Trey Gowdy is done with politics.
The House Oversight Committee Chairman for years has joked privately about quitting Congress and returning home to South Carolina. On Wednesday, he finally pulled the plug — likely for good.
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A rising star that many Republicans once considered a dark-horse for speaker of the House, Gowdy announced Wednesday he would not seek reelection or any political office and would instead return to the justice system. Sources close to him say he wants to return home, practice law and maybe teach and write a book with his friend Sen. Tim Scott.
“Whatever skills I may have are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress, and I enjoy our justice system more than our political system,” the South Carolina Republican said.
And in a sign of Gowdy’s desire to step back from public life, he recently turned down a golden opportunity to become a federal judge.
White House counsel Don McGahn in recent weeks broached Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, about filling a slot on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals — a newly vacated judgeship that Gowdy has eyed before, according to sources close to Gowdy. His fellow Palmetto State Republicans, Scott and Sen. Lindsey Graham, also urged him to accept the post.
But Gowdy, who’s long complained about the increasingly toxic nature of politics, turned down the position, the sources said.
“There is more civility in a death penalty case than there is in some congressional hearings,” Gowdy, who has won seven death penalty cases, recently told POLITICO.
Gowdy will become the eighth current chairman to depart Congress, but his decision is an extra blow to Speaker Paul Ryan, who often seeks Gowdy’s counsel on legal matters. Most recently, Gowdy has advised the Wisconsin Republican on how to navigate the increasingly partisan Russia investigation into President Donald Trump — and how to balance the GOP conference’s demand for scalps at the FBI.
But to anyone who knew the 53-year-old former House Benghazi Committee Chairman, the retirement is hardly a surprise. Gowdy rarely participated in House GOP events, rarely attending the weekly GOP conference, for example. He often talked privately about resenting the increasingly partisan atmosphere. And he loved to say that he wished he was home watching cheesy Hallmark movies with his wife.
Gowdy rose to prominence in 2013 for his fierce interrogation of IRS officials accused of targeting tea party groups for extra scrutiny — scoring headlines when he argued that Lois Lerner, the official at the center of the controversy, had “waived her right” when she boldly proclaimed her innocence before the House Oversight panel but then asserted her Fifth Amendment right.
The House ultimately held Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about how conservative nonprofits applying for tax-exempt status were treated under the Obama administration.
Former Speaker John Boehner later appointed Gowdy to lead the House Benghazi Committee, a select panel charged with investigating the deaths of four Americans, including former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in Libya.
Gowdy was pummeled from the left and the right for his investigation: Democrats blasted him for overseeing a partisan “witch-hunt” against then-presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and conservatives — including his once-good friend Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — snarled that he’d let Clinton off the hook.
Trump also knocked Gowdy for refusing to hold Clinton’s feet to the fire, calling him the “Benghazi loser.” Gowdy, however, said his investigation wasn’t going to make assumptions he couldn’t prove.
When Trump won the presidential election in 2016, Gowdy expected a call from the White House about the attorney general post. He was disappointed when he never even got an interview, sources close to him said. While the two never had a close relationship — and to this day, Gowdy says he’s never had a conversation with the president — he figured his legal acumen would make him a worthy candidate.
Earlier this year, Republicans voted for Gowdy to lead the House Oversight Committee. Since then, his panel has overseen part of the Russia controversy, though most of his work on the matter has been focused in the House Intelligence Committee, a panel on which he is also a member.
Gowdy has found himself butting heads in recent months with Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and other pro-Trump Republicans who have hinted at corruption at the FBI. He’s expressed concerns about anti-Trump texts by some FBI officials, and he has said on TV that Congress has a duty to oversee the agency. But behind the scenes he’s had to rein in some of his conservative colleagues who want to undercut the entirety of the Justice Department, which he views as essential to American life.
Gowdy’s exit is likely to open up a contentious race for the Oversight gavel. Jordan has long eyed the post, but the Freedom Caucus founder has been at odds with leadership for years and would have an uphill battle in winning the post from a committee of Ryan loyalists.
National Republicans said they expect a crowded primary to replace Gowdy in his Republican-leaning seat based in Greenville. Several names have already been floated as potential replacements, including state Rep. Dan Hamilton, state Rep. Garry Smith and Karen Floyd, a businesswoman and former South Carolina GOP party chairwoman.
Minutes after Gowdy’s announcement, Spartanburg County Republican Chairman and talk radio host Josh Kimbrell posted on Facebook that he was “exploring a run” to “keep the 4th District on the national stage in the conservative fight.”
Elena Schneider contributed to this report.
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