The South Carolina prosecutor looked straight at the camera, relishing his role on an episode of the show “Forensic Files” as he discussed fingerprints, DNA testing and other evidence pointing to a murder suspect.
“You just don’t burn cars because they won’t start,” he said. “Unless you have something you want to hide.”
A year later, Trey Gowdy was elected to Congress, where his hard-nosed prosecutorial style is casting him in a much larger drama.
This Thursday, he will lead the high-stakes interrogation of Hillary Clinton over her role in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. Gowdy, the 51-year-old chairman of the House committee investigating the attacks, finds himself defending the panel against charges that it’s little more than a partisan Republican effort to derail Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Friends in Congress say that while leading investigations and questioning witnesses is clearly part of Gowdy’s DNA – his three dogs are named Judge, Jury and Bailiff – the highly charged political atmosphere has been frustrating.
“He would much rather be a prosecutor than be a politician, it plays to his strengths,” said fellow South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney.
“Trey does not like politics, he likes finding the truth,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. “He stopped doing 70 percent of his shows like going on Fox, because this is a serious opportunity to find the truth and he wants to be less involved in the political process.”
Despite Gowdy’s insistence that he wants to stay out of the national political spotlight, since arriving in Washington he has amassed a popular following among conservatives on social media for his direct style that lends itself well to YouTube videos and sound bites.
Popular video clips include “Trey Gowdy destroys Planned Parenthood,” “Gowdy schools DHS Chief,” “It takes Trey Gowdy just three minutes to silence the media” and even a five-part series called “Trey Gowdy’s Greatest Hits.”
His Southern accent and youthful, blunt manner in interviews delight online fans – in a popular 2014 clip he declared he gets “tougher questions in the Bojangles drive-thru” than what the media asked Susan Rice about Benghazi. It’s a familiar style to those who worked with him when he was a solicitor in Spartanburg.
In his six years as a federal prosecutor, Gowdy prosecuted crimes ranging from narcotics trafficking rings to child pornography cases, including the successful prosecution of J. Mark Allen, one of the “America’s Most Wanted” suspects.
“He’s one of the best trial attorneys I’ve ever seen, and he don’t waste anybody’s time,” said Barry Barnette, who worked with Gowdy for a decade and took over his solicitor post.
“When he was in court it didn’t take as long to try cases, because he just got to the meat and potatoes by being very straightforward.”
Gowdy was elected to Congress in 2010.
Now, critics say that his committee has spent $4.5 million and has little to show except a partisan hunt targeting Clinton. The panel has expanded its focus from the attacks themselves and now includes her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
Some Republicans say as much themselves.
“This may not be politically correct, but I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people, an individual, Hillary Clinton,” Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., told a Utica radio station on Wednesday.
This came after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., openly credited the panel with lowering Clinton’s poll numbers on Fox News earlier this month.
“Trey Gowdy’s inquiry has zero credibility left,” said her campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon.
Gowdy’s allies in Congress say this is a nightmare for the former prosecutor.
“He tried so hard to make this committee apolitical, and these comments from McCarthy and Hanna probably bother him more than anything that’s happened in Congress,” said Mulvaney.
“Politics gets infused into it despite all of his attempts. He has bent backwards to be deferential and unbiased, yet nobody seems to want to believe him because they’d much rather believe political spin,” he said.
Gowdy declined to be interviewed for this article. But he defended his investigation in an article for USA Today, saying Clinton is not the only person the panel is examining.
“Secretary Clinton was in charge at all times relevant to our inquiry, so of course we need her public record and testimony,” he wrote. “But she is one witness. Her emails make up 5 percent of what the committee has.”
Democrats have kept pushing, last week seeking without success a vote to kill the panel.
Complicating any attempt to ward off appearances of a partisan agenda, against Clinton or for himself, conservatives have pushed to get Gowdy into the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives.
Tea party groups urged him for months to challenge now-outgoing Speaker John Boehner, even putting together a “Draft Gowdy” campaign.
When Boehner stepped down last month, Gowdy had his statement ready: still not interested.
In a bizarre twist, a Louisiana congressman then announced Gowdy’s retirement on television last week, only to apologize a few hours later and say he was wrong.
“Trey wants to go back to South Carolina and God bless him for that,” Rep. John Fleming, R-La., told CSPAN, adding that at the end of the term Gowdy would return to “spend the rest of his life there.”
Gowdy’s office says he plans to run for his House seat again. Even so, in recent years he has made no secret of his desire to return home.
“I know that he hates the travel, being away from home and South Carolina. And he believes that the Lord put him on Earth to be a prosecutor or judge, not a politician,” said Mulvaney.
“2016 will be his last election,” said Scott. He entered the house with Gowdy in 2010, part of the tea party wave that also brought in freshmen Jeff Duncan and Mulvaney.
The four South Carolina Republicans were nicknamed the “four horsemen,” and Gowdy and Scott became close personal friends. Last year, Gowdy told McClatchy that if all else fails, he’d love the job of being Scott’s personal driver.
“We have a lot of fun, we eat dinner together twice a week. I’m always making fun of his dark suits and light socks,” Scott said.
Fashion choices aside, Scott has big hopes for his friend after he leaves Congress.
“Ultimately my desire for him is to be a federal judge,” said Scott. “And it would be even better one day to see him on the Supreme Court.”
For now, Gowdy has made it clear he intends to finish what he started with the Benghazi committee.
His focus on getting it done has changed little since his prosecutor days, when he spoke about the murderer of a Spartansburg hairdresser on a 2008 episode of “Forensic Files.”
“He’s a pathological, maniacal liar, and I don’t like him. But he received a fair trial.”
Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen