Trey Gowdy has never met Donald Trump. The Republican congressman from South Carolina has never visited the president at the White House, joined him for a weekend round of golf, nor so much as spoken with the commander-in-chief. “Never,” Gowdy told me flatly. “I don’t have a relationship with Trump.” He corrected himself: “President Trump.”
I recently met with Gowdy in a conference room a short walk from the U.S. Capitol. It was late morning, and he’d already loosened his magenta tie. This was before Gowdy’s comments about the “Spygate” controversy, but he was just as eager to defy his own party – while calling out the hypocrisy, as he sees it, of some Democrats – on everything from the House Russia probe and Comey to Mueller and Trump.
Don’t get me wrong: Gowdy is no martyr, and this is not a profile-in-courage type of story. But his current situation catches a larger, unsettling truth about the Trump era. There is no room under the Republican Party’s incredible shrinking tent for someone who breaks ranks, who prefers facts to hearsay and innuendo and who doesn’t see every situation as a partisan death match. Such a position, as Gowdy is finding, can be a lonely existence.
If the name Trey Gowdy rings a bell, it’s probably for one reason: Benghazi. It was Gowdy who ran the seemingly endless investigation into the 2012 attacks on U.S. government facilities in Libya that left four Americans dead. It was Gowdy who led the eight-hour public grilling of Hillary Clinton as part of that investigation, and Gowdy who helped reveal the existence of Clinton’s private email server. You probably saw him on TV, the Draco Malfoy-looking guy with the curious haircut. Democrats ripped him as a partisan hack bent on kneecapping their party’s 2016 presidential candidate. But Republicans adored him, touting him as a future speaker of the House or even presidential material.
But the 53-year-old Gowdy has never hid his distaste for Washington. He shudders at the thought of serving in the House leadership. He did agree last year to take the reins of the House Oversight Committee, giving him subpoena power and control of one of the most powerful committees in Congress, but it proved a temporary assignment. In January, Gowdy said that he was not just quitting Congress when his term ended later this year, but abandoning politics entirely.
Now, on his way out, Gowdy has emerged as a rare voice of sanity in a Republican Party that has surrendered to the whims of Donald Trump. He has defended ex-FBI director James Comey and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Most recently, he shot down the latest controversy manufactured by the president, appearing on Fox News to say that the FBI did not plant a spy inside Trump’s campaign. “I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got – and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump,” he said.
Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, responded by calling Gowdy “uninformed.” Another pro-Trump attorney said Gowdy “doesn’t know diddly-squat” about how federal investigations work. The Fox host Lou Dobbs branded him a RINO (Republican in-name-only).
I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to Gowdy. A RINO he is not. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, as you’d expect from someone representing a district that hasn’t elected a Democrat in 26 years. But Gowdy doesn’t march in lockstep with his fellow Republicans, either – a fact he seems intent on underscoring before he leaves office.
Gowdy was never a huge Trump fan – he endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) in the Republican primary – but I was still surprised to hear he had never met or spoken to the president who, as a candidate, tweeted out a supporter’s suggestion that he pick Gowdy as his attorney general. “This is a universe of one,” he explained to me, “but if you are looking into a fact pattern, the fairest thing to do for those you expect to have confidence in what you find and the people that are ‘the subject of the investigation’ is to have as little contact as possible.”
Gowdy is a former federal prosecutor, and it’s on the subject of law enforcement that he has separated himself from his party. He has refrained from attacking Mueller, the FBI or the Department of Justice – attacks widely viewed as an attempt to sow doubt about the legitimacy of Mueller’s work and its eventual findings. “I don’t get beating up on a guy that didn’t volunteer for the job,” he said of Mueller, “that’s had a really distinguished career, both military and law enforcement, and his jurisdiction is bequeathed to him by the Trump-appointed DOJ officials. I don’t get why he’s the target.”
He sounded far more confident about Mueller’s work than about the conclusions of the House Intel Committee’s own Russia probe, which he worked on. Gowdy called the committee’s final report “almost by definition an unfinished product” and spoke more about the limitations of a congressional investigation. “I would want to talk to everyone who had information that might be relevant and access every document. I’m not aware of any Congressional investigation that can do so, which is why I’ve consistently said I have more confidence in the executive branch investigations than I do in Congressional ones.”
Unlike his fellow Republicans, however, Gowdy told me he hoped all of the Intel Committee’s transcripts would be released – something his fellow Republicans have resisted. “What you’ll see is some Republicans were tougher on Steve Bannon than the Democrats were. You will see some Republicans ask every single witness collusion, coordination, conspiracy questions every way you can ask them. You’ll see that some Democrats did also, but you’ll see questions that if we were in a courtroom and the objection were relevant, would never have been asked. A judge would’ve laughed you out of a courtroom, but there is no referee in congressional investigations.”
Our conversation drifted toward Gowdy’s decision to quit. Soon after his announcement, he told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that that he wanted to work “where facts matter” and “where fairness matters.” He added that he hadn’t once seen someone’s perspective change after a debate on a particular issue. He acknowledged that he probably won a few debates with his fellow Republicans on law enforcement issues, but he couldn’t think of a Democrat whose mind he had changed. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t respect some of his colleagues across the aisle. He recounted a conversation he’d had with “Joey” – liberal darling Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) – on the House floor a few years back about a marijuana-related bill. Kennedy voted one way and Gowdy voted differently, but he still recalls how Kennedy “gave me the best, tightest, most persuasive explanation for why that was not the way I should’ve voted. When I think of people that I want in public service, it is people who are capable of doing that.”
Unfortunately Congress, as he sees it, is trending in the opposite direction. “In politics, most people have already made up their minds and they’re going in search of facts that validate their already previously held conviction,” he said. “In a courtroom, the only way you can serve on a jury is to say, ‘I have not made up my mind yet.’ So, persuasion matters, facts matter, process matters, relevance matters. None of that matters in politics.”
The ultimate objective for both parties, he went on, was singular: Win at all costs. “The number-one goal right now of Democrats in the House,” he said, “is to be the majority party come January of 2019, and our number-one goal is to maintain the majority. Because we tell ourselves, ‘If this doesn’t happen, really terrible things are going to happen.’ Both sides say that.”
An old courtroom saying came to mind, he said: “May justice be done though the heavens fall.” He paused for a moment. “I mean, that’s a big consequence to justice being done – the whole heavens collapsing on you,” he told me. “But there’s a reason that saying exists in a courtroom. You don’t hear that saying in politics.”