The last time Trey Gowdy and Elijah Cummings oversaw a politically explosive investigation, the two congressmen ripped into each other on national TV, as a grimacing Hillary Clinton looked on.
With Washington in the grip of a new scandal over President Donald Trump and his team’s possible ties to Russia, Gowdy and Cummings appear set for a reunion that would test a deeply divided Congress’ ability to hold the White House to account.
Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and former prosecutor, is the likeliest choice to succeed outgoing Rep. Jason Chaffetz as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which has broad discretion to probe allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The Baltimore-bred Cummings is the longtime top Democrat on the panel.
The Gowdy-Cummings relationship, forged over two years as the leaders of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, is as complicated as it will be critical. It’s often harder for the executive branch to ignore bipartisan requests, which was a difficult hurdle during the Benghazi probe.
The two men have squabbled publicly, but when the cameras are off, both profess respect for each other and an ability to work together, however haltingly.
“They do have a good relationship, and I don’t think Mr. Gowdy has any doubt that they could work well together in a bipartisan fashion on the Oversight Committee,” said Gowdy spokeswoman Amanda Gonzalez.
Meanwhile, when Cummings was asked about the prospect of Gowdy getting the gavel, he responded: “Whoever they send, I’m gonna be me.”
So far, the Maryland congressman has managed to use his committee perch to unearth several new revelations about former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, sometimes working with Chaffetz and sometimes striking out on his own.
Gowdy has been less vocal on the issue of Russia’s election meddling but was recently given a leading role in the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe. Privately, aides to several Democratic committee members grumble that Gowdy could use his gavel to protect Trump or lead the committee down tangents that divert focus from holding the White House accountable.
“The main knock on Gowdy is he seems to be an advocate for one side or another rather than an independent seeker of facts,” said a Democratic aide who took part in the Benghazi probe, speaking on the condition of anonymity. The investigation into the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya was “really a prosecution,” said the aide. Gowdy “was doing whatever he could to exclude what he called the other side, which was the Democrats.”
But Gowdy was also squeezed on the right, with some conservative lawmakers accusing him of not being harsh enough on Clinton.
Some Democrats also worry that Gowdy would come with a bias toward investigating leaks of classified information at the expense of a broader look at allegations of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
“If Trey Gowdy is the best hope,” said Jaime Harrison, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, “then there’s no hope at all.”
Still, Democrats on the panel are reserving judgment and describe a pleasant rapport with Gowdy.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a liberal freshman lawmaker from Maryland and member of the Oversight Committee, said in his few conversations with Gowdy, he discerned the South Carolinian’s “amiable and convivial spirit.”
“That Southern charm goes a long way with fellow politicians,” he said. “As long as Democrats get the sense that he’s interested in true investigation and analysis rather than partisan collaboration with the administration, then we have a good pathway forward.”
Raksin noted that one prominent GOP Trump critic, Sen. Lindsey Graham, is also from South Carolina, and that perhaps that showed Gowdy his constituents value an independent streak.
Republicans regard Gowdy as a top-notch investigator and insist he will exercise independent judgment if he becomes head of the committee. And South Carolina Republicans say Gowdy may have conservative convictions, but he’s not beholden to the politics of Trumpism. His district is primarily made up of mainstream, business-minded Republicans, and Gowdy endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican primary — a move that drew sharp condemnation from Trump and his allies at the time.
In fact, at the time of the endorsement, Trump himself retweeted several followers who slammed Gowdy, including one who said he “failed miserably” as chairman of the Benghazi panel and that the endorsement would “finish Gowdy.”
Gowdy was a member of the Trump transition executive committee, but he has taken pains to shield himself from the appearance of being too close to the president. The Trump-supporting Great America PAC plowed $5,000 into Gowdy’s campaign account in March, according to FEC records, but Gowdy returned the donation within days, according to Gonzalez, his spokeswoman.
Gowdy “has never met Mr. Trump,” Gonzalez added. “He has never been to the White House. He has no relationship with the president, nor has he ever spoken directly to the president.”
This independence has not been lost on the White House, which is tracking the congressional Russia investigations closely. One administration official told POLITICO he worries that Gowdy could turn into a headache for Trump since he is not driven by loyalty to the president and knows how to run a thorough investigation that could take months if not years.
Gowdy also appears sensitive to the charge that he’s too focused on leaks.
During a House Intelligence Committee hearing last week, as he grilled former CIA director John Brennan, Gowdy intentionally saved his questions about leaks of classified intelligence for the end, telling Brennan, with a sly smile, that he didn’t want to be accused of concentrating too much on the issue.
Former South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore said Gowdy was wary of appearing too partisan while he was overseeing the Benghazi probe. Moore said the party turned down “literally dozens of requests” for Gowdy to speak to out-of-state fundraisers because Gowdy didn’t want his oversight efforts to seem politicized.
"Trey Gowdy … will put the country over politics," Moore added. "He’s done that throughout his career in lower-level offices. He’ll be less concerned about reelection than doing what’s right for the country."
The steps Gowdy has taken haven’t shielded him from complaints by Democrats who view him as overtly partisan. And Gowdy’s Democratic critics — including those on the Benghazi panel — have a laundry list of complaints about him, many of them documented in the report released by Democrats at the conclusion of the Benghazi panel’s work.
The probe led by Gowdy was “a case study in how not to conduct a credible, legitimate investigation,” the Democratic report said. Democrats were excluded from some witness interviews, they wrote, calling the investigation a “one-sided process in which Republicans selectively informed Democrats of witness interviews only after-the-fact.”
Democrats also noted that information from the investigation was selectively leaked to the news media during the 2016 campaign, often leading to inaccurate stories that reflected poorly on Clinton and her associates, and that when Democrats raised the issue with Gowdy, he “refused to investigate or condemn” the leaks.
At least one other man may be wondering whether Gowdy and Cummings can forge a strong partnership: Trump.
“Mr. Gowdy’s a former prosecutor and he can certainly recognize the abuse of power when he sees it,” Raskin said. “And whether it’s him or someone else who takes the gavel, we hope that the new chair will be guided by questions of public integrity and accountability rather than partisanship.”
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.