Rep. Trey Gowdy was bombarded with requests from fellow Republicans, eager to take part in the latest congressional investigation of the Benghazi attack. But when it became clear that he intended to lead the inquiry behind closed doors, far from the spotlight, the requests soon fell silent.
“If you want to get on the news, then go rob a bank,” Gowdy, R-S.C., said, recounting his message to several Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill, dashing their hopes of being featured in what they assumed would be high-profile televised hearings.
“It’s going to be a professional investigation, despite folks who may want to see it be something else,” Gowdy told ABC News. “They’re going to be disappointed.”
The blunt talk from Gowdy, appointed by Speaker John Boehner to lead the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Libya, helps explain why the investigation hasn’t generated politically explosive headlines that were anticipated at the beginning of summer.
The committee has been quietly interviewing family members, witnesses and poring over documents from the 2012 deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission, but lawmakers have been doing nearly all of their work in private.
When Republicans voted in May to create a new committee to investigate the attack, Democrats bristled and several Republicans were hoping to play at least some role in any hearings during the summer and fall. But Gowdy said he had no interest in letting the process “become a circus.”
Instead, he has approached the investigation like the work he did as a prosecutor before being elected to Congress in 2010 as one of the rising stars in the tea party wave. He said he has placed a vow of silence over the details of the investigation, with the hope of being fair and “respectful of the four people who were killed.”
He and the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, have sought to work together as partners – albeit adversarial ones – absent the public clashes and feuds that have become the soundtrack of this deeply divided Congress.
“I know folks hate the fact that Mr. Cummings and I aren’t fighting – aren’t at each other’s throats,” Gowdy said. “But I like Mr. Cummings and we’re doing fantastic. We’re just doing most of it privately as opposed to publicly.”
The attack in Benghazi, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, has become one of the most stinging foreign policy flashpoints of the Obama administration. It has also created an opening for Republicans to challenge the credentials of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is expected to testify before the committee.
But it remains an open question how much of the testimony from Clinton and other top administration officials will be done in public.
“I can get more information in a five-hour deposition than I can in five minutes of listening to a colleague ask questions in committee hearings,” Gowdy said. “If it’s about getting the information, then you want to use the investigatory tool that is most calculated and gets you the most amount of information and that’s not five minutes in a committee hearing.”
The committee, which is comprised of seven Republicans and five Democrats, is scheduled to resume its work in September, but Congress is in session for only part of the month. Gowdy said he expected to call at least a few hearings, particularly to air out both sides of an argument.
“If there’s a factual discrepancy, then the jury or our fellow citizens need to hear both sides and they can determine where the greater weight or credibility is,” Gowdy said. “But if there’s a consensus on a point, there’s really not a reason to litigate that in public.”
Asked whether the committee’s work would be finished by the midterm elections in November, Gowdy replied: “No, heavens no.”
“I’ve decided that I’d rather be right than first,” he said. “So we’re going to do it methodically, professionally and there is no timeline.”