Politics

Trey Gowdy, the Reluctant Congressman

Reclusive yet often in the limelight, retiring S.C. lawmaker is eyeing his next move

South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy has been talking about leaving Congress ever since he arrived seven years ago. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Trey Gowdy has been talking about leaving Congress since he arrived seven years ago.

It’s what came to his mind when he ran into an old friend in the weeks after he was first sworn into office in 2011: “I hate this place,” he told Republican strategist Luke Byars that January. “I want to go home.”

The GOP congressman more or less said the same thing recently, when he announced what many saw as a premature retirement at the end of this term. “I like jobs where facts matter,” Gowdy said last month, explaining that he wanted to abandon politics and return to his native South Carolina, where he spent decades as a federal prosecutor.

The coming months will be a test of his sincerity. With his retirement freeing him from political pressures, Gowdy, an alum of the 2010 tea party wave best known for heading the politically charged Benghazi Committee, will wrap up his congressional career amid numerous high-profile investigations that reach into the top ranks of his party.

But like many of his actions throughout his seven-plus years in Congress, Gowdy’s public stances since his retirement announcement have been a Rorschach test. Friends and supporters say he has always shown his willingness to play a contrarian role, regardless of the politics of his decisions.

“He is a prosecutor looking for the truth,” said South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott, one of Gowdy’s closest friends in Congress. “He is doing exactly what he was doing when Obama was the president.”

Watch: A Look Back at Gowdy’s Time in Congress

Gowdy’s detractors, including Democrats who have repeatedly butted heads with him, had a more cynical take. They say he excels at presenting himself as a fair, measured thinker. But when it comes to actions, he is among the fiercest partisans on the Hill.

“He often says things that sound like he is trying to be neutral or at least bipartisan, but his actions undercut that,” said one Democratic staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “We would like to believe that would change now that he announced that he won’t run again. But we haven’t seen any indication that is the case.”

Gowdy’s staff declined to make him available for an interview for this story.

Partisan fighter?

Regardless of the interpretation, it is undeniable that Gowdy has made a series of bombshell statements in recent weeks — and that he frequently tempers such proclamations with nods to the party line.

He joined a handful of Republicans on Sunday in blasting President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer — and by extension, the president himself — for suggesting that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III should shut down his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. 

“Give him the time, the resources to do his job,” Gowdy said on Fox News. “When you are innocent, if the allegations of collusion with the Russians and there’s no evidence of that and you are innocent of that, act like it.”

He followed up with an assessment that Fox News anchor Sandra Smith interpreted Monday as “heaping praise” on the Trump administration: “I think he’s done a hell of a lot better job than President Obama did.”

That came a week after Gowdy, one of the most influential members of the House Intelligence Committee, broke  from the GOP majority that had just announced it planned to conclude its Russia investigation after finding no conclusive evidence that Russia helped Trump win.

Gowdy took the opposite position: The evidence shows that Russia wanted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to lose, he said in a statement that made waves throughout the D.C. political establishment. And that was the same thing as saying the Russians wanted Trump to win, an aide later confirmed

He has said, however, that he has not seen a “scintilla” of evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. 

Gowdy is the only Republican who has read the classified intelligence documents that Republicans used as a basis for much of their findings. 

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, a former South Carolina congressman, said Wednesday — shortly before Gowdy released his statement — that he had no doubt his close friend would take an independent position on the report. 

“If Trey comes out and says the results of the investigation show X, I have 100 percent confidence that is the case,” Mulvaney said. “Trey is not capable of allowing politics to change the facts. He is not able to do that.”

Such statements are in line with other provocative positions Gowdy has taken in recent weeks. In February, he contradicted Trump’s assertion that a controversial memo that Gowdy helped draft on the Intelligence panel “totally vindicated” the president’s claim of no collusion with Russia.

Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections

Gowdy’s support of Mueller contrasts with the president,  who has reportedly wanted to fire the special counsel for months. When Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals for conspiring to interfere with the Trump campaign — ostensibly upending Trump’s assertion that claims of Russian interference were “a hoax,” —  Gowdy said the special counsel was doing his job.

But Democrats point out that Gowdy has tempered such seemingly nonpartisan actions with others that toed the party line in notable ways.

He has used his influential post on the Judiciary Committee to call for the appointment of a second special counsel — to investigate abuses of surveillance law under the Obama administration.

Judiciary ranking member Jerrold Nadler called the request “simply off-base.”

“These are blatant attempts to distract from and undermine the credibility of Special Counsel Mueller,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.

As chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Gowdy has criticized the White House’s response to questions about staff members’ security clearances —  but only after public pressure from the panel’s ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, who had been pushing him to take action for weeks.

The Maryland Democrat has publicly criticized Gowdy for ignoring numerous requests to issue subpoenas in investigations that touch on the Trump administration. Those include requests for documents related to The Trump Organization’s profits from foreign governments, a request for an unredacted copy of a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report on Trump’s proposed travel ban, and copies of emails sent and received from the personal account of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. 

The latter was particularly illuminating, Democrats on the committee have said, because it was Gowdy’s Benghazi panel that discovered Clinton’s use of a private server during her four years as secretary of State, an issue that dogged her throughout her presidential campaign.

Watch: Benghazi Committee Declines to Fault Clinton

Easy success

Gowdy’s air of ambivalence about politics has served him well during his time as an elected official. Combined with a dry sense of humor and endless jokes about at his ever-changing coif of thin, unruly hair, it made his 10-year rise from the Spartanburg County courthouse to the top of the national Republican ranks appear effortless, endearing him to potential adversaries and softening his image as a hard-charging former federal prosecutor.

Mulvaney, who has a history of publicly trading good-natured barbs with Gowdy, said his friend makes his hair look “terrible” on purpose.

“That’s his shtick,” Mulvaney said. “No one spends as much time making their hair look bad in the morning as Trey Gowdy. Secretly, I think he likes the attention.”

In campaigns, the biggest hurdle was always convincing Gowdy to run, his advisers said. In Congress, he habitually lingered in conference rooms, giving the air that he wanted to avoid television cameras even as he scored regular prime-time spots on national news. He wore off-putting mirrored sunglasses in public, but strangers still wanted to talk to him.  

“He was the unhappy congressman,” said Byars, the GOP strategist, whose firm, First Tuesday Strategies, has worked on Gowdy’s campaigns. “The way Trey raised money? He said, ‘I hate this job, I wish I was a judge.’ And people would give him money.”

Gowdy’s longtime friends, including those who worked on his early political campaigns, said he has always been clear about his preference for Spartanburg life over the Washington spotlight. He has deep roots there, where his father was a popular pediatrician, his father-in-law had a long career in local politics, and his wife of 28 years, Terri, a former Miss Spartanburg, is a teacher’s aide.

Gowdy’s devotion to the law was sealed by a personal tragedy. A family friend named Jeff Adams was murdered shortly after Gowdy graduated from the University of South Carolina law school. The senselessness of Adams’ death drove Gowdy to seek a sense of purpose beyond the job he had landed in a corporate law firm, so he fled for the grittier world of state and federal prosecutions, he wrote in 2001 for Slate. He never lost a trial in 20 years in court, according to Rolling Stone.

“He seems to get a reading for why people do things sometimes before they even have a reading for why they do them,” said David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor who has worked with Gowdy since his first congressional campaign.

The same skills contributed to Gowdy’s rise in Washington. “I’ve never seen anyone in such a short period of time make such an impact on the national stage,” Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, said in 2014, according to a flattering profile that year in The American Spectator.

Gowdy has resisted a string of political opportunities. Those include an effort by conservatives to convince him to run for House speaker in 2015. He also made friends on the opposite side of the aisle.

“This is wildly unpopular to say,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016, “but for a body that is at ten percent of public approval polls, what I tell folks back home is, ‘You’d be shocked at how many good people are here on both sides of the aisle.””

Instead, Gowdy opted for committee positions that allowed him to showcase the talents he honed as a prosecutor. He is known for his pointed, relentless questioning of witnesses at committee hearings. He relived some of those “grillings” last month for Fox News. His favorite moments, according to the broadcast, included exchanges with Clinton, former FBI Director James B. Comey, and Lois Lerner, the former IRS official accused of heading an effort to target conservative nonprofits.

“I’m never like that outside a courtroom or a committee hearing room,” Gowdy said. Watch: Lessons From 44 Years of Special Investigations

National attention

Friends and detractors described his appointment to head the Benghazi Committee in 2014 as a turning point.

“He worked really hard to make it nonpartisan,” Mulvaney said. “He even thought in his private dealings with other members of the committee that he could. But looking back, it will probably be remembered as one of the most partisan things he did in Congress, and I think that really disappoints him.”

The two-year, $7-million undertaking took a significant toll on Clinton’s presidential prospects. Democrats called it a boondoggle and a witch hunt. Gowdy’s friends said the partisan bickering surrounding the committee was among his biggest disappointments in Washington.

Gowdy’s frustration with the experience was evident in an interview for The Spartanburg Herald-Journal last month, which was broadcast on Facebook. He said the timing ensured a “disproportionate” interest in Clinton.

“The right wasn’t happy because I wasn’t tough enough on her. The left wasn’t happy because they thought that it was all about her. And once a narrative gets imprinted in people’s minds, it gets really hard to defeat that narrative,” he said, adding that he made every effort to ensure the hearings were “apolitical.”

“That showed more grace to the other side than I think would have been shown to us had the roles been reversed,” he said. “But it was, I think, never going to be the kind of investigation that you may have wanted or I may have wanted. It just wasn’t going to be that.”

Speculation about Gowdy’s next steps has ranged from his Scott’s assessment that he could be a Supreme Court justice to former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone’s pitch that he could replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Scott recently said he did not think Gowdy would ever seek another political office. 

Gowdy has been circumspect about his plans. Though he has long been rumored to have his eye on a federal judgeship, he reportedly declined an invitation from the White House this year to accept a nomination to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He told the Herald-Journal that his wife convinced him he would end up feeling isolated and bored in the job.

In the short term, he told the newspaper, he was most interested in investigations that are “nonpartisan and apolitical,” such as the Oversight Committee’s probe of sexual abuse on the U.S. Gymnastics team. In the long term, perhaps a return to civil law.

Those plans would likely include a lot of golf, his friends say. Perhaps he will even play alongside a few Democrats.  

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