Newly-elected House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Trey Gowdy does not plan to investigate Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election or questions of whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.
The South Carolina Republican told a gathering of reporters Friday that he instead wants to return the Oversight panel to its original “compulsory” jurisdiction, including overseeing more mundane issues like government procurement and the Census.
And while Oversight will likely pursue some investigations eventually, Gowdy was adamant that he does not want to infringe on the work of special counsel Robert Muller.
Gowdy also argued that the Russia scandal and questions of obstruction fall more in the jurisdiction of other committees — including the the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, where he helps lead the investigation of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election.
“No. 1: It’s in the jurisdiction of Bob Mueller. And secondarily, I would think Judiciary has jurisdiction over the Department of Justice and the FBI,” he said. “To the extent that any of those memos are classified, that would be [Intelligence]. And for those that think a third committee ought to look at it, Oversight would have secondary permissive jurisdiction but it would be secondary.”
What investigations Gowdy does pursue will likely be carried out behind closed doors with a hearing at the end of the probe to discuss findings — a break from Oversight’s previous use of hearings as fact-finding exercises.
“If I would devise an inefficient way to gather facts, I don’t know that I could devise anything better than five-minute increments alternating between Republicans and Democrats,” said Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor. “That is not conducive to gathering facts.”
In short: Gone are the days of high-profile Oversight hearings lambasting executive officials caught up in scandals. Reporters, lawmakers and the public have grown accustomed to aggressive Oversight chairmen pursuing public probes, including investigations on the IRS’s tea-party targeting or the “Fast and Furious” gunwalking controversy.
Gowdy is no stranger to explosive public hearings, having led the House Select Committee on Benghazi. But he argues those previous Oversight investigations were not the committee’s main duties under House rules.
Rather, to kick off his tenure, Gowdy plans to hold hearings on criminal justice reform and the decennial Census, which is coming up. He’s also promising to exercise oversight of the District of Columbia, which fall into his panel’s jurisdiction. He added, “I’m going to do things that [Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.] does not like.”
On Russia, Gowdy argued that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has more jurisdiction over the obstruction question. And he said he’ll continue his work helping probe the matter as one of the lawmakers leading the Intelligence investigation.
He said he doesn’t want to undermine Mueller’s work and has explicitly promised him not to do so: “I told Bob Mueller Tuesday that I would never do anything wittingly or unwittingly that veered over into his lane, and his lane is broad and undetermined at this point.”
Gowdy’s approach differs sharply from that of outgoing Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who is resigning at the end of June to pursue a career in television. Chaffetz asked for Comey’s memos detailing Trump’s alleged request to drop the FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, his ex-national security adviser. He even called a hearing with Comey, though that was cancelled.
Gowdy also seemed to downplay his panel’s role in looking into whether Trump went amiss of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which prohibits presidents from taking money from foreign governments. He said the panel would look into the matter, but he also said it’s a legal question first and probably falls into Judiciary’s jurisdiction.
“It is constitutional so therefore Judiciary leaps to mind first, but there are also ethics issues, and the office of government ethics is squarely within our lanes,” he said. “So the first challenge to me is understanding the parameters, how it’s historically been applied and then from that you can determine whether there’s been a breach.”
Gowdy’s committee may pursue some matters related to the Russia-Comey scandals. The committee, he said, could examine questions about who should or shouldn’t get security clearances, one of many questions that has arisen recently. That, Gowdy said, does fall into the panel’s jurisdiction.
But even on that matter, it would be a light tough. Case in point: His Democratic counterpart on the panel, Elijah Cummings (R-Md.), recently wrote to the administration asking why it had not revoked the security clearances of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, who failed to disclose his interactions with Russian officials on his security clearance application.
Gowdy, however, said not to look to him to pursue Kushner since it could be a criminal issue.
“Allegations of criminal or quasi-criminal activity is squarely within Muller’s jurisdiction,” Gowdy said. “So the process by which security clearances are granted, if that needs to be tightened, amended, changed, I’m all for it. The revocation of previously existing security clearances… we don’t investigate crime.”