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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Democrats are renewing a public battle over the intent of a special House committee’s probe of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi consulate attack, saying Republicans have intentionally excluded them from witness interviews and other key aspects of the investigation.

In a letter sent Friday to the Benghazi committee’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), top Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland also cited two instances in which the committee dismissed testimony from witnesses interviewed only by Republicans that contradicted allegations made by Republican members in public over the State Department’s cooperation with an independent review of the attack.

Cummings asked Gowdy to delay a planned public hearing set for Tuesday until both parties agree on a formal set of rules to govern the investigation, including guaranteeing that any witness interviews are conducted jointly by both parties and that any decisions to subpoena further witnesses and documents can be debated publicly.

Cummings said the panel should mirror the example of the House Intelligence Committee instead of the House Oversight Committee, previously led by Rep. Darrel Issa (R-CA), which he accused of manipulating testimony “to promote false political narratives.”

“In order for this committee to ‘transcend politics,’ as you put it, we must break significantly from (that) model,” Cummings wrote. “We should work together to go where the facts take us, and we should hold joint meetings, interviews and discussions with potential witnesses.”

Republicans are dismissing the Democrats’ complaints as simply picking a fight over process where they lack a substantive case to end the investigation.

In a statement, Gowdy spokesman Jamal Ware said there was no precedent in similar investigatory committees for a requirement that both parties interview witnesses at the same time, and that Republicans “will talk to Benghazi sources with or without the Democrats present just as they are welcome to talk to sources with or without Republicans present.”

“Chairman Gowdy has operated the Benghazi Committee in a more-than-fair and fact-based manner,” Ware said, adding that Gowdy has offered to establish rules that are “much more generous” than those that govern other congressional committees. “He will continue to work to address any legitimate minority concerns. He will not, however, allow the committee’s investigation to be hamstrung by politics.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner called for a special select committee to be formed on the Benghazi attacks last May, accusing the White House of withholding documents from other congressional panels in what he called a “flagrant violation of trust.” He later dismissed an Intelligence Committee report that found no wrongdoing by administration officials, saying that it was the Select Committee that would produce the “definitive” report. The House voted to continue the investigation in the new Congress as part of a larger package of rules approved on the first day of the 2015 session.

Democrats had debated whether to participate in the panel at all, initially seeking commitment on ground rules before doing so but ultimately agreeing to appoint members to act as a watchdog. Subsequent attempts to reach an agreement over rules, which included a meeting with Boehner in December, have failed.

The panel held just two public hearings that year, both somewhat mundane discussions of embassy security and the State Department-initiated review of the 2012 attack that claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Tuesday’s hearing was expected to address additional requests for documents from the CIA and the State Department.

But Cummings’ letter addresses the work of the committee behind closed doors, specifically his contention that Democrats were excluded from at least five witness interviews — first raised in another letter to Gowdy last November — and more recently that the panel’s Republican members dismissed testimony that would corroborate a previous House Intelligence Committee’s finding that there was “no support” for allegations that the CIA was collecting and shipping weapons from Libya to Syria.

“It is time to implement committee rules and practices that ensure transparency, fairness and bipartisanship,” Cummings wrote.

Boehner also said at the time he expected the committee “to work quickly to get answers for the American people.” But as the committee begins its work in the new year, Democrats are concerned that Republicans are intentionally slow-walking the process and will use it as a staging ground for attacks against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely 2016 presidential candidate. Gowdy said in December that Clinton “is a witness that we would like to talk to.”

A spokesman for Gowdy did not respond to requests for comment.

Photo: Speaker Boehner via Flickr

Poll: Most Parents Oppose Rapid School Reopening

Numerous local school systems around the country are plowing ahead with plans to resume in-person instruction despite growing evidence that children are just as capable of spreading the coronavirus as adults.

Classes were set to begin on Monday in Baker County, Florida. Masks for students will be optional, not required. "It looks like it's back to normal this morning, honestly," a local television reporter observed as parents dropped their kids off in the morning. Many students wore no face coverings.

The Trump administration and the GOP have pushed for full reopening of schools for months."Schools in our country should be opened ASAP," Donald Trump tweeted in May. "Much very good information now available."

"SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!" he reiterated on July 6.

"The science and data is clear: children can be safe in schools this fall, and they must be in school this fall," demanded Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) on Aug. 1.

"I believe our schools can, and should rise to the occasion of re-opening for in-person education this fall," agreed Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) two days later.

"The CDC and Academy of Pediatrics agree: We can safely get students back in classrooms," tweeted House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) last Tuesday.

But while Scalise, Mike Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have all cited the American Academy of Pediatrics in their arguments for reopening, a new study by the group and the Children's Hospital Association raises red flags about how safe that will be.

Their report found 338,982 reported coronavirus cases in children as of July 30 in the United States. Between July 16 and July 30, the nation saw a 40% increase — 97,078 new infected children.

Last week, a high school student in an Atlanta suburb posted a photo online showing few students wearing masks in a crowded school hallway. Since that time, at least six students and three adult employees in the school have reportedly contracted the coronavirus, and the school temporarily has switched to online classes.

Another Georgia school district has already seen at least 13 students and staff members test positive since reopening a week ago.

A recent study in South Korea found that children aged ten and older spread the coronavirus at the same rates adults do. A separate study in Chicago suggested young kids might also be effective spreaders.

These contradict the false claims made by Trump and his administration that kids have an "amazing" near immunity to COVID-19.

"If you look at children, children are almost — and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease, so few. They've got stronger, hard to believe, and I don't know how you feel about it, but they have much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this," Trump told Fox News on Wednesday.

"You got to open the schools. They have a stronger immune system even than you have or I have," he told Barstool Sports on July 23. "It's amazing. You look at the percentage, it's a tiny percentage of one percent. And in that one case, I mean, I looked at a couple of cases. If you have diabetes, if you have, you know, problems with something, but the kids are in great shape." Children have made up nearly nine percent of all cases, even with schools mostly closed.

And DeVos incorrectly said in a July 16 interview, "More and more studies show that kids are actually stoppers of the disease and they don't get it and transmit it themselves."

In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for how schools could operate more safely during the pandemic.

Trump publicly ridiculed the guidelines, dismissing them as "very tough & expensive" and "very impractical."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.