As a key member of the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees, and chairman of the House Oversight panel, Gowdy (R-S.C.) has held a prominent role in the GOP’s efforts to probe how federal law enforcement has handled its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters. The career prosecutor made his mark in Congress investigating the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the party’s leaders still tap him for such politically charged matters — whether allegations of FBI surveillance abuse, a probe of Hillary Clinton’s email practices or an Obama-era deal granting Russia a greater stake in the U.S. uranium market.
But Gowdy often has been unwilling as an architect of the GOP’s strategy, routinely resisting calls to issue subpoenas and other summonses to top Justice officials. This week, he became the only Republican briefed on the FBI’s use of an informant to publicly admonish Trump for insisting the government planted a spy in his campaign.
“I think there’s a huge tension in Trey. . . . He’s a very, very good attack dog — he’s enormously articulate. He’s very smart,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who also serves on the Intelligence Committee and said he considers Gowdy a friend. But “I think it’s been very painful for him to see the FBI and the Department of Justice, two institutions that he has a lot of respect for, attacked so aggressively.”
Gowdy is not the only member of Congress whose competing sensibilities as a prosecutor and partisan have been tested as the Russia probe wears on. But because he played such a central role in the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation, his take on such matters can make or break the GOP’s arguments — even those championed by the president.
Gowdy, according to a spokesman, has never had a conversation with Trump nor been the direct target of his attacks — although that streak was broken somewhat Thursday, when White House lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani accused him of “drinking the Kool-Aid” of the FBI. Those close to Gowdy say he is unaffected by such jabs.
“Trey has a very unique but admirable ability to block out the noise of the left and the right in politics . . . and be able to speak truth to it without worrying about, ‘Oh, what are the talking points from the Republican side?’ ” said Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), a senior member of the Intelligence Committee.
Rooney recalled how on several occasions, including dust-ups over the president’s spying allegations and whether Russia’s interference in the election helped Trump, Gowdy’s willingness to buck the party line “validated to me that I wasn’t crazy” for thinking the president’s claims lacked evidence, Rooney said.
Gowdy’s critics say his style isn’t driven by legal principle so much as political shrewdness — and a desire to help give cover to the president.
“It was disappointing to see how quickly [Gowdy] fell into the role of defense counsel for the president,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, said of his time helping to run the panel’s Russia probe. He said Gowdy “worked in lockstep” with other GOP lawmakers to undermine special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of the president.
Gowdy has on several occasions defended Mueller’s integrity and that of the FBI from Trump’s vitriol. Nonetheless, he also said this week that Trump had the right to be frustrated with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia probe — comments the president cheered on Twitter, raising questions about whether Gowdy, who is retiring in January at the end of this term, might be gunning for Sessions’s job.
Several colleagues noted that Gowdy could never be the good soldier Trump seems to desire in his top Justice Department official.
Even Gowdy seemed to acknowledge that on Fox News, musing about “if I were [Trump’s] lawyer” — but quickly concluding “and I never will be.”
Leading Democrats are frustrated that Gowdy has shied from flexing his prosecutorial muscle to investigate potential conflicts of interest surrounding Trump and his inner circle, or more doggedly pursue matters such as the White House security clearance process.
“The President’s claim that there was a ‘spy’ planted in the Trump Campaign is just the latest conspiracy theory that some Republicans in Congress have aided and abetted for the past year,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said in a statement, questioning why Republicans such as Gowdy should “get massive praise just for acknowledging the obvious and restating basic facts.”
A spokesman for Gowdy pointed out that the Oversight Committee is vigorously investigating embattled Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt’s spending habits, and suggested that Democrats were trying to push the panel’s probes past its primary jurisdiction.
Other Democrats see Gowdy as a valuable commodity when several members of the GOP have encouraged Trump’s war with Justice Department.
“The fight in Congress that worries me today is not the fight between the Republicans and the Democrats; it’s the fight between the anarchists and the institutionalists,” Himes said. “I will miss Trey’s institutionalism.”