Trey Gowdy Is Precisely the Person the White House Doesn’t Want Investigating Benghazi

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 8 2014 11:14 AM

May It Please Trey Gowdy

The South Carolina Republican leading the Benghazi select committee was made for the job.

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“I imagine the powerful legs of one of North Carolina's greatest tennis players thrusting at the asphalt of a parking lot outside a Charlotte apartment building,” Gowdy wrote in 2001, in a diary for Slate. “I imagine his last thought. I wonder why God let this happen. Jeff Adams was barely 30 years old. He was a beautiful person who never felt the sweet kiss of a daughter. If the thug who shot him had only known the loss and havoc he wreaked.  A family friend died in utter, useless vain.”

Gowdy went to work for the U.S. attorney’s office, then to run for Holmon Gossett’s job. Soon after he won, a think tank released a study of one of the prosecutor’s offices in Spartanburg County, part of Gowdy’s new jurisdiction. Researchers had pronounced it sloppy and adrift. One of the condemned prosecutors accused Gowdy of supplying the dirt. “He's mad at me for winning," Gowdy told a reporter. “He's further frustrated by the fact that the overwhelming majority of prosecutors in the solicitor's office want to stay after I take office.”

Of course, the impression of disarray worked to Gowdy’s advantage. After he took over, the South Carolina Court Administration revealed that two-thirds of the circuit’s cases were half a year old, or older. “I am embarrassed to have the second-oldest backlog in the state,” Gowdy told the press. Right from the start he was building a reputation for taking ice-cold cases, and for knowing precisely how to handle a local media that wanted details of crimes.

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Gowdy has hardly changed. He delivers floor statements and press conferences, which tend toward tedium, with the passion of a losing argument. (One video of Gowdy deriding the administration over Benghazi got 2.2 million views on YouTube, probably for the way he stalks to and from the podium and throws down notes that he hardly seems to need.) In hearings, Gowdy sometimes refers to the Oversight Committee as a “jury.” At the most recent Benghazi hearing, on May 1, he accidentally started to call Issa “your honor.” He turns any room, temporarily, into a courtroom.

“He can ask a question,” says Graham. “Now, the bar is low in Congress, I’ll be first to admit. These five-minute rounds that are four-minute speeches with one question that’s—why did you ask that question?”

This isn’t always true. Gowdy’s inquisitions, especially about Benghazi, can expand to include every fact he wants known. At the May 1 hearing, when Gowdy was given his time to question Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell, he mused about the questions he wanted to ask the Obama administration and the incoherent answers he’d gotten so far. “Maybe instead of reading comprehension we ought to teach writing comprehension,” he snarked. He paraphrased White House press secretary Jay Carney while “edit[ing] out all the stumbling and stammering Jay Carney did.”

The snark ran out, and Gowdy got to the question.

“What evidence did you have that this was an escalation of a protest rooted in spontaneity that got out of control and resulted in the murder of four of our fellow Americans?” he asked.

“There was none,” said Lovell.

It was a perfect answer, coaxed out by a passionate reminder of how they were discussing not just talking points but the lives of Americans—Americans Gowdy had promised to honor in their deaths. It was also, as Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon would prove, one of very few useful answers. Lovell was there to contradict the official, investigated story that the military did everything it could to get resources to Benghazi. “BG Lovell did not serve in a capacity that gave him reliable insight into operational options available to commanders during the attack,” said McKeon.

But Lovell could confirm to Gowdy that the false story of an escalating protest did not come from the military. That was Gowdy’s point—however many days passed since the attack, he would put together a narrative that explained who lied. And this makes him hard for the Obama administration to immediately dismiss, though it’s trying. Issa, in the White House’s view, was always a wounded figure whose repeated histrionics have gone nowhere. It wants Gowdy to be seen the same way, as a dispenser of cornpone and grenades who will run a show trial.

Actually, in the media tour that started after he was picked to run the committee, Gowdy has relied on his “trial” metaphor. He’s stuck by a claim of “evidence” that the Obama administration scrambled to hide relevant facts. “If an administration is slow-walking document production,” he said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “I can’t end a trial simply because the defense won’t cooperate.” Gowdy only talks about Benghazi the way he’d talk about a re-opened murder investigation, a case given to his courtroom because somebody else screwed it up. He’s good at this. Republicans, who can imagine the select committee lasting through the midterms and into a lame duck president’s final years, are clamoring to be in his jury.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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