When four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, Republicans moved quickly to pin blame on then-President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Now that four American service members have died in Niger and the Trump administration’s slow response has irked even leading Republicans, Democrats are pressing for answers — and could use the incident as Trump’s Benghazi.
“We had about 4,000 Benghazi hearings,” tweeted Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “Why isn’t there a single one on the deaths of soldiers in Niger?”
An aggressive strategy to keep a red-hot spotlight on Niger "seems appropriate from a policy point of view, wise from a political point of view, and quite defensible, given the multiple Republican investigations of Benghazi,” said Marc Farinella, a Democratic strategist.
“Politically it’s important because being the strong man and being the great military leader is one of the few cards, to some degree, that works for Trump — or at least he thinks it works for him — and he’ll keep going back to it,” Farinella said.
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., was more explicit. She said flatly the ambush deaths of the four could be Trump’s Benghazi. The White House has accused Wilson of politicizing the issue and declined to address her charge
Democratic calls for hearings and probes are mounting. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Armed Services Committee, called for “a full and prompt investigation,” as well as hearings.
“The administration needs to be much more forthcoming and candid about what American troops are doing there,” he said. “Whatever the reason for this tragedy, there are likely larger lessons here that will enable us to avoid tragedies in the future, and that should be our overwhelming objective, not to castigate politically anyone.”
Asked if there was reluctance in his party to use Niger for political gain, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has called for an investigation, said, “Not this Democrat. I want to know what happened.”
In the House, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., has asked House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., for a hearing on the incident.
In a letter, Lieu stopped short of blaming the Trump administration, but said it has failed to put forth a clear-cut strategy for counter terrorism efforts across Africa, “nor has it devoted the necessary resources to empower democratic governments to make progress sustainable, combat radicalization and protect human rights.”
What may hold back Democrats most from making Niger into a political flashpoint, though, are some Democrats.
Democrats have been no match for Republicans when it comes to weaponizing issues to reap political benefits. They are not in a good spot now, with Republicans in charge of both chambers.
In 2012, then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration hours after the incident in Benghazi of sympathizing with the attackers.
Congressional Republicans subsequently conducted multiple investigations into the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. The final probe lasted more than two years and cost more than $7 million, as GOP lawmakers hoped to find misconduct by Obama, or more significantly Clinton. The inquiries came up empty, but took a toll on Clinton’s image.
Democrats were also slow to grasp how damaging the effort to tarnish John Kerry’s military record was to the decorated Vietnam veteran’s 2004 presidential campaign. And during the recount of the 2000 presidential election, Republican operatives and campaign aides descended on a meeting of Miami-Dade County election canvassers to protest and a riot broke out.
“The reality is Republicans do tend to be better at exploiting issues like this than Democrats,” said Farinella, the Democratic strategist. “It’s not that Democrats are any less desirous of exploiting issues. But Republicans have been more crafty and effective at it.”
Many key Democrats have urged resisting the temptation to use Niger for political gain.
“Benghazi for the Republicans was all about politics,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee. “I’ve got a kid in the military, I don’t care about the politics of stuff like this, but you’ve got to get to the bottom of it and answer questions.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chaired the last congressional Benghazi inquiry and now leads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, cautioned Democrats against political overreach.
“I get that my Democrat friends are obsessed with Benghazi,” Gowdy told Fox News. “It's a little early to start drawing the analogy.”
Will Fischer, a Marine Corps veteran and director of government relations for the liberal leaning VoteVets, said the group applauds the calls for investigations. He said he’s not worried that Democrats will cross a line.
"I don't think anyone can hold a candle to Donald Trump when it comes to exploiting tragedy," he said.