The Endless Trial of Trey Gowdy's Benghazi Committee
Twenty months, $5 million, and one Michael Bay movie later, the GOP's Hillary slayer is still searching for answers
RollingStone.com | January 14, 2016
“A merciful god," Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina tells me, "would only make you do this once." This, in Gowdy's telling, is the experience of squaring off against the vaunted Clinton juggernaut. It's early November, and I've caught up with Gowdy, the chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi, a few weeks after the committee's eight-hour televised grilling of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was billed as a potentially fatal event for her presidential campaign — with Gowdy as her slayer. But in one of the grand twists of the primary season, Clinton came out on top. Political observers hailed her performance as "poised" and "presidential." Her poll numbers spiked. Gowdy, on the other hand, looked defensive, at times desperate, matched up against Clinton. Of which, he now says, "Nothing can prepare you."
When Gowdy took charge of the Benghazi committee in the spring of 2014, there had already been seven previous House and Senate investigations, plus an internal review by the State Department, into the circumstances surrounding the September 2012 attacks on a U.S. consulate and a CIA compound in Libya that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. All the evidence pointed to a terrorist attack, rather than the work of an angry mob, as members of the Obama administration initially claimed. But those same reports — some signed off on by senior House Republicans — debunked various conspiracy theories, including the existence of a so-called stand-down order to CIA operatives responding to the Benghazi attacks, that might have held the White House or Clinton culpable for the lives lost.
Twenty months, more than $5 million, and one Michael Bay movie later, Gowdy is still searching for the damning evidence that might prove Clinton's ineptitude. We meet in a spare conference room near his office on Capitol Hill. Seated in a leather chair, sporting a day's worth of silver stubble and a bottle of Diet Coke, he looks relaxed yet worn down, self-deprecating one moment and full of pathos the next. He is lean with a long narrow face, a penetrating stare, and a frosty head of hair that changes in cut and style and inspiration seemingly by the month. (GQ devoted an entire slideshow to Gowdy's various looks — the Keith Urban, the Emma Watson, the Draco Malfoy.)
His district, South Carolina's fourth congressional, is one of the most rightwing constituencies in America. It's home to the evangelical Bob Jones University, where students can't drink, dance or wear jeans. A local state senator named Lee Bright has called for making enforcement of the Affordable Care Act punishable by a year in jail and still endorses South Carolina breaking off from the Union. "If at first you don't secede," Bright once quipped, "try again."
On this terrain, Harold Watson Gowdy III, who is 51, remains a beloved figure — he won his last election with 85 percent of the vote. At a diner in the city of Spartanburg, not far from where Gowdy grew up and now lives, one resident described the congressman to me as a "white knight" and a "Boy Scout in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah." Whatever happens on the national stage, Gowdy's congressional seat is his for as long as he wants it.
But Gowdy was supposed to do so much more. He was supposed to be Hillary Clinton's tormenter-in-chief, the man who could inflict more damage on the former first lady's presidential hopes than Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders combined — until he padded her poll numbers. He was supposed to be a Tea Party icon — until he started making friends in Congress, from diehard conservatives like Ohio's Jim Jordan to Democrats and progressives like Vermont's Peter Welch and California's Zoe Lofgren. "This is wildly unpopular to say," he tells me, "but for a body that is at ten percent of public approval polls, what I tell folks back home is, 'You'd be shocked at how many good people are here on both sides of the aisle.'" He was supposed to be a future leader in the Republican Party — until he made it clear to colleagues that he couldn't be less interested in twisting arms and raising money. "I lack every quality that you would want in that person," he says.
This week's release of 13 Hours, the new Michael Bay movie about the Benghazi attacks, which centers on a group of CIA contractors disobeying the disputed stand-down order, could've been a victory lap for Gowdy. (He hasn't seen the movie but says he "may at some point.") But the Select Committee on Benghazi is still many months from completion, and Gowdy now talks like a man with one eye on the exit. He complains privately and publicly about the lack of action in Washington. Dick Harpootlian, an acquaintance from the South Carolina legal community, recalls Gowdy telling him a few years ago, "'This just isn't for me. It's just not a productive use of my time or life." His dream job, according to friends, is to be a federal judge, but in person he jokes about moving back to South Carolina to hawk silver or reverse mortgages. I ask him if he ever regrets running for Congress in the first place. "Yeah, I do," he says. "I do."
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN Boehner himself saw no need for yet another Benghazi investigation, Gowdy says, until learning that a key document outlining the White House's initial response to the incident had been withheld from Congress: the now-infamous talking points memo telling then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to blame the Benghazi attacks on an "Internet video" and "not a broader failure of policy." For Republicans, the directive seemed like a cover-up, meant to disguise wider security failures on the part of President Obama and Secretary Clinton — shortfalls that the GOP rank-and-file have labored to detail ever since. "The fact that Congress should have gotten that memo but did not was the reason [Boehner] cited for me," Gowdy says. "He never mentioned Secretary Clinton's name."
Gowdy was an obvious choice to lead the committee. Friends and fellow lawyers of every political stripe say he was one of the most gifted prosecutors they'd ever worked with (or against). He was Atticus Finch in pink seersucker, with three dogs named Judge, Jury, and Bailiff. Defendants shook his hand for a job well done after he'd put them away and sent him Christmas cards from prison. Barry Barnette, one of Gowdy's long-time deputies in Spartanburg County, called him "the artist." He never lost a single trial in almost 20 years in court.
In 2010, after a decade as solicitor, Gowdy got elected to Congress amid the Tea Party wave, arriving with three other newly elected South Carolina Republicans calling themselves the "Four Horsemen." He did little to shed the image of a conservative crusader. He assailed the Obama administration's use of executive action and offered a bill permitting the House and Senate, as institutions, to sue the president. His law enforcement background got him a seat on the House oversight committee where he established a reputation as a ferocious cross-examiner. Videos of Gowdy assailing administration officials — "Watch Trey Gowdy CRUSH Obama IRS Commissioner"; "Trey Gowdy hammers Sebelius" — often went viral.
With Gowdy in charge, more than 200 House Republicans reportedly wanted a seat on the new Benghazi committee. Democrats dismissed it, in the words of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as "a political ploy." In August 2014, Gowdy's staff received some 15,000 pages of State Department emails in response to a request by a previous investigation. Buried within that pile were eight emails showing then-Secretary Clinton's use of a private email address. That, on its face, didn't raise alarms, Gowdy says. Members of Congress use private email all the time. It was the paucity of any emails for Clinton at all — that was strange. So Gowdy went back to State and asked for Clinton's official government emails related to Benghazi.
Not until February 2015, on the eve of a blockbuster New York Times story, did Gowdy learn the truth: There weren't any state.gov emails for Clinton. They didn't exist. As the Times reported, she'd used a private email her entire time as secretary of state. "The State Department never once said, 'You know, that's going to be a problem because we don't have them,'" Gowdy says. "No one does."
Gowdy and the committee smelled blood. They began chasing every lead and hauling in every Clinton-related witness they could find, causing a summer of torment for Clinton and her nascent presidential campaign. Her exclusive use of a private email account — while arguably bearing little on the events of Benghazi — spiraled into a public-relations fiasco. She refused to apologize, then half-apologized, and then offered an outright "I'm sorry" on national TV. The controversy seemed to confirm what many already believed: Clinton had something to hide. By the summer's end, about four in ten people said they viewed Clinton favorably. One Clinton surrogate called the email saga a "cancer" on her campaign.
Gowdy's stock was soaring. It emerged that the FBI was probing her private server arrangement. With Clinton and Obama on the ropes, Boehner, after announcing his retirement last September, personally asked Gowdy to run for majority leader (as did other members) in the new House leadership. Gowdy's fans started an online petition to convince him to put his name in the hat for House speaker. He was riding high as a conservative hero — and poised to land the killer blow on Clinton when she was scheduled to testify before the committee in October. And then, on the evening of September 29, 2015, Gowdy's friend Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader from California, went on Fox News and opened his mouth.
Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?" McCarthy told Sean Hannity of Fox News. "But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping."
Gowdy was furious. "I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends: Shut up talking about things that you don't know anything about," he said a few weeks later on CBS' Face the Nation. "Unless you're on the committee, you have no idea what we have done, why we have done it, and what new facts we have found."
He forgave McCarthy, only for another House Republican, Richard Hanna of New York, to tell a local radio host that the Benghazi committee was "designed to go after people — and an individual, Hillary Clinton." The two comments were a gift to Democrats and the Clinton campaign, and perfectly timed, coming in the run-up to Clinton's appearance before the committee. By the week of Clinton's testimony, a CNN poll found that seven out of ten people viewed the Benghazi committee as mostly a means to score political points heading into an election year.
The hearing itself proved relatively uneventful, if not counterproductive — at least in the eyes of the Republican faithful. Gowdy came off looking exactly as he had hoped he never would: a partisan hack trying to defend his committee's very existence. He used his opening remarks to repudiate any notion that the Benghazi committee's true purpose was to damage Hillary Clinton. In a press conference after the hearing, Gowdy was asked if the committee had learned anything new. "Uh," he said, straining for an answer. "In terms of her testimony? I don't know that she testified that much differently today than she has the previous time she testified."
Almost overnight, Gowdy's stock slumped. The fearless former prosecutor who'd uncovered Clinton's private email server was now a hapless congressman who'd handed the former secretary of state the finest moment of an otherwise uninspired year. The day after the hearing, Dan Balz, the Washington Post's resident graybeard, wrote: "In the short run at least, the committee likely did more to help, rather than hinder, Clinton in her bid to win the White House a year from now." The Greenville News, the biggest newspaper in Gowdy's district, called the committee a "political sideshow," adding "it's time for it to end its work."
Gowdy says he read that last one. "The good news for me is subscriptions are down, so I'm not sure how many other people saw that editorial."
In his conversations with me, he complains about the ineffectiveness of grilling Clinton in a public setting — as opposed to behind closed-doors, like all the rest of the committee's nearly 70 testimonies. "This notion that the public hearings are somehow conducive with learning lots of new things — there's a reason we don't have public hearings, and you saw that reason," he says. He recalls the old truism among lawyers: "If you're explaining, you're losing." By his own admission, Gowdy has done a lot of explaining.
He found himself again on the defense in late November. A Republican staffer on the Benghazi committee named Bradley Podliska alleged that he'd been fired, in part, for not embracing what he claimed was the committee's excessive attention on Clinton. In a wrongful termination suit, Podliska claims that the committee's investigation "changed significantly to focus on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department and deemphasize the other agencies that were involved in the Benghazi attack." Podliska's suit also names Gowdy personally as a defendant. In the complaint, Podliska claims the congressman defamed him by publicly criticizing his handling of classified information and releasing details of Podliska's work history in violation of federal law.
In December, Gowdy says he hasn't read the complaint but is familiar with its contents, adding that he is unable to respond on the advice of lawyers for the House of Representatives. "The process and the lawyers tell me that I should keep my mouth shut, let them handle it with the pleadings, and ultimately he's made a series of allegations that he has the burden of proof for," he tells me. "I thought they were meritless the day they came out of his mouth, and I continue to think they're meritless."
WHEN GOWDY FIRST ran for Congress, he says, he set out to run a tough race and still be on good terms with the Republican he beat. His ideal campaign would look like this: "We would travel the state, we would tell people what our differences were, we would defend the other if they were accused of something they really hadn't done." In the end, the voters decide who they like best. "Much like a trial," he says.
Back in his home district, people still mistake him for the county solicitor. And Gowdy still talks and thinks out loud like the prosecutor he once was. He's referred to the House oversight committee as a "jury" and once caught himself calling its former chairman, Darrell Issa, "your honor." And to hear him tell it, Gowdy wishes to be judged like a prosecutor, for how fair he was, how many new documents he unearthed and new witnesses questioned. If that were the case, he believes, he'd have already won.
But of course it's not, and Gowdy is the first to admit that he was woefully naïve going into the Benghazi committee. "I thought that everyone would agree that we do need access to documents," he tells me. "There's not been a finger lifted to help us get any documents. How else do you explain document requests that are over a year old?" He pauses. "I could just tell you in my previous job I would be armed with a toothbrush and an orange jump suit if I did not give documents to — I don't wanna say the other side — but the other side in a timely fashion."
He compares the politicized Benghazi committee with the work of the Justice Department or the FBI. "No one makes those agencies conduct their hearings in public, he says. "Nobody expects [FBI Director James] Comey to say, 'Here's a list of people I plan on talking to. This is my deadline. And, oh by the way, we're going to do all these interviews in public,'" Gowdy tells me. "Comey would laugh."
Only Congress is not a court, let alone an FBI interrogation room. Witnesses can stall and delay, documents can be produced or not, and the proceedings and investigations are undeniably, inescapably partisan. The Clinton political complex set up a 30-person war room dedicated to defending Clinton and outmaneuvering the Benghazi committee. When Gowdy gave his investigative plan for 2015 to his Democratic colleagues, it ended up in the New York Times. And the committee's most important hearing with Clinton played out in front of hundreds of reporters and a global audience.
"You spend 16 years in a system where they say your job is not to win, your job is to follow a process that is fair," he tells me. Congress, on the other hand, "is not a job that rewards fairness."
When Gowdy speaks favorably of his current job, it's inevitably about his lawyerly work on the Benghazi and other House committees, cross-examining witnesses and gathering evidence. "It's fun," he says. "It reminds me of my old job." When I ask what gig he'd like more than his current one, he says, "Any job that rewards fairness, facts, objectivity, the ability to see more than one side of an issue — those are the jobs that interest me. Prosecutor job, judicial job."
Gowdy, the unbeaten solicitor not much interested in being a politician, is stuck in a political fight where there will be no clear winners and losers. Even more galling, the absence of an outright victory has revealed another reality of political life: your status can fall even quicker than it can rise. These days, even some of Gowdy's conservative brethren are turning on the Benghazi committee and its pugnacious chairman. "It is the definition of a shiny object," says Drew Ryun of the Madison Project, a conservative grassroots group. "I don't think it's going anywhere."
At one point in our first conversation, Gowdy was in the middle of telling me how hard it is to question a "great witness" like Hillary Clinton when an aide interrupts to say the last round of floor votes has been called.
"You are always the bearer of bad news," Gowdy deadpans. "You know what they did in Biblical times when they gave bad news?"
"Kill the messenger?"
GOWDY'S INTERVIEWS ARE filled with little repartees — "I resign," he quipped in a recent interview with New York — constant reminders of his distaste for the institution that presently employs him. For now, however, he's focused on finishing the work of the committee, the cause that will likely define his time in Congress. He recently interviewed former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA director General David Petraeus. (Petraeus called his time before the committee "very constructive.") And he continues to wait — and wait, and wait — for additional documents requested from the State Department. "In my old job, I didn't have to ask," he says. "And in this job, you do. And you'll never know that you have everything." Nonetheless, he's confident the committee's final report will be fair and thorough because he's the one writing it. But even then, he can't help but sound frustrated by his inability to build the kind of case on Benghazi that he might have mustered as a prosecutor in a courtroom.
Does he ever regret accepting Boehner's offer to chair the Benghazi committee? No, he says, but then chides the media for wanting public drama to cover and the Democrats for fighting him at every turn. "Who wants you to run a serious, document-centric, fact-centric investigation? Who is your constituency?" he asks. The answer, for Gowdy, is the families of the Americans killed in Benghazi. "You just know they're gonna ask you, 'Did you learn more as a result of your efforts?' I know I can answer that question: Yes," he says. "The question is, by the time the report rolls around will anybody care."
When I ask how he thinks the Benghazi committee will be judged, Gowdy can't help but slip back into the prosecutor's chair. "If I were standing in front of 12 people that were qualified to serve on a jury," he says, "which means they hadn't already made up their minds, and you can say, 'We have interviewed this number of witnesses nobody else interviewed, including eyewitnesses, [accessed] these documents from these agencies that nobody else accessed, and, oh, by the way, we have the correspondence from the two people who, one knew the most about Libya being the ambassador, and the other arguably knew more about our policy in Libya than anyone else,' do you think that's been a successful venture? I think a jury would say, 'Yeah, it has.' It's just finding the 12 people that haven't already made up their minds."