Political News

Gowdy Emerges as Key Challenger to Trump on GOP Russia Memo

Posted February 5, 2018 10:08 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Rep. Trey Gowdy is known on Capitol Hill as a tough investigator of Democrats and a fierce Republican partisan. He is also the only Republican on the House Intelligence Committee to have read all of the sensitive intelligence underlying a contested Republican memo on the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation.

So when Gowdy, R-S.C., emerged as a strong voice contradicting President Donald Trump’s contention that the memo “totally vindicates” him, his words had particular meaning.

“I actually don’t think it has any impact on the Russia probe,” Gowdy said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Gowdy is not alone. At least four other Republicans — Reps. Brad Wenstrup of Ohio, Chris Stewart of Utah, Will Hurd of Texas and Peter T. King of New York — have said they do not believe that the memo necessarily exonerates the president on the question of whether his campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

And, they said, it should in no way undermine the continuing investigation of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 election and whether it involved anyone in the president’s political operation — an investigation that Trump has repeatedly called a “witch hunt.”

“It’s a factual answer,” King said Monday about Gowdy’s stand. “I’ve said the same thing. I wasn’t surprised at all to hear Trey say it.”

Stewart, speaking on Fox News on Sunday, was equally pointed. “This memo has frankly nothing at all to do with a special counsel,” he said.

The previously classified memo, made public Friday by the House Intelligence Committee, suggests that the FBI and the Justice Department abused their authority in seeking a warrant to spy on one of the president’s former campaign advisers. It claimed law enforcement officials omitted relevant information in their application for a warrant to wiretap the former campaign adviser, Carter Page.

But the memo — which Gowdy said he was “intricately involved” in drafting — did not make the case promised by some Republicans: that the evidence it contained would cast serious doubt on the origins of the Russia investigation and call into question any conclusion Mueller might reach.

“As I watched him on ‘Face The Nation,’ what he said was pretty clear from my perspective,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a close friend of Gowdy’s. “He put the memo in one tranche and put the Russia investigation in another tranche, and I think one doesn’t cancel out the other.”

To be sure, the tumult around the memo has had an impact. It has helped bolster the views of Trump’s most vociferous partisans who insist the Russia investigation was started under false pretenses by an FBI leadership that favored Hillary Clinton and is hopelessly biased against Trump. The president has fed that notion with a steady stream of tweets, such as, “Their was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!”

And the attention on the spectacle surrounding the memo has taken the public’s eye off the Russia investigation itself.

In that sense, Gowdy’s public protestations against the president’s conclusions are contradicted by his private involvement in the drafting of the memo.

But in Republican circles, Gowdy’s words matter.

“I don’t think that Trey was looking to contradict anybody,” said Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, R-Fla. "I think that Trey speaks from a place of judicial and lawyerly knowledge that a lot of people don’t have or comprehend.”

Gowdy, 53, is best known on Capitol Hill for two things: his ever-shifting hairstyles and for the way he grilled Clinton while leading the House inquiry into the 2012 attacks on Benghazi, Libya. He has a tendency to proclaim bipartisan intentions to reporters before carving up his political opponents.

Close observers of Gowdy see him as a man in tension with himself. He is smart about politics and almost certainly knew that the release of the memo — known as the “Nunes memo” after Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee — would become fodder for Republicans, including Trump, to undercut the Mueller investigation.

But Gowdy — who told CBS he has never met or had a conversation with Trump — is also versed in the law. In announcing last week that he intends to retire from the House, he said he had concluded that his skills “are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress.” Colleagues say that his years as a prosecutor have trained him to choose his words carefully.

“The president is a layman when it comes to the law,” King said. “Trey is a career prosecutor, a veteran prosecutor, and he’s going to be carrying the ball as we go forward on this investigation, and he has to be careful to maintain his credibility.”

While Gowdy can be “very aggressive and very hard-hitting,” King added, “he’s also very restrained, and I don’t think you’ll find that he ever overshot the mark.”

Eric Snyder, the State Department lawyer who dealt directly with Gowdy when he was investigating the department’s handling of Benghazi attacks, offered a similar assessment.

“We were on opposite sides of a very contentious and highly disputed investigation with very different constituents,” Snyder said. “A lot of people would say that he was unfair and driven by politics, but I didn’t get that from him. I think he believed in what he was doing and believed he was doing the right thing, but at the same time he took a lot of heat from his own party for not doing things that he knew were inappropriate.” Gowdy, who in addition to serving on the Intelligence Committee is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was elected to Congress in 2010 on that year’s Tea Party wave.

On Capitol Hill, he quickly made a name for himself with his aggressive questioning of Obama administration officials during committee hearings.

“He’s a former prosecutor and I think he looks at everything as a prosecutor does,” said David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University who ran Gowdy’s first campaign, for district attorney. “Obviously, he has a good political bone, but he’s not one who measures out the effect of what he says.”

In 2014, then-Speaker John A. Boehner picked Gowdy to head the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Gowdy promised a process that would be thorough and fair.

“This will not be what people on the left fear it will be,'’ he said in an interview at the time.

Then the Benghazi inquiry became everything the left feared — and more — after the disclosure that Clinton had kept a personal email account as secretary of state.

When the Intelligence Committee, led by Nunes, began digging into the FBI’s application to wiretap Page under the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, it reached agreement with the Justice Department that just one person would review the intelligence that formed the basis of the application. Nunes picked Gowdy, figuring his skills as a prosecutor would come in handy.

Scott said Gowdy was not likely to miss the rough-and-tumble of such politically charged matters — or the gradations of truth in Washington.

“By definition the political process is not simply a black-and-white process,” Scott said. “He prefers clarity and the ability to reach a decision based on all information that’s being gathered, as opposed to going around the circle several times.”