Hillary foe turns heads with Trump talk

It’s getting harder to figure out whose side Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyHillicon Valley: FBI fires Strzok after anti-Trump tweets | Trump signs defense bill with cyber war policy | Google under scrutiny over location data | Sinclair's troubles may just be beginning | Tech to ease health data access | Netflix CFO to step down FBI fires Strzok after anti-Trump texts House Intel lawmakers introduce bipartisan election security bill MORE is on. 

A fierce Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: FBI fires Strzok after anti-Trump tweets | Trump signs defense bill with cyber war policy | Google under scrutiny over location data | Sinclair's troubles may just be beginning | Tech to ease health data access | Netflix CFO to step down Signs grow that Mueller is zeroing in on Roger Stone Omarosa claims president called Trump Jr. a 'f--- up' for releasing Trump Tower emails MORE critic who led the deeply polarizing investigation into the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, the South Carolina Republican has more recently tweaked President TrumpDonald John TrumpAl Gore: Trump has had 'less of an impact on environment so far than I feared' Trump claims tapes of him saying the 'n-word' don't exist Trump wanted to require staffers to get permission before writing books: report MORE publicly over the federal investigation into his campaign, exhorting him, “When you are innocent, act like it.”

Gowdy has been one of his party’s louder defenders of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and has called Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department “not helpful.” 

And he startled Capitol Hill when he broke with the assessment from Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Russian President Vladimir Putin preferred Trump during the 2016 presidential race.

Yet the retiring lawmaker is also leading an investigation into alleged bias at the FBI that critics see as the partisan successor to the Benghazi investigation. Democrats say the probe is designed to divert attention from the Mueller investigation onto a familiar GOP punching bag — Clinton — and muddy the waters surrounding his work.

In an interview with The Hill, Gowdy, who holds the gavel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, disputed the charge of partisanship and the notion that he has been liberated by his impending retirement to pursue the Trump administration. 

Congress “is not a job that rewards fairness,” he often tells reporters. “I try to call balls and strikes.”

He is frustrated by suggestions that his probe of the Justice Department is politically motivated and disheartened that his oversight efforts have been viewed as “tension between a Republican president and Republican members of the House.” 

“If you are at all critical of the bureau then you’re attacking law enforcement in today’s political discourse,” he complained. “If you have no curiosity whatsoever as to why [former FBI Director] Jim Comey would send two letters in the throes of a presidential race — that’s what I find amazing.”

He recalled a panel discussion with Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonRubio slams Google over plans to unveil censored Chinese search engine Bipartisanship alive and well, protecting critical infrastructure Exclusive: Bannon blasts 'con artist' Kochs, 'lame duck' Ryan, 'diminished' Kelly MORE (R-Ark.) shortly after the election, at a fundraiser hosted by a Cotton-led super PAC, in which the two lawmakers envisioned Republicans reasserting Congress’s authority as a co-equal branch of government.

“We said this is a unique opportunity for this branch to depoliticize oversight and say this is a branch issue,” Gowdy said.

A former federal prosecutor himself, Gowdy’s role in the multiple GOP investigations into alleged Justice Department misconduct is sometimes murky. 

Gowdy, who also sits on the Judiciary and Intelligence panels, is at the confluence of three powerful committees investigating the Justice Department in some capacity. He frequently says the allegations against the department “break his heart,” but behind the scenes, he has been a guiding force.

At least publicly, he claims to defer to Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteGoodlatte's son 'embarrassed' his father's 'grandstanding' got Strzok fired Top GOP lawmaker’s son gives maximum donation to Dem running for his seat Graham: DOJ official was 'unethical' in investigating Trump campaign because his wife worked for Fusion GPS MORE (R-Va.) in the joint Judiciary-Oversight probe into the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) conduct during the 2016 presidential race, insisting that Goodlatte’s is the right committee to provide oversight of the department.  

On the Intelligence Committee he has at times appeared to distance himself from Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTop aide in Kenneth Starr investigation will vote for Dems for first time Vulnerable Republicans include several up-and-coming GOP leaders Dems seek GOP wipeout in California MORE’s (R-Calif.) efforts to expose alleged anti-Trump wrongdoing at the Justice Department. 

Gowdy stepped in to edit a controversial memo spearheaded by staff for Nunes alleging misuse of U.S. surveillance authorities to obtain a court order to spy on former Trump campaign adviser  Carter Page.

In the weeks before Nunes revealed the document, rumors swirled that there was a group of committee Republicans researching alleged corruption at the FBI. Gowdy explicitly distanced himself from those efforts to reporters at the time, and he still appears uncomfortable with the four-page document, which was widely ripped by former intelligence officials. 

“When a decision is made to do something and you are asked to edit it, that is involvement,” he said, when asked about his role in producing the final document. “I was asked to edit it and I did.”

He has also publicly contradicted Nunes’s assertion that lawmakers are investigating a “Phase Two” of wrongdoing at the State Department during the election. There is a “State Department component to this,” Gowdy said, but he also said he has “never subscribed to the second phase” described by Nunes. “To me, it’s all one big thing.”

At the same time, Gowdy is pursuing some of the core claims in the Nunes memo through his work with Goodlatte and has called for a second special counsel to look into the matter. 

According to Gowdy, it is “pretty close to being a unanimously accepted fact” that senior Justice Department officials failed to vet a controversial piece of opposition research before using it in the surveillance warrant application for Page. 

Such applications go through multiple layers of review, and Gowdy acknowledged that in order for the allegation to be true, the process would have to have failed at multiple levels. 

“We’ve had a hard time nailing down exactly who at DOJ wants to take ownership” of the application, he said. “Was it [former Assistant Attorney General] John Carlin? Was it the bureau that represented it to a prosecutor, ‘Yes, we vetted this all out, you’re good to go’? Who was the affiant whose name has been redacted?”

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee who have read the underlying application say that the FBI provided the court with information from independent sources corroborating the claims from the opposition research dossier. 

At the same time that he has been helping drive GOP investigations of the Justice Department, as Oversight chairman, Gowdy has launched multiple investigations into the Trump administration. 

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate Sen. Sanders blasts Zinke: Wildfires 'have everything to do with climate change' Zinke on California fires: 'This is not a debate about climate change' MORE, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonBen Carson takes steps to revamp Obama fair housing rule Conway struggles to name top-ranking black official in White House The Memo: Charlottesville anniversary puts Trump and race under microscope MORE, former White House staff secretary Rob Porter and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceWhite House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report GOP lawmaker calls for ethics rules changes after Collins charged with insider trading Collins indictment raises Dem hopes in deep-red district MORE have all found themselves in his crosshairs. 

No one is mistaking Gowdy for Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeSenate GOP campaign arm asking Trump to endorse McSally in Arizona: report Arpaio says he misheard Sacha Baron Cohen questions Election Countdown: Takeaways from too-close-to-call Ohio special election | Trump endorsements cement power but come with risks | GOP leader's race now rated as 'toss-up' | Record numbers of women nominated | Latino candidates get prominent role in 2020 MORE (R-Ariz.), perhaps the fiercest critic of the president among Republicans in Congress. But his oversight activity has not gone unnoticed by colleagues. 

“I’ve noticed the things that you mentioned,” one Oversight member said, referring to the investigation into Porter’s security clearance and Gowdy’s conclusion that Russia was deliberately trying to harm Clinton’s presidential campaign.

This lawmaker said there has been no explicit conversation about turning up the heat on Trump in meetings where the committee has discussed the year’s agenda. 

Gowdy is a recognizable figure in the halls of the Capitol, with an ever-present plastic bottle of Diet Coke in his hand and a shock of silver hair that changes styles seemingly quarterly. He says “yes ma’am” and talks about shopping at the grocery store Publix in his native South Carolina, a country-boy style that does little to hide a reputation as canny and prosecutorial. 

The specter of Benghazi has been difficult for him to shake — “God knows I don’t want to talk about Benghazi,” he says. When he closed that probe with no new findings of wrongdoing by Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time of the attacks, Democrats trumpeted it as evidence that the investigation had been a partisan witch hunt from the beginning. 

The accusation clearly rankles him. 

“I don’t care if you make fun of my hair, I don’t care if you say I’m not smart. I do care if you say I’m not fair. I think I have been — I think I have been,” he said, his voice dropping a little. 

“But I don’t have enough self-awareness to know whether or not I somehow feel more liberated.”

Scott Wong contributed.