WASHINGTON -- As House Democratic leaders debated the best way to engage Republicans' new select committee to investigate the 2012 attack in Benghazi, a genuine rift emerged. Some wanted a full boycott of the process, arguing that it would remove any pretense of bipartisanship from what was ultimately a witch hunt. Others made the case for staffing the committee, seeing value in (at best) giving input and (at worst) knowing what Republicans are up to. Others proposed a middle ground: Putting one Democrat on the committee as a quasi-protest that still allowed the party to keep tabs.
In the end, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calf.) decided that fuller engagement was best. She and numerous aides said it wasn't an easy call. The perils of legitimizing the investigation were clear. But one factor convinced them it was worth the risk: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).
Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, has spent the past few years engaged in direct, often acrimonious combat with Republicans investigating a host of Obama administration controversies, including Benghazi. He has been, from the GOP's vantage point, a partisan antagonist, questioning the conduct of the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), and willing to dispense with decorum. Cummings' storied clashes with Issa culminated when Issa cut off Cummings' microphone during a hearing on the IRS screening of conservative groups.
From the perspective of Democrats (the White House included), however, it has been Cummings' combination of unrelenting scrappiness and lawyerly cross-examinations that has made him indispensable. As conversations over what to do about the Benghazi select committee progressed, Cummings' name kept being mentioned as a necessary ingredient.
On Wednesday afternoon, Pelosi announced that Cummings would lead the party's four other representatives: Reps. Adam Smith (Wash.), Adam Schiff (Calif.), Linda Sanchez (Calif.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.)
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Pelosi praised Cummings' "integrity, distinction, and principle."
"He is a fearless leader and a formidable investigator who will ensure the Select Committee does what’s right by the families of the victims and focuses Congress on the steps needed to prevent a tragedy like Benghazi from ever happening again," Pelosi said.
A Democratic aide who worked on the formation of the committee went further.
"Elijah Cummings is a case study in the benefits of engagement," said the aide, who spoke about the committee's formation on condition of anonymity. "If he wasn't as strong as he was during the past few years doing this, the calculation [in staffing the Benghazi committee] would have been different."
In an interview with The Huffington Post shortly after the announcement, Cummings said that he had not petitioned leadership for the job.
"I was asked to do it," he said.
And while he has a full plate already with his responsibilities on Oversight, he said he had enough bandwidth to handle the new assignment, and the scars to prove that he can handle it well.
As Cummings sees it, his strategy is three-fold. The first prong, he said, will be to "figure out exactly what they're looking for ... to focus on not who I am up against, but what I am searching for." Without a clear understanding of the questions the committee is trying to answer, he argued, Republican members will never be satisfied with the outcome.
"You basically would have a major fishing expedition," Cummings saidd. "If there's no measurement, there's no end ... This could literally go on for years unless you figure out what you're looking for. That's a problem."
The second element of Cummings' approach is, as he put it, to "constantly raise the issues." Ambiguity gives oxygen to the critics and conspiracy theories, he argued, which makes it imperative for Democrats to get the relevant facts laid out in a timely manner.
"What I've learned from the past is to actually use what I already have," he said.
The final play in Cummings playbook is combativeness. He doesn't call it that, of course, because to do so would be to risk be labelled a uncooperative. But what he's learned from his time butting heads with Issa is that there is no upside in being a wallflower.
"Do not allow any untruth to go unchallenged," he explained. "What we found in the IRS hearings is that when there was allegations against the White House and certain cherry-picked information was put out there ... we had no choice but to put out the exculpatory evidence that was not being distributed," said Cummings.
Complicating Cummings' task is the tools he has at his disposal, or lack thereof. Democrats have not been granted equal authority to agree to witnesses or issue subpoenas. They are still negotiating access to documents submitted to the committee.
"There are very few assurances of anything," Cummings conceded.
Cummings benefits from having already been part of a Benghazi investigation as part of the Oversight Committee. But he won't be pared against his usual sparring partner. Instead, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), an Oversight member, will take the lead.
Cummings said he talked with Gowdy on Tuesday and he said he expects an organizational meeting soon -- perhaps as quickly as Thursday. He praised the South Carolina Republican as "an outstanding prosecutor" and a "tenacious questioner." But he added his disappointment that Gowdy had called the select committee investigation a "trial" -- a description he has since softened.
"I respect Mr. Cummings and his work in Congress," Gowdy said in a statement. "I look forward to working with him and the members of the committee toward an investigation and a process worthy of the American people and the four brave Americans who lost their lives in service to our country."
While Gowdy welcomed Cummings to the committee on Wednesday, not all Republicans are likely pleased with the appointment. The sentiment among staffers on the Oversight Committee has been that he is a de-facto Obama loyalist -- a stick in the mud rather than a collaborative investigator into legitimate scandals. Certainly, if Gowdy is to be criticized for assuming that the Obama administration was the defendant and he the prosecutor, the question should to be asked of Cummings: Would he be anything more than a defense attorney?
"I don't know exactly what's out there to be frank with you," Cummings said pressed as to whether he is open-minded to the possibility that the administration may not have been forthcoming on the Benghazi attack. "But I can tell you this -- and this is something that I've made very clear to Issa quite a few times in my committee -- I'm looking for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Whatever that is. But you gotta keep in mind, you cannot disregard what we have seen, and that is allegations being made unfairly and in many instances untruthfully, and then there's a search for the facts to back them up. So what that does is it puts us in a situation where it's very difficult to have trust."