"Serious-Minded" Benghazi Committee Chair Pushed Anti-Obama IRS Conspiracy Theory

Trey Gowdy says his inquiry will "go wherever the facts take us"—but a lack of evidence hasn't stopped him from spinning wild claims in the past.

| Thu Jun. 12, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

When Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) was anointed last month by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to lead yet another congressional investigation of Benghazi, the second-term tea party congressman, a former prosecutor, was hailed by his Republican colleagues as an evenhanded lawmaker who had no political ax to grind in this endeavor. Boehner called him "serious-minded" and cited his "zeal for the truth." Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) praised him as "cerebral" and said "he has a great capacity to work through an investigation and come to a fair conclusion." And Gowdy himself vowed, "We're going to go wherever the facts take us. Facts are neither Republican nor Democrat. They are facts."

Yet when it comes to another conservative crusade, the supposed-IRS scandal, Gowdy has not been so dispassionate and judicious. As a member of the House government oversight committee led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), which has mounted the main congressional inquiry into this matter, Gowdy has publicly suggested that the vetting of political groups conducted by an IRS office in Cincinnati was part of a scheme hatched in Washington to benefit President Barack Obama and the Democrats. And he has done so without presenting facts to prove this assertion. 

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On March 4, Gowdy appeared on Fox News, and anchor Bill Hemmer asked, "if you aren't convinced that this did not start in the Cincinnati office, where did it come from?" Gowdy didn't wait a beat:

Washington, DC. Keep in mind Bill, you remember the State of the Union, where the president famously chastised the supreme court for their decision in Citizens United?  And to their face at the State of the Union. Democrats don't like that opinion, and they immediately started a project. And that's not my word, that's [Lois Lerner's] word. They started a project to unravel Citizens United because they are tired of outside groups going after Democrats. This was orchestrated, it was planned, and we'll prove it tomorrow.

The next day, Lerner, the former director of the IRS exempt organizations division, was scheduled to testify before Issa's committee, but she ended up pleading the fifth. Nevertheless, Gowdy and the committee released no evidence showing the IRS vetting was a conspiracy hatched by Democrats in Washington to counter the consequences of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling that increased the power of special interest and secret money in politics. 

Gowdy had long been suggesting that the vetting conducted by the IRS office in Cincinnati was part of a nefarious plot mounted by Democrats. On June 17, 2013, during one of Gowdy's frequent appearances on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly asked: Do you think this [IRS activity] was orchestrated by the Democratic Party or the White House? Gowdy replied, "Well, I don't have any evidence to support that." But that did not stop him from sowing suspicion: "But I can tell you this: one place where we ought to be looking is the Obama-Biden reelect [campaign]. Not just the White House, but their reelection team." He added, "I like to deal in evidence. I can't prove to you that it goes to the White House. I can tell you this: I don't think two rogue agents in Cincinnati concocted this scheme on their own."

At this point in time—and ever since—there was no indication of any involvement of the White House or the Obama reelection crew. Yet Gowdy was clearly showing a strong bias in favor of a tea party-ish conspiracy theory. He also was calling for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS and urging Congress to cut funding for the agency in response to both the vetting and the IRS's role in implementing Obamacare.

Gowdy was sharing his dark suspicions with O'Reilly just days after Issa had tried to concoct a gotcha moment. His staff had shared with Wall Street Journal reporters portions of interviews conducted by his committee with IRS workers in the Cincinnati office. This led to an article headlined, "IRS Staff Cite Washington Link: Two Workers Tell Congress That Agency Officials Helped Direct Tea-Party Reviews." Issa and other conservatives thought this was an a-ha! moment. 

But within days—and a day after Gowdy told O'Reilly he suspected Obama-ites had cooked up this plot—Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) released a set of transcripts that eviscerated Issa's big news (and Gowdy's pet theory). In one of the interviews, a manager of the IRS screening group in Cincinnati—who described himself as a "conservative Republican"—said the targeting of tea party groups began with low-level workers in that regional office and was not politically motivated. 

Days later, the Issa-Gowdy narrative—the IRS scandal was an Obama scandal—took another blow with the news that documents showed that the IRS officials who had screened applicants for tax-exempt status with the words "Tea Party" and "Patriots" in their names had also zeroed in on groups with names including "Occupy" and "Progressive." The New York Times reported, "The documents appeared to back up contentions by IRS officials and some Democrats that the agency did not intend to single out conservative groups for special scrutiny. Instead, the documents say, officials were trying to use 'key word' shortcuts to find overtly political organizations—both liberal and conservative—that were after tax favors by saying they were social welfare organizations."

After these documents emerged, Issa claimed he never said the White House or the Obama campaign had been behind the IRS targeting. (But that is precisely what he had suggested.) Still, Gowdy held on to this notion. On July 22, 2013, during another Fox News appearance, he said, "We also shouldn't believe the other defense that the progressive groups were targeted as well. I've never really understood that defense, that because we're going to act improperly, toward more than one group, that's a defense." He added, "This was not confined to Ohio, that it's got Washington's fingerprints all over it. And so we need to be careful going forward that, that we view whatever we're told from this administration with a jaundiced eye." 

Gowdy has been consistent. This past February, he was still insisting that the IRS had targeted groups "based on your political beliefs." And it was in March that he told Hemmer that the IRS vetting was "orchestrated" by Democrats in Washington as a response to Citizens United.

On the IRS beat, Gowdy has not been a wait-for-the-facts truth seeker. He has acted more like a zealous prosecutor, pushing a particular view that depicts the Obama White House—or its unnamed allies—as underhanded criminals who covertly abused the IRS to destroy political foes. This may not be the best training for chairing the special select committee on Benghazi—that is, if the goal is indeed a fair and balanced inquiry.