WASHINGTON -- Rep. Trey Gowdy, a powerful GOP watchdog who built his name leading the investigation into the 2012 attacks against Americans in Benghazi, Libya, has become the latest prominent Republican to head for the exits rather than run for another term.
The former South Carolina prosecutor who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said in a statement Wednesday that he planned to return to the justice system, though he did not elaborate.
The committee's lengthy investigation into the attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans focused heavily on Hillary Clinton's role as secretary of state, though an 800-page report produced no smoking gun pointing to wrongdoing by her. The investigation also revealed that Clinton used a private email server for government work, prompting an FBI investigation that proved to be an albatross in the Democrat's 2016 presidential campaign.
Today, Gowdy is involved in one of the House's Russia investigations and the leader of a renewed review of the FBI and Clinton's emails.
Gowdy, 53, was elected in the 2010 tea party wave that returned control of the House to Republicans. He is the ninth House committee head to step down, although several departing colleagues faced the prospect of being term-limited from that post or difficult re-election prospects. Gowdy did not have such obstacles, which made his decision all the more surprising.
"Whatever skills I may have are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress, and I enjoy our justice system more than our political system," Gowdy said.
Gowdy has played an important role in the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russian election interference and any possible coordination with Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
In the committee's private interviews, he has been the chief questioner for majority Republicans and has relied on his prosecutorial experience. Among those witnesses were the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Glenn Simpson, a Washington opposition researcher who was behind a dossier of allegations about Trump and his ties to Russia.
This week, Gowdy was among the committee members pushing for the release of a memo, drafted by Republicans, that alleges abuses of the government surveillance powers in the Russia investigation. Democrats have called the memo a "distraction" and a selectively edited group of GOP talking points.
A Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee described Gowdy's tenure as chairman as a "lost opportunity." Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said the lack of investigations into the Trump administration and a dearth of hearings and legislation stand in stark contrast to how aggressively Republicans steered the committee when a Democrat was in the White House.
"He decided to throw his lot with protecting the Trump presidency and the White House at all costs," Connolly said of Gowdy.
Gowdy's love for the legal system is evident even in the naming of his family dogs, Jury and Bailiff. Gowdy was as an assistant federal prosecutor in South Carolina for six years before winning election as solicitor covering part of the state's conservative northwest.
Elected to three terms, Gowdy earned a reputation as a hard-charging lawman who prosecuted a wide range of cases, including some that ended in death sentences.
South Carolina's top federal prosecutor slot is technically open. It's now occupied by a career prosecutor serving as acting U.S. attorney for more than a year. But Wednesday's decision prompted no such announcements from the state's two senators, who would propose a replacement candidate to the Trump administration.
A bigger prize would be a seat on the federal bench. Gowdy's announcement comes on the day when Judge Dennis W. Shedd assumed senior status on 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to Shedd's biography on the court's website. Shedd is from South Carolina, and his decision allows the president to appoint a new full-time judge to fill the spot.
A Gowdy aide not authorized to discuss his decision publicly said the congressman was approached about a federal judge position in the past year, but Gowdy turned the opportunity down. The aide said Gowdy's plans are to return to South Carolina to practice law once he finishes his term.
GOP Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, chairman of the campaign committee that oversees Republican election efforts in the House, predicted that Gowdy's seat will stay in Republican control in November.
Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Chad Day contributed to this report.