White House

Trey Gowdy was done with politics. Now he’s representing Donald Trump

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, on Capitol Hill last year.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, on Capitol Hill last year. AP

Earlier this year, Trey Gowdy left Congress and returned home to South Carolina, making one thing perfectly clear: after eight years in office, he was done with politics.

The former Republican U.S. congressman was so over it, he turned down an opportunity to be nominated for a federal judgeship — his longtime dream job — because he was unable to stomach the prospect of having to endure Senate confirmation proceedings where Democrats would undeniably rip him apart.

“I did want it,” Gowdy, a longtime prosecutor, told The State in early 2018. “I don’t anymore.”

But now, after nearly eight months in the Greenville office of the law firm of Nelson Mullins, Gowdy has decided to get back into the game.

The job? To be a member of Donald Trump’s personal legal team as the president fights impeachment for allegedly asking the Ukrainian government to investigate 2020 presidential contender Joe Biden and his son.

In this context, it’s a stunning development.

Despite presiding over the controversial U.S. House committee to investigate what role then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might have played in allowing the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Gowdy always took pains to prevent the proceedings from being any more of a political circus than it already was.

As chairman of what was then called the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Gowdy was loathe to hold public hearings when he could convene private member briefings instead, arguing these venues were more productive than allowing lawmakers to grandstand in front of the cameras.

“Do you want the information or do you want the drama?” Gowdy said at the time. “I prefer the information.”

Now, Gowdy is poised to become entangled in the ultimate chaos factory. Amid efforts among U.S. House Democrats to impeach the president, Trump is running his own public affairs shop via Twitter and his private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is spreading similarly undisciplined talking points on cable news.

But those who know Gowdy also say the former congressman’s decision to join Trump’s team is not at all surprising.

Al Simpson — who was chief of staff to then-U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney before the South Carolina Republican decamped for various roles in the Trump administration — suggested Gowdy has disdain for what he perceives as hypocrisy and injustice.

“With all the questions out there, there’s still a lot of unanswered questions, like whether Joe Biden was involved in the Ukraine thing,” said Simpson, now a government relations consultant. “I think (Gowdy) wants to get to the bottom of it and do the best he can for the administration.”

And while Gowdy might have bemoaned the ugliness of the American political system and regretted that Congress was nothing like his first love, the court of law — and insisted that he was an attorney first, a politician second — Gowdy is, at the end of the day, a member of the Republican Party.

He’s even been a contributor at the conservative-leaning Fox News for the past several months, though the network severed his contract Wednesday as he made final arrangements with the White House.

“While Trey Gowdy has always told us that his legal career is his focus, he’s also a politician, and politicians care about the political parties they belong to,” said Rob Godfrey, a former senior adviser to then-S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley. “What this appears to be is a Republican partisan protecting his party just as he did when he attempted to prosecute Hillary Clinton in the court of public opinion four years ago.”

Man for the job

Gowdy did not respond to requests for comment and the White House remained silent on the arrangements until Wednesday night, when Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, confirmed his hire as counsel had been finalized.

“His legal skills and his advocacy will serve the President well,” Sekulow said in a statement. “Trey’s command of the law is well known and his service on Capitol Hill will be a great asset as a member of our team.”

“His time as a prosecutor and member of Congress will serve this nation as we seek the facts,” U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Gowdy’s close friend, agreed in a statement to The State. “The president has added a well respected person and the American people will appreciate and benefit form his integrity and competence.”

Unspoken was the fact that Gowdy brings to the job the experience of having been run through Washington’s partisan gauntlet thanks to his involvement with the Benghazi committee.

As a member of Congress, he served on the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, which conducted its own investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and found no evidence the Trump administration had colluded with a foreign government to that end.

He is beloved by fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill and has insisted he was able to maintain some good personal relationships with Democrats, too, even as the party’s leadership demonized him.

Gowdy has also shown a willingness to tout the party line on national television — specifically on Fox News, the channel Trump favors.

In addition to casting doubt on the credibility of the Democratic impeachment inquiry, Gowdy has in recent TV appearances also been deeply critical of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, who Trump likes to mock as “Liddle Adam Schiff.”

Still, while Gowdy now seems like an obvious choice to join the Trump team, his path to the White House was a long one.

In 2015, when Trump was a presidential candidate, he referred to Gowdy as a “loser” for not producing any overtly damning information during the Benghazi committee’s 11-hour grilling of Clinton, who at that point was also a White House contender.

After winning election in 2016, however, Trump went on to make repeated attempts to court Gowdy for a seat at the table.

There were discussions about naming Gowdy as U.S. attorney general; at another moment, Gowdy was on the short list for consideration to be director of the FBI.

Trump was even “receptive” to the idea of nominating Gowdy to be a federal judge in early 2018, according to U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Gowdy’s very close friend.

Gowdy ultimately turned down all of these opportunities.

It’s not clear what led Gowdy to take a meeting with Trump in Washington on Tuesday to discuss joining the president’s private legal team.

As a member of Congress, Gowdy for a long time insisted he had never had so much as a phone conversation with Trump, not even when Trump was ostensibly considering him for jobs. Gowdy said this was an intentional choice to create a wall between the White House and Congress, which was supposed to be investigating potential misconduct within the administration.

Sources suggested Gowdy might have been convinced to sit down with Trump at the urging of Mulvaney, who has since last December been serving as the acting chief of staff. Mulvaney and Gowdy have been close for years, especially since entering the U.S. House together in 2011, alongside Scott, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2013.

Dave Woodard, a veteran S.C. political consultant who advised Gowdy on his first election campaign in 2010, said the time might have finally felt right for Gowdy to re-enter the arena.

“I knew that when he left office he was just kind of exhausted, and I knew something else would come his way at some time and he would take it,” said Woodard. “I just didn’t know what it would be.”

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Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.