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It would be a huge mistake for the GOP to force Susan Rice to testify on wiretapping

Susan Rice
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Susan Rice

Republicans have been excited all week in response to a report that says former Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice asked the intelligence community to "unmask" the names of Trump campaign and Trump transition officials. They believe the report is likely proof of a deliberate and illegal smear campaign by the outgoing Obama administration against the Trump team. And now the GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee wants Rice to testify about what she knows.

I have one piece of advice for those congressional Republicans: Don't do it!

Because a funny thing happens at a lot of congressional hearings meant to embarrass witnesses or get them to reveal information that hurts another political party; they often end up backfiring in a big way. And if there is anyone in Washington who is equipped and likely to do just that to the GOP, it's Susan Rice.

First off, we need one disclaimer. The Republicans and other defenders of President Donald Trump can come out OK in this demand for Rice to testify if she decides to take her Fifth Amendment rights not to appear before the committee. That result would fuel even more doubt about Rice even among more moderate voters.

But if Rice decides to testify, it's hard to believe she will do nothing other than continue the public process she began Tuesday during an MSNBC interview where she pushed back hard on these accusations and allegations that she misused intelligence data for political purposes.

Here was the key quote from that interview: "The allegations that somehow Obama administration officials utilized intelligence for political purposes are absolutely false," she said. "[Unmasking] is necessary to do my job. ... Imagine if we saw something of grave significance about Russia, or China, or anybody else interfering with our political process."

Rice's denial/explanation surely sounds solid enough to most Democrats and some others. And Republicans still expecting her to flip under less friendly circumstances should think harder about exactly how good a soldier Rice is. Remember, Rice is the one who went on national TV in 2012 and presented the outrageous notion that a obscure YouTube video was responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. So this is simply not the profile of a woman who is suddenly going to reveal damaging new information before Congress.

But this goes beyond just Rice. We have several cases in recent history of high profile hearing witnesses who absolutely turned what were supposed to be devastating proceedings for them and their causes into absolute triumphs.

"Republicans who are so eager to get Susan Rice in front of that Intelligence Committee should really be careful of what they wish for."

The biggest example is Colonel Oliver North, whose testimony during the Iran Contra hearings in the summer of 1987 before a then-Democrat controlled Congress was supposed to irrevocably embarrass the Reagan administration. Instead, North won over a significant segment of the American public and became a hero to millions for the next three decades. Even People Magazine gushed over North when the hearings were over, describing him this way: "He looked remarkably like Mel Gibson and spoke with a persuasive air of sincerity that evoked a young Jimmy Stewart."

But Republicans got a taste of that bitter backfire medicine, too, during the Iraq War when then-Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman made the ill-fated decision to invite British member of Parliament George Galloway to appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations and answer its charges that Saddam Hussein's government had given him the rights to buy 20 million barrels of oil to sell at a profit. Far from admitting any guilt, Galloway turned the tables on the Republican senators and embarrassed them and the Bush administration with an uninterrupted litany of attacks against the Iraq War. And he did it all with that fancy British accent to boot. Criticism of the war continued and grew after that and Coleman's political career never really recovered.

There are more examples, but the bottom line is that congressional hearings are simply a really bad way to get the hard truth out about anything. Getting to the bottom of this Russia conspiracy/surveillance mess is going to have to be accomplished another way. But when members of Congress seek to embarrass or flip hard core partisans and top career bureaucrats, they're often shown to be out of their league. And that's why Republicans who are so eager to get Susan Rice in front of that Intelligence Committee should really be careful of what they wish for.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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