Washington (CNN)In a tense March meeting in the basement of the Capitol, Democrats offered scores of motions to keep the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation alive, only to get rebuffed time and again by Republicans.
War between Trump and FBI puts Gowdy in delicate spot
Each motion was rejected by the committee on a party-line basis -- except for one: To hold former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress for stonewalling the panel.
The lone Republican defector was Trey Gowdy, who voted "present" on the effort to reject the motion, declining to side with either party on the matter, according to three sources with knowledge of situation. Gowdy had railed on Bannon in private, lashing out at the former White House aide for disclosing information to the author of "Fire and Fury" but not providing information during his testimony before the House panel.
The episode underscored how Gowdy has positioned himself amid the growing fight between President Donald Trump and investigators looking into Russia meddling. Gowdy, a reliable Republican partisan who led the House's Benghazi investigation in the run-up to the 2016 election, has confounded expectations with his willingness to defend special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI, culminating in his latest comments undercutting Trump's claims of the FBI placing spies in his campaign.
But Gowdy has also been careful to avoid provoking Trump and the White House, declining to issue any subpoenas to the Trump administration as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, ignoring numerous Democratic demands to investigate White House controversies, while working closely with House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, who has sought to undercut the Justice Department and FBI.
While Nunes has leaned on Gowdy to dig through the intelligence to give him ammunition against the probe, Gowdy has appeared uncomfortable at times by that role. Twice in recent weeks, Gowdy pointedly declined to discuss his role in reviewing the intelligence underpinning Trump's claims of a spy in his campaign.
"I do what I'm told," Gowdy said to a reporter after he finished up a conversation with a senior Nunes aide. He declined further comment.
Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, quickly rose through the House Republican ranks in his four terms in Congress before announcing in January that he was not running for re-election, declaring that he was more effective as a lawyer than a lawmaker. He still faces criticism from Democrats for his role leading the Benghazi Select Committee, which they charge was an 18-month partisan investigation into Hillary Clinton, and he was added to the House Intelligence Committee this year as another voice who could wage partisan battles over the Russia probe.
The unique position Gowdy has carved has left the partisans on both sides guessing as to where the South Carolina Republican will land as the special counsel investigation -- and the Republican efforts to undercut it -- ratchet up.
That was never more apparent after Gowdy's Fox News appearance on Tuesday, in which he said the President and his attorneys were wrong to accuse the FBI of placing a "spy" in Trump's presidential campaign.
Gowdy was the only lawmaker not on the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" -- the leaders of the House and Senate and heads of the intelligence committees -- to receive a classified briefing last week about the FBI's use of a confidential FBI source during the campaign to speak to several members of Trump's team.
"I am even more convinced that the FBI did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do when they got the information they got, and that it has nothing to do with Donald Trump," Gowdy said on Fox News.
"President Trump himself in the Comey memos said if anyone connected with my campaign was working with Russia, I want you to investigate it, and it sounds to me like that is exactly what the FBI did," Gowdy added. "I think when the President finds out what happened, he is going to be not just fine, he is going to be glad that we have an FBI that took seriously what they heard."
Democrats seized on Gowdy's comments, which he reiterated on CBS News Wednesday morning, as proof that Trump's unproven spying conspiracy was debunked.
"We now live in a kind of alternate universe when individual Republicans get massive praise just for acknowledging the obvious and restating basic facts," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
Trump tweeted about Gowdy's comments but he focused on Gowdy questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and not the confidential source.
Gowdy's statements were not the first time he's raised questions about the attacks from Trump and conservatives on the FBI, the Justice Department and the special counsel.
He's repeatedly defended Mueller's ability to finish his investigation, and in March, Gowdy criticized the President's then-lawyer, John Dowd, for comments urging Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to end the Mueller probe.
"If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it," Gowdy said on "Fox News Sunday."
Gowdy has played a key role in the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation and Nunes' separate investigation into the Justice Department.
He's has been designated to read sensitive, classified documents for the committee's majority, both when the Justice Department said only one Republican member could read them, as well as when Nunes elected not to view the documents himself. But as Nunes has used the briefings to make the case that the Russia investigation should never have been started in the first place, Gowdy has tried to make the case that Mueller should be given space to conduct the investigation.
It was Gowdy's role that got him invited to the Justice Department briefing last week on the confidential FBI source, which occurred amid accusations from Trump and his allies that the FBI placed a spy in his campaign. CNN has reported that the confidential FBI source was not in fact infiltrating the campaign, but spoke with campaign aides who were suspected of ties to Russia.
While Gowdy said the FBI acted appropriately Tuesday evening, just minutes later Trump repeated the unproven spy claim at a rally in Tennessee.
"So how do you like the fact the fact they had people infiltrating our campaign? Can you imagine?" Trump said.
Nunes has not spoken publicly since the briefing occurred. But if he disagrees with Gowdy's assessment, it wouldn't be the first time.
Documents that Gowdy has reviewed for the committee, for instance, formed the basis of Nunes' memo accusing the Justice Department of abusing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process through the use of an unverified opposition research dossier on Trump and Russia. The memo is one of the points Trump's allies make to argue that Mueller's probe is illegitimate.
Gowdy said after the memo was released publicly that the dossier was not necessary for the investigation into Trump's team and Russia.
"There is a Russia investigation without a dossier," Gowdy said on CBS's "Face the Nation" in February.
And when the House Intelligence Committee Republicans released their final report in March that disputed the intelligence community's assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to help Trump get elected, Gowdy disagreed.
"It is also clear, based on the evidence, Russia had disdain for Secretary Clinton and was motivated in whole or in part by a desire to harm her candidacy or undermine her presidency had she prevailed," Gowdy said.
In fact, Gowdy has in recent weeks made the odd argument as a lawmaker that congressional investigations themselves are problematic.
"Executive Branch investigations are more publicly confidence-inspiring than current congressional investigations," Gowdy said in March when he joined calls for a second special counsel to probe FBI and DOJ actions. "We leak like the Gossip Girls."
As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Gowdy has faced pressure from the top Democrat on the committee, Cummings, to investigate a range of White House controversies. They say he has showed little interest in pursuing unanswered questions from the White House, whether it's on travel on private jets, its role in the response to the hurricanes last year, as well the deadly 2017 raid in Niger that killed four American soldiers.
Democrats say it's a far cry from the hard-charging Benghazi investigation, pointing to when federal marshals served Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal with a subpoena in 2015.
"It is time for Congress to start conducting its own independent and credible oversight of the Trump administration rather than walling off the White House from scrutiny," Cummings said.
An oversight committee aide said Gowdy hasn't issued subpoenas because he has been able to bring witnesses in voluntarily, pointing to Justice Department official John Gore appearing earlier this month amid questions about the census after Gowdy threatened subpoena him. Democrats, however, say Gore still refused to answer key questions.
Gowdy argued that subpoenas won't get him the information he's seeking.
"I know you guys like subpoenas because it's Latin for drama. I want the information," Gowdy told CNN in April when asked about a recent Democratic call for a White House subpoena. "I'm considering getting the information by whatever means I can get it."