s most in-demand political consulting firms. The firm had the rare distinction of working, serially, for two presidential candidates last year — Michele Bachmann then Newt Gingrich. Other clients include the great Right hopes of 2016: Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. One of the driving forces behind the conservative surge of 2010, when they had more than two dozen tea party clients, the Strategy Group stands poised to ride a similar wave in the upcoming elections.
There is a lot we could say about Elsass and the way he treats employees like personal possessions, but what’s important to note here is that the “40 Republicans currently in Congress who have worked with the Strategy Group” is a clear reference to the so-called Freedom Caucus — those intransigent enemies of America’s good faith and public credit who love government shutdowns so much.
In other words, Elsass is one of the biggest reasons why Paul Ryan is now struggling to to put together a majority of the Republican caucus so they can govern the country like sane, rational adults. Funded by the Koch brothers and the Club for Growth, the Freedom Caucus has instead wielded its outsize influence like a cudgel, forcing Boehner out of his job and extracting the most extreme agenda items on their wish-list from his eventual replacement. A list of the Freedom Caucus is illuminating: Tim Huelskamp, Cynthia Lummis, Jim Bridenstine, Mo Brooks and many others have indulged Benghazi conspiracy theories, often naming Clinton in their fervid statements on the topic, and Jim Jordan of Ohio actually sits on Trey Gowdy’s Select Benghazi Committee. When Boykin and Groundswell lobbied Congress to pursue their Benghazi obsession, they focused much of their efforts on the Freedom Caucus, too, and it shows.
The electronic trail leads to old Clinton enemies
Backer likes to say that he’s “in charge” of Stop Hillary PAC, but he is not its chairman. The organization’s leadership page is conveniently missing, but we can glean some clues to the powers behind it from the fact that the content delivery network (CDN) behind the site is redirecting content, such as this picture of Hillary Clinton, to the domain americanactionnews.com. According to Whois, a service that allows us to look up that site’s registration, the Stop Hillary PAC website seems to be the work of Political Media, Inc., a company belonging to Washington, DC political consultant Larry Ward. You may remember Ward for his promotion of ‘Gun Appreciation Day‘ in 2013, but he was also Political Director of Special Operations Speaks at the time, and proudly claims credit for “spearheading movements to form the Benghazi Select Committee.” On his website, Ward says his consultancy has resurrected the Benghazi story four times in Congress when it would have otherwise died a natural death.
Like Backer, Ward is an experienced hand at the grassroots money game. In his guest speaker’s profile at the Leadership Institute, where conservatives learn the fine arts of political organizing and fundraising, Ward explains that he is a protege of Dick Morris, whose name has been virtually synonymous with political attacks on the Clintons for nearly two decades.
Forced to resign from his job as the Clintons’ political adviser in 1996 after he was caught on camera with a call girl, Dick Morris is a perpetual suck-up artist who overcame his disgrace through public religious conversion to conservative political causes. Consistently one of the worst prognosticators in politics, Morris has been fomenting Hillary-hate for years, and has always carried water for the Benghazi smears. He is also one of the most corrupt pundits in the opinion business, which is why nobody trusted his Dan Backer-provided Just Say No to Hillary PAC with their money, forcing him to shut it down this June. Little wonder that he doesn’t want to put his name on Backer’s more-successful Stop Hillary PAC.
But we’re still not done, because a search for the phone number of Larry Ward’s First Street office turns up a listing for Ken Mehlman.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Mehlman oversaw George W. Bush’s reelection bid in 2004. That campaign included a parallel series of state ballot initiatives that were aimed at increasing Republican turnout by rallying evangelical voters to ban marriage equality for same-sex couples. Six years later, Mehlman came out of the closet as a homosexual, but he remains a key ally of the Bush clan, and his criticism of Hillary Clinton has never wavered. Acting as the White House’s attack dog, Mehlman made the talk show circuit on one particular Sunday in 2006 to say that she seems to have a lot of anger.” Now cashing in at the Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co, LLP investment fund, Mehlman is a fine example of the establishment enemies that have organized to destroy Clinton for years. A list of speakers at the 2005 CPAC convention, where Mehlman spoke to the most ardent conservatives in America, includes names that have repeatedly shown up in our Groundswell research at BU.
So what have we learned?
It’s safe to say that Hillary-hatred has become a powerful force within the larger conservative movement, and that the Benghazi scandal has become hard-wired to this reactionary GOP hindbrain; Boykin and the grassroots right wing demand constant confirmation of their beloved Benghazi fantasy, even if it has to be produced from thin air, and get very upset if the flow of negative news ever stops. When Clinton’s leaked emails become nothingburgers on the front page of the New York Times, and dubious attacks come flopping out of Trey Gowdy’s committee onto our newspaper headlines only to expire like fish out of water, we are seeing this artificial news cycle in motion, just like Ken Starr’s endless investigation of Whitewater. Now that Congress has studied the 2012 tragedy in Libya longer than any committee in that body’s history has ever studied anything, it’s clear that House Republicans have no intention of ever actually ever ‘finishing’ the Benghazi investigation, as the Boykin demographic and the Freedom Caucus would instantly raise hell if any part of the anti-Clinton machinery came to a halt. It doesn’t matter how many times or in how many ways Trey Gowdy’s commmittee is exposed as a political hatchet job. We have seen this exact formula at work before when Clinton was First Lady: by undying repetition of falsehoods, the harmful impression of a truth is created, endless right wing bloviations are empowered, and polarization paralyzes our politics.
Even though Richard Mellon Scaife is dead and some of the players have changed, the vast right wing conspiracy that Hillary complained about all those years ago has never gone away, and it never wants to let go of its sacred ‘truths’ about her.