It’s getting harder to figure out whose side Rep. Trey Gowdy is on.
A fierce Hillary Clinton critic who led the deeply polarizing investigation into the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, the South Carolina Republican has more recently tweaked President Trump publicly over the federal investigation into his campaign, exhorting him, “When you are innocent, act like it.”
Gowdy has been one of his party’s louder defenders of special counsel Robert Mueller and has called Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department “not helpful.”
And he startled Capitol Hill when he broke with the assessment from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Russian President Vladimir Putin preferred Trump during the 2016 presidential race.
Yet the retiring lawmaker is also leading an investigation into alleged bias at the FBI that critics see as the partisan successor to the Benghazi investigation. Democrats say the probe is designed to divert attention from the Mueller investigation onto a familiar GOP punching bag — Clinton — and muddy the waters surrounding his work.
In an interview with The Hill, Gowdy, who holds the gavel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, disputed the charge of partisanship and the notion that he has been liberated by his impending retirement to pursue the Trump administration.
Congress “is not a job that rewards fairness,” he often tells reporters. “I try to call balls and strikes.”
He is frustrated by suggestions that his probe of the Justice Department is politically motivated and disheartened that his oversight efforts have been viewed as “tension between a Republican president and Republican members of the House.”
“If you are at all critical of the bureau then you’re attacking law enforcement in today’s political discourse,” he complained. “If you have no curiosity whatsoever as to why [former FBI Director] Jim Comey would send two letters in the throes of a presidential race — that’s what I find amazing.”
He recalled a panel discussion with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) shortly after the election, at a fundraiser hosted by a Cotton-led super PAC, in which the two lawmakers envisioned Republicans reasserting Congress’s authority as a co-equal branch of government.
“We said this is a unique opportunity for this branch to depoliticize oversight and say this is a branch issue,” Gowdy said.
A former federal prosecutor himself, Gowdy’s role in the multiple GOP investigations into alleged Justice Department misconduct is sometimes murky.
Gowdy, who also sits on the Judiciary and Intelligence panels, is at the confluence of three powerful committees investigating the Justice Department in some capacity. He frequently says the allegations against the department “break his heart,” but behind the scenes, he has been a guiding force.
At least publicly, he claims to defer to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) in the joint Judiciary-Oversight probe into the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) conduct during the 2016 presidential race, insisting that Goodlatte’s is the right committee to provide oversight of the department.
On the Intelligence Committee he has at times appeared to distance himself from Chairman Devin Nunes’s (R-Calif.) efforts to expose alleged anti-Trump wrongdoing at the Justice Department.
Gowdy stepped in to edit a controversial memo spearheaded by staff for Nunes alleging misuse of U.S. surveillance authorities to obtain a court order to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
In the weeks before Nunes revealed the document, rumors swirled that there was a group of committee Republicans researching alleged corruption at the FBI. Gowdy explicitly distanced himself from those efforts to reporters at the time, and he still appears uncomfortable with the four-page document, which was widely ripped by former intelligence officials.
“When a decision is made to do something and you are asked to edit it, that is involvement,” he said, when asked about his role in producing the final document. “I was asked to edit it and I did.”
He has also publicly contradicted Nunes’s assertion that lawmakers are investigating a “Phase Two” of wrongdoing at the State Department during the election. There is a “State Department component to this,” Gowdy said, but he also said he has “never subscribed to the second phase” described by Nunes. “To me, it’s all one big thing.”
At the same time, Gowdy is pursuing some of the core claims in the Nunes memo through his work with Goodlatte and has called for a second special counsel to look into the matter.
According to Gowdy, it is “pretty close to being a unanimously accepted fact” that senior Justice Department officials failed to vet a controversial piece of opposition research before using it in the surveillance warrant application for Page.
Such applications go through multiple layers of review, and Gowdy acknowledged that in order for the allegation to be true, the process would have to have failed at multiple levels.
“We’ve had a hard time nailing down exactly who at DOJ wants to take ownership” of the application, he said. “Was it [former Assistant Attorney General] John Carlin? Was it the bureau that represented it to a prosecutor, ‘Yes, we vetted this all out, you’re good to go’? Who was the affiant whose name has been redacted?”
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who have read the underlying application say that the FBI provided the court with information from independent sources corroborating the claims from the opposition research dossier.
At the same time that he has been helping drive GOP investigations of the Justice Department, as Oversight chairman, Gowdy has launched multiple investigations into the Trump administration.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, former White House staff secretary Rob Porter and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price have all found themselves in his crosshairs.
No one is mistaking Gowdy for Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), perhaps the fiercest critic of the president among Republicans in Congress. But his oversight activity has not gone unnoticed by colleagues.
“I’ve noticed the things that you mentioned,” one Oversight member said, referring to the investigation into Porter’s security clearance and Gowdy’s conclusion that Russia was deliberately trying to harm Clinton’s presidential campaign.
This lawmaker said there has been no explicit conversation about turning up the heat on Trump in meetings where the committee has discussed the year’s agenda.
Gowdy is a recognizable figure in the halls of the Capitol, with an ever-present plastic bottle of Diet Coke in his hand and a shock of silver hair that changes styles seemingly quarterly. He says “yes ma’am” and talks about shopping at the grocery store Publix in his native South Carolina, a country-boy style that does little to hide a reputation as canny and prosecutorial.
The specter of Benghazi has been difficult for him to shake — “God knows I don’t want to talk about Benghazi,” he says. When he closed that probe with no new findings of wrongdoing by Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time of the attacks, Democrats trumpeted it as evidence that the investigation had been a partisan witch hunt from the beginning.
The accusation clearly rankles him.
“I don’t care if you make fun of my hair, I don’t care if you say I’m not smart. I do care if you say I’m not fair. I think I have been — I think I have been,” he said, his voice dropping a little.
“But I don’t have enough self-awareness to know whether or not I somehow feel more liberated.”
Scott Wong contributed.