WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats on the House committee investigating the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, issued a report Monday disputing what they say are unsubstantiated claims about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by some Republican members of Congress and GOP presidential candidates.
The 124-page report summarizes the results of 54 interviews and depositions conducted by the committee and includes some unclassified testimony from several top Clinton aides, including her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel's top Democrat, said the report shows that no witness has substantiated what he called "wild Republican conspiracy theories about Secretary Clinton and Benghazi," including a widely debunked claim that Clinton or other top officials issued a "stand down" order during the September 2012 attacks.
"It's time to bring this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition to an end," Cummings said. He called on the panel's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, to move the committee's focus "from politics to policy."
The report comes as Clinton, a Democratic candidate for president, is set to testify before the panel Thursday at a widely anticipated public hearing that could make or break the credibility of the 17-month-old inquiry.
The rift between Republicans and Democrats on the committee is growing. Cummings and other Democrats call the panel a partisan political exercise designed to exploit the deaths of four Americans and hurt Clinton's bid for the White House. Some Republicans who do not serve on the Benghazi panel, most notably House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have also described the committee as focused on Clinton. McCarthy later retracted the comment.
Gowdy and other Republicans say the committee is focused on those killed in Benghazi and on providing a definitive account of the attacks. There have been at least seven previous investigations.
Gowdy said Sunday there was a "total disconnect" between the security needs of U.S. personnel on the ground in Libya and the political priorities of the State Department staff in Washington led by Clinton.
He described emails from Ambassador Chris Stevens to the State Department requesting more security almost from the moment he arrived in Libya in 2012. The request virtually crossed paths with one Clinton's staff sent to Stevens, asking the new ambassador to read and respond to an email from a Clinton confidant, according to Gowdy. At another point, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland asked Stevens for advice on "public messaging" on the increasingly dangerous situation in the region, Gowdy said.
Stevens was killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi. "He didn't need help with (public relations), and he was asking for more security" that he never received, Gowdy said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Gowdy has refused to release the emails.
Meanwhile, a spokesman said Monday that Gowdy has returned three donations totaling $6,000 from three political action committees affiliated with a conservative group that opposes Clinton's presidential bid. The Conservative Action Fund, Special Operations Speaks PAC and the Tea Party Leadership Fund each donated $2,000 to Gowdy's campaign last May.
The groups' treasurer, Dan Backer, also serves as treasurer of the Stop Hillary PAC, which aired a TV ad last week that depicted Stevens' grave. The ad also shows pictures of Stevens and the three other Americans killed in Benghazi and portrays them as asking Clinton questions. The victims' families said the pictures were used without their knowledge or permission.
Committee spokesman Jamal Ware said Gowdy "has made every effort possible" to keep the Benghazi investigation "above politics" and said the families' suffering should not be exploited.
"If you hear Trey Gowdy, Benghazi and donate in the same message, Mr. Gowdy would personally encourage you to ignore the request," Ware said.
Backer said he was "a little hurt" that Gowdy returned the donations, but said Gowdy "has a right not to accept contributions from people he doesn't like."
Democrats said in their report that comments by several GOP members of Congress, including Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have all been refuted by witnesses interviewed by the Benghazi committee. Paul and Graham are both candidates for president.
The report also takes on claims by GOP presidential candidates Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee.
Ware called the report an attempt by Democrats to "knock down straw men" and noted that claims raised by the report all relate to Clinton.
"Why is not a single one about the four people who were killed or about providing better security in the future?" Ware said. "This is further proof of the Democrats' obsession with covering for Hillary Clinton instead of investigating the Benghazi terrorist attacks."