Rep. Trey Gowdy rose to congressional stardom when he put Hillary Clinton in the hot seat for 11 hours during the House Benghazi investigation.
Now it’s time to ask: What happens when you put the GOP’s “Hillary slayer” in charge of an investigation into President Donald Trump’s ties to the Russia scandal? Will he go just as hard at the leader of his own party?
The South Carolina Republican was named the new chair of the House Oversight Committee Thursday — the same day Capitol Hill was buzzing over former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony in the Senate. Gowdy will replace outgoing chair Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who plans to leave Congress in June for personal reasons.
"I look forward to working alongside the other Committee members, as well as any member of Congress, as we discharge the jurisdiction assigned to us," Gowdy said in a statement.
Gowdy will now run one of the major congressional investigations into Trump and Russia, focused in particular on whether Trump’s interactions with former FBI Director Comey constituted an act of obstruction of justice. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he looks “forward to working with him in a constructive and bipartisan manner on an agenda that serves the interests of the American people,” in a statement.
Gowdy has called the allegations against Trump “serious,” but has added that he hopes Republicans learn to multitask — meaning he doesn’t think Russia should be the primary focus of this Congress. He has downplayed developments in the investigation and is allied with Republican leaders who have made it clear that they do not want these probes to be a distraction.
In his opinion, “the criminal inquiry takes precedence” over the congressional probes, referring to the one now put in place by the Department of Justice’s special counsel.
But the mounting stories over the White House’s alleged ties to Russian officials — Trump’s own admission to NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired Comey because of a “made-up” investigation into Russia, the reported memos Comey had detailing conversations with Trump, and the deluge of leaks from the FBI about financial links to Trumpland — has put the pressure on the majority party to at least acknowledge that the news cycle doesn’t look good.
The question is whether Gowdy will also feel the pressure — or simply do as little damage to Trump as he can.
Chaffetz gave in to pressure and started to investigate Trump. Will Gowdy?
Under Chaffetz’s leadership, the House Oversight Committee was slow to investigate Trump or the White House. But with daily developments in the Russia-related scandals, the pressure proved too much to ignore.
In just two weeks, Trump abruptly fired Comey, telling Holt it was related to his Russia investigations; then Trump reportedly revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister; and all of that was followed by the revelation that Comey kept memos that reportedly indicate possible obstruction of justice. Chaffetz said he had his “subpoena pen ready” should the FBI turn down his request for the memos.
That may have just been hyperbole. So far, Comey has not scheduled a date for testimony on the House side. He has told Chaffetz he wants the Department of Justice’s newly appointed special counsel, Robert Mueller, to review the memos before passing them to Congress. Mueller has only cleared Comey to testify publicly — which Comey did before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Chaffetz will likely pass the baton to Gowdy before either of those things happens in the House Oversight Committee. And Gowdy seems equally understanding of allowing the special counsel to take charge of the timeline. Some Republicans on the Hill have argued that the special counsel might slow down what Congress is doing, making it harder for Congress to get ahold of certain documents or testimonials.
But Gowdy says that’s just the nature of these kinds of probes.
“Most people will tell you that the criminal inquiry takes precedence,” he told Vox after Mueller’s appointment. “Routinely I did not interview people on other committees because I did not want to interfere with an ongoing criminal [investigation]. That’s not interference; that’s a purposeful decision that the criminal takes precedence.”
We have already seen Gowdy in a Russia-related investigation
Gowdy isn’t coming cold to investigating Trump and Russia. Earlier in May, he heard from former CIA Director John Brennan during a testimony before the House Intelligence Committee — which Gowdy also sits on.
The testimony looked bad for Trump; Brennan said that Russia “brazenly interfered” with the 2016 election and had actively been in contact with some in Trump’s campaign. But as Vox’s Yochi Dreazen noted, he was careful to avoid making any claims of collusion. But Gowdy’s questioning was pointed in its efforts to catch Brennan on semantics, an indication of his loyalty to the Republican leadership.
“When you learned of Russian efforts, did you have evidence of a connection between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors?” Gowdy asked, knowing well that Brennan couldn’t answer the question.
“I don’t do evidence,” Brennan said. He does “intelligence,” he said, adding that deciding what constitutes as evidence is up to the FBI. Nevertheless, Gowdy asked the same question again, painting the debate as a partisan one:
I appreciate that you don't do evidence, Director Brennan. Unfortunately, that's what I do. That's the word we use; you use the word “assessment,” you use the word “tradecraft.” I use the word “evidence.” And the good news for me is lots of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle use the word “evidence,” too. One of my colleagues said there is more than circumstantial evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign.
So Brennan carefully explained again: “I don't know whether or not such collusion — and that's your term — existed. I know that there was a sufficient basis of information and intelligence that required further investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not US persons were actively conspiring, colluding with Russian officials.”
Without an answer for the second time, Gowdy turned to questioning Brennan’s judgment on the intelligence. He pressed Brennan to explain the nature of the classified information. Brennan again refused. So Gowdy asked how Brennan tested the “reliability or believability, credibility” of the “evidence,” to which Brennan gave a standard response that chalked up to they “actively” worked to ensure its accuracy.
After the hearing, Gowdy reportedly downplayed Brennan’s testimony to CNN’s Manu Raju:
Trey Gowdy, senior GOP member of House Intel, downplayed Brennan's testimony, telling me it's not unusual for Russians to contact campaigns— Manu Raju (@mkraju) May 23, 2017
To some, the tense exchange between Brennan and Gowdy appeared to be an attempt to paint the former CIA director as a partisan. Former CIA agent Phil Mudd added that Gowdy is well aware of the distinction between “evidence” and “intelligence” and was trying to muddy Brennan’s testimony to appear there was no proof of collusion between Trump’s team and the Russians.
This exchange has put Democrats on edge over Gowdy’s intentions with the investigations. But it’s one thing to sit on a committee, and another to chair it.
Trey Gowdy won’t make a fuss for House leadership
Most importantly, Gowdy is a close ally of House leadership.
He represents a deeply red district in the Northwest corner of South Carolina that went for Trump. But he himself wasn’t an early adopter of the Trump doctrine. Gowdy endorsed Marco Rubio for president in the primaries and only came around to Trump in May, when it was clear Trump was going to be the party nominee.
Like many Republicans, Gowdy made the case for party unity; Trump was who the base wanted, and, as House leadership argued, a Republican in the White House is better than not.
He likely won’t cause too much trouble for House leadership, which is likely why he was the pick for Oversight chair in the first place. Committee chairs are picked by a House Republican steering committee, which is made up of leadership and mostly establishment members.
“The establishment’s not going to put the anti-establishment guy in charge of the committee whose job it is to go after the establishment,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters.
Now it is Gowdy’s responsibility to spend the foreseeable future investigating the Republican president who has the support of his constituents.