Outside the Longworth House Office Building, a man in a brown suit spots Trey Gowdy and shouts, “Great job on that Benghazi Committee!” It’s a November afternoon in Washington, the sky is the same color as Longworth’s marble façade, but Gowdy’s reaction is obscured by his polarized sunglasses. He raises his hand in a sort of half-thumbs-up, half-wave that says, I appreciate you, but this is kind of embarrassing. “Thanks,” he says, loud enough for the guy to hear. He stifles a smirk and says under his breath: “Wow.” He keeps his thumb poised over a closed fist — as though he’s ready to give a thumbs-up or ward off future well-wishes or maybe just begin making political arguments — as he walks across the street to vote in the Capitol.
This has been a rough month for the silver-haired Republican Congressman from South Carolina, now one of the most recognizable members of Congress. A year and a half ago, when he was tapped by then–House Speaker John Boehner to lead a select committee investigating the September 2012 Benghazi attacks, Gowdy had as good a reputation as any member of the House GOP — and not just from his fellow Republicans. Reporters sought him out in the hallways because he was one of the very few lawmakers from either party who didn’t seem to speak in the language of bullshit (disclosure: I was one of those reporters). Even Democrats liked him: Representative Elijah Cummings said on the House floor that he had “tremendous respect” for Gowdy. “I like Trey Gowdy,” Democrat Gerry Connolly told BuzzFeed. “I would look at Mr. Gowdy as the one honest broker in this whole circus,” another Democrat, Representative William Lacy Clay, said.
Gowdy, a former prosecutor elected in the tea-party wave in 2010, took the job with the promise that the committee’s purposes were investigative and not political. He vowed not to speak about Benghazi when traveling to give talks in other members’ districts, and asked his fellow Republicans not to fund-raise off of the issue either. When a Republican group ignored his request and used Benghazi in announcing one of his appearances earlier this year, Gowdy withdrew from the event.
And yet: This is Washington. Announcing that an investigation of the opposition party’s presidential candidate will be nonpartisan is a little bit like a Dalmatian owner announcing his decision to make his dog spotless. Those same Democrats who said they liked Gowdy also dismissed the committee from the start, calling it a partisan witch hunt. They noted that seven other congressional committees had already investigated Benghazi (not thoroughly enough, Gowdy argues).
Then, a month before the committee’s marquee public hearing, at which Hillary Clinton testified, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy appeared on Fox News and said, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” Democrats pounced on this as incontrovertible proof of what they’d long held: The committee, which has existed for almost 18 months now and cost $4.5 million dollars, was a sham. Then a second Republican, Representative Richard Hanna, told a radio interviewer “there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.” A fired former committee staffer told the New York Times that the committee had shifted its focus to Hillary Clinton’s use of private email, rather than its original stated mission. (Gowdy, for his part, says he asked Boehner to create a separate committee to investigate the emails, but Boehner refused — and the subject of Clinton’s private email server has inarguably become a large part of the committee’s focus since it was revealed earlier this year.)
When I ask Gowdy what he thought the biggest takeaway from the hearing was, he says, “It’s hard for me to answer that question because there was nothing that came— ” He pauses. “If you’ve prepared for a hearing, you shouldn’t be surprised. You shouldn’t learn a ton of new stuff if you’ve done your work.” He starts to talk about Representative Susan Brooks’s line of questioning — she printed out stacks of Clinton’s emails from 2011 and 2012, in an attempt to show Clinton wasn’t paying enough attention to Benghazi the year the attack happened — but Gowdy has made it up the members-only steps leading into the Capitol and popped inside for votes.
The public hearings of the committee are done. Gowdy says he aims to have the private interviews wrapped by early in the new year and expects the report to come out sometime in the late spring. It’s clear that the intense criticism has weighed on him. When he comes off the House floor a few minutes later in the marble hallway next to Statuary Hall, he gestures at one of his press aides and says, “I always tell her, ‘Don’t worry about things you can’t control.’ I hope she doesn’t. I do. But I couldn’t control what Kevin said. I can’t control what Richard Hanna says. I can’t control what the former staffer says. You can impeach what they say. You can try to prove that it is false. But when you’re explaining, typically you’re losing. So I keep going back to the facts. Okay, you say X, what do the facts say? Out of the 54 interviews we’ve done, how many have been named Clinton? How many have had anything to do with her, for that matter? But she’s one of the more popular people in the world, so I get why people are more interested in her than one of the surviving eyewitnesses on that night. It’s just from my standpoint, I’m every bit as interested in the surviving eyewitnesses as I am her … She had very little role to play during the attack itself, and it’s undetermined yet what role, if any, she had yet in the talking points. But it’s certainly not as big a role as Susan Rice or Ben Rhodes. She is really important in one third, but the coverage and the interest in her is way disproportionate. But I can’t control it.”
McCarthy’s comments were one of the reasons he cited in his shock decision last month not to run for House Speaker, even though he was next in line for the job. After McCarthy’s announcement, House Republicans tried to start a movement to get Gowdy to run for the job. But Gowdy steadfastly refused. “You have to have self-awareness in life,” he told me. “To do a good job at anything, you have to have both interest and acumen. I was 0-for-2. I didn’t have the interest, and I wouldn’t be good at it. I enjoy doing what I used to be good at, or thought I was good at, which is having an issue that’s related to the legal route, and do oversight for policy objectives in that realm. But I would not be good in a leadership position, and knowing that, I wouldn’t run for one.”
He and McCarthy are good friends, and Gowdy says he’s long since forgiven him for what he said. “I have a lot of friends that say things that are 100 percent false. You don’t stop being friends with them, but you also don’t hesitate to say — it wasn’t a mistake, a mistake is putting on the wrong-colored pair of socks. It wasn’t a mistake. He was wrong.” Gowdy says McCarthy texted him at six the following morning to apologize for what he’d said. “Hanna, in certain ways, is harder for me to get my head around, because I talked to him at the airport in August, and he was very complimentary to the way we were running the committee. I don’t know what happened in there. I caught him the morning he said it. I said, ‘What specifically are your issues?’ [He said,] “I don’t have any. I was just frustrated with the conference.’ Okay? The damage is done.”
Gowdy says one of the biggest lessons, having worked in the legal system before leading a congressional investigation, is “how much more effective that branch of government is at conducting investigations.”
“They have the tools. They have subpoenas. They have access to grand juries. They have administrative subpoenas. I have to ask for documents. They don’t have to ask. The FBI doesn’t ask. The DA doesn’t ask — they go get it. They do their work privately. And even when I try to do it privately, nobody wants you to. For about a week, they may say, ‘Oh, this is neat. He’s trying to do it the right way,’ but the reality is the Democrats didn’t want me to do it in private. Some Republicans didn’t want me to do it in private, and nobody in the media wanted me to do it private … The environment is different. You’d never ever ask a crime victim what his or her politics were, never ask a cop. It just never comes up. And the objective in politics is to win. It’s not to find out what happened — it’s to win. If you try pursuing a different set of objectives, you’re going to be a pretty lonely person.”
I asked Gowdy what he thought he’d be doing in five years. He said, “In South Carolina, selling reverse mortgages on cable television at night. Not here.”
Did that really seem preferable to a job in Congress?
“The selling of reverse mortgages does not. I really like what I used to do for a living. I like a courtroom. I like the law. If [South Carolina senator] Tim Scott were here, he would say, ‘Gowdy likes jobs that award fairness.’ And I do. And fairness is not rewarded in a political environment. They want you to strike a blow here, make a point there. This notion of saying, ‘You know what? I see both sides of that issue.’ You don’t hear that here a lot. So no, I won’t be here.”
Just then, his aide cuts in. “I think the Judiciary Committee hearing is starting again. Do you need to chair? Or— ”
Gowdy says dryly, “I resign.”
He’s kidding — I think.