In the Colosseum

The Prosecutor

Rising GOP star Trey Gowdy on his trademark style and suing the president.

By From the June 2014 issue

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Summer in the south can be a soul-crushing experience. In South Carolina’s Fourth Congressional District especially, the humidity traps still heat and mosquitoes, made worse by the torturous proximity of cool mountains to the west, and breezy ocean to the east. But in July of 2009, Trey Gowdy faced something far more malicious. A serial killer was on the loose in Cherokee County—and the way Gowdy talks about it, the memories still seem fresh. “That whole region was paralyzed by fear, because you just don’t have serial killers,” he says. “It’s our worst nightmare.” 

The killer turned out to be forty-one-year-old Patrick Tracy Burris. Over the span of six days he murdered five people, including a fifteen-year-old girl and her father in their family-owned appliance store. Gowdy, then the solicitor for South Carolina’s Seventh Judicial Circuit, was on his way home from the press conference announcing Burris’s death in a shootout with police when he received a call alerting him to another brutal slaying—this time of an eight-year-old girl—in another sleepy town under his jurisdiction. Gowdy began to feel the need to move on. “So I had just heard about a fifteen-year-old who’d done nothing wrong who got killed, I got an eight-year-old killed, I’m getting ready to try a special-needs eleven-year-old who was beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend, and I’m telling you, after a while it begins to take a toll on your soul,” he says. “You can’t watch that.”

Gowdy, now a congressman, is sitting at a corner table sipping an ice water at the Capitol Hill Club, a popular destination for thirsty Washington Republicans. He is well-known here: On the way to our table, he and the maître d’ exchanged small talk like friends, and he points to a table on the other side of the room where he and fellow South Carolina Senator Tim Scott eat dinner together almost every night. Hair slicked back, he looks the part of esteemed esquire. It’s the early morning, and the air is sharp with promises of spring. The filing deadline in the Palmetto State’s Fourth District for the upcoming mid-term election has just passed, and only one lone third-party candidate has stepped up to challenge Gowdy. Barring disaster or loss of interest, it’s safe to conclude he has a long future ahead of him in the House of Representatives—if that’s what he wants. 

His state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, recently said of Gowdy, “I’ve never seen anyone in such a short period of time make such an impact on the national stage.” Indeed. When this article is published, Gowdy will have been in Congress for roughly three years and five months. In that short amount of time, he’s already become a bona fide regular on Fox News—a coveted position among many of his colleagues. He serves on four separate committees, a hefty load for even the most seasoned of representatives. Gowdy’s rise was cemented last year during an infamous hearing in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. By now, the story is well known. Former IRS official Lois Lerner had just given a lengthy opening statement about her innocence in the IRS targeting scandal, and then switched to asserting her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. 

That didn’t sit well with Gowdy. 

Born in Greenville but raised in Spartanburg, Gowdy grew up, he says, “thinking I was the only poor doctor’s child who had ever existed.” His father, a well-known local pediatrician who never finished college, inspired the kind of work ethic in his four children that had thirteen-year-old Gowdy delivering newspapers and later bagging groceries. But after graduating from Baylor University with a degree in history, Gowdy opted against “building houses in New Mexico” in favor of going to law school at the University of South Carolina. Three years after earning his J.D., Gowdy finally found his purpose. The thing that caused him to run from the prosecution business was the very thing that initially drove him to it: senseless bloodshed. 

A family friend by the name of Jeff Adams was murdered outside an apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I was driving home from his funeral,” Gowdy says, “and—you’ll have one of these points in your life as well, where you just kind of ask yourself, ‘What am I supposed to be doing? Is this all that there is?’” The answer, it turned out, was waiting for him at the U.S. Attorney’s office. Gowdy, a staunch conservative, launched his career at the age of twenty-nine under the President Clinton-appointed, Democratic U.S. Attorney Pete Strom. 

Gowdy, now known for his sharp prosecutorial style in congressional hearings, says his performances weren’t always so crisp. “It was painful when I think back on my early trial days. I don’t know how I won a case; I’m glad there’s no video of that!” he says. “But the judge would take me in the back afterwards and say, ‘This is what you should’ve done. This is how you can get better.’” And so he did. For five years, he worked within the system, prosecuting lawbreakers and cultivating a deeply held respect for what he calls The Process. He left in 2000 to run against, and ultimately defeat, the incumbent solicitor, trading tax evaders for serial killers. But it wasn’t until 2010 that, after a lifetime of enforcing laws, he set out to make some.

A committee room may not be a courtroom, but that hasn’t stopped Gowdy from looking for someone or something to prosecute. The point, he says, is not to espouse party rhetoric; it’s to find the cracks in the system, the abusers of The Process, the cancers on the body politic—and make wrongs right. He has also joined the lecture circuit, traveling around the country (“wherever I’m invited”), giving talks about whether the Republican Party’s biggest problem is the “message, the messenger, or the method.” 

“The most frustrating thing in life is to be in the minority and think you’re the majority,” he says. “We’ve won, what, one popular vote of the last six? And two electoral colleges of the last six? And if you look at the last electoral map, it wasn’t close. So are you in the majority and people are just staying home—which is what some people believe—or are you in the minority and you need to persuade? I think we’re in the minority and we need to persuade.” 

He continues: “So for sixteen years I had to stand in front of twelve people that I did not know….How do you persuade? Do you have the facts on your side? If you have the facts on your side, how do you present them in a way that makes people want to believe?” 

Take the initial Oversight Committee hearing on the IRS scandal. For Gowdy, who eschews the committee staff’s researched questions in favor of his own, the jury is the audience and his five minutes with the witness is the cross examination. He’s become such a force in hearings, his colleagues—both Democrats and Republicans—have started asking him for tips. “What I tell my colleagues is, you have to have a plan,” he says. “You have to know where you want to go with this witness.…What do you want to leave the jury with?”

In other words, how will you, in five minutes, persuade the American public and the media that your side not only has the facts, but also the truth? In the hearing with Lerner, Gowdy contends he was simply drawing on courtroom experience. His outburst, arguing that Lerner had waived her right to the Fifth Amendment, wasn’t planned. “Only one of my colleagues had a lot of courtroom experience, and he knew what was going on too,” says Gowdy, “so it was only a matter of which of us was going to say it first. If you’re in court, you have about a second to decide whether you’re going to object or not. And if you don’t, life has moved on.”

Did he get any responses from his colleagues after the outburst? “Yeah,” says Gowdy chuckling. “How did you know that?”

Gowdy has also applied this knowhow to investigating the jihadist assault on an American compound in Benghazi. In early May it paid off; John Boehner appointed him to head the select committee that will probe the government’s response to the attacks, which should put his pugnacity to good use.

When he’s not busy interrupting committee proceedings or working on persuading the American people, Gowdy is looking for other ways to enforce the law. His aptly named Enforce Act—which passed the House, but faces certain death in the Senate—would allow members of Congress to sue the president if they think he’s violating the law. In this, Gowdy the Prosecutor, who argues neither the president nor his attorney general is above The Process, is on full display. 

“We do it all the time with subpoenas,” says Gowdy. “All this bill says is we have standing—the legal right to go to court.”

“It’s the process by which we do things,” Gowdy continues emphatically. “Go back to the courtroom. You forget one tiny clause in [someone’s] prophylactic Miranda warnings. You just forget to tell her one thing. Her confession will be thrown out. Why, because she’s innocent? No! She’s not innocent, but process matters!”

At this point, he pauses. See, Trey Gowdy has spent a career making sure bad things happen to bad people. But in Washington, D.C., it’s not that easy. Too many elude punishment in between elections, and he’s angry. What’s more, he wants to convince the members of his jury—the American people—to be angry too. Angry at the lack of the respect for the law. Angry at a power-hungry executive branch. Angry because The Process has been tarnished. Angry that too many people are getting away with doing bad things.  

Thankfully, it’s only a matter of months before the jury convenes and produces a verdict. If Gowdy has been successful, they’ll throw the bad guys out. 

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About the Author

Amanda C. Elliott is a writer in Washington, D.C.