By Michael Hirsch, Politico
It’s late Wednesday afternoon, the day after Hillary Clinton’s defiant I’m-telling-you-this-and-nothing-more news conference at the United Nations and Trey Gowdy — who’s now seen as her No. 1 antagonist on Benghazi — is all over the news up in Washington. But this is the middle of South Carolina, Gowdy’s home district, and the two-term congressman pulls into a Cracker Barrel on State Highway 183 — where I’m waiting to meet him — alone at the wheel of a filthy silver Toyota Corolla. Gowdy gets out, hands me the keys and drawls, “Car’s over there. Got to go to the men’s room.” Inside the Corolla, crud from some ancient condiment spill has permanently affixed itself to the gear-shift console, and a thick layer of dust covers the dash. Stuffed into the passenger back seat pocket is a battered loose-leaf notebook labeled “Benghazi ARB”—which, when I point it out to him, Gowdy leafs through as if he’s discovering a long-lost document. “Oh yeah, this was our hearing on the Accountability Review Board,” he says. “Forgot it was there.”
The day before, Gowdy had made all the right Washington moves. Clinton had barely stepped away from the microphone before Gowdy’s office released a statement, chiding the insufficiency of her answers, demanding Clinton turn over the personal computer server and promising to require her to “appear at least twice” before Gowdy’s committee. A few hundred miles and a news cycle away from the capital, maneuvering the car onto the rainy highway, bound for a lecture at Clemson University, the voluble and relaxed former prosecutor sounds less like the Grand Inquisitor and more like the fair-minded judge that he has long aspired to be.
Contrary to all rumor and innuendo, Gowdy says he is completely open to the idea that Clinton may have done nothing wrong while secretary of state. He has publicly pointed out “gaps” that go for “months” in the materials she has provided on Benghazi. But he insists he’s not accusing her of anything; he just doesn’t know yet, he says.
Short and whippet thin, with close-cropped graying hair that looks as if it’s hand-combed, Gowdy has a sharp-angled, crudely handsome face; at times he resembles the quick-silver Terminator II guy who beat up on Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Gowdy doesn’t see a similarly relentless pursuit of Hillary as his mission.
Taking on Clinton, Gowdy repeats, “is not my job. That’s the job of the RNC, and the Republican candidate for president. If they hired me for that job they hired the wrong guy. Why would you hire a not-even-two-term guy, all of whose training tells him to go where facts take him, who doesn’t even go to NRCC [National Republican Congressional Committee] dinners, who’s lousy at fundraisers, who hates to travel? Because that’s who you’re getting.”
The job he was appointed to do last year by House Speaker John Boehner was to chair a special investigatory committee on Benghazi after the Republican right roared its disapproval of previous failed inquiries. What does he know right now, I ask him, based on numerous witness appearances and 850 pages already submitted by the State Department?
Not all that much. He says he’s “seen no evidence” that Clinton ordered a stand-down of security forces in Benghazi, contributing to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11, 2012 , or any of the other more damning things the right typically alleges.
And if anyone expects him to chase the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination to the gates of political hell to get tens of thousands of her personal emails, well, don’t bank on it. Right now, Gowdy wants an independent arbitrator to decide whether those 30,000 or so emails contain anything significant material to his probe, and he says he’d even accept a respected Democratic professional like Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz for that task. But when I point out that another committee he serves on recently accepted a high-level witness’s mere “certification” or a personal oath that his submitted emails were complete, Gowdy says a similar compromise might be possible with Clinton.