For Republicans probing Benghazi and Hillary Clinton's private email use, Rep. Trey Gowdy's just-the-facts-ma'am approach has been a shield against charges that it's a nakedly political investigation.
But Democrats are doing their best to find something—anything—to puncture that image.
So now they're pointing to the Select Committee on Benghazi chairman's comments about the probe at a GOP event over the weekend. Gowdy spoke to the National Federation of Pachyderm Clubs, an organization of local GOP clubs that held a convention in Chattanooga.
Gowdy lauded Tennessee Republican Rep. Chuck Fleischmann for the Appropriations Committee push to withhold some State Department funding until the agency is more responsive to document demands from Gowdy's panel.
"We have tried public shame, it didn't work. We have tried threats and subpoenas and letters, that hasn't worked. What has worked is when we partnered with our friends on Appropriations and let the State Department and other agencies know: Your money will be cut if you do not provide us with documents," Gowdy said to applause near the beginning of his remarks at the event.
Correct The Record, which is a pro-Clinton super PAC, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Benghazi panel, pounced on the comments, which were reported by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
"Trey Gowdy has politicized his investigation to benefit Republicans, proving that his Benghazi investigation is a political hit job against Hillary Clinton—nothing more, nothing less," said Correct the Record President Brad Woodhouse, a longtime Democratic strategist and operative, on Monday.
Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, has sought to distance himself from Republican efforts to politically wound Clinton over Benghazi and her use of a private email server while secretary of State.
In March, Gowdy backed out of a planned GOP fundraiser in Richmond, Virginia, after finding out that the event would feature a discussion about Benghazi. Later that month, The New York Times reported that Gowdy (among some congressional Republicans) was frustrated by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus citing the email controversy to attack the Democratic frontrunner.
But Cummings and Correct The Record alleged that Gowdy's comments represented fundraising on behalf of Republicans, noting that the National Federation of Pachyderm Clubs describes itself as an "allied" organization of the Republican National Committee. Registration for their convention was $150-$200.
"Republicans continue to use the deaths of four brave Americans in Benghazi as a political rallying cry and fundraising tool, which is offensive, reprehensible, and contrary to the promises we made to the loved ones of those who were killed during the 2012 attacks," Cummings said.
Cummings' criticism of Gowdy's appearance at the GOP event zeroes in on its political nature and Fleischmann's mention of Clinton. "Whether you are Hillary Clinton or any other lefty out there, you better beware because Trey Gowdy is out there and he is coming to get you," Fleischmann said when introducing Gowdy, but added "He is a fair man, he is a very fair man."
The GOP group and Gowdy's aides dismissed the criticism, flatly disputing the allegation that it represented GOP fundraising.
"Associations and groups regularly charge fees to attend conventions to help offset expenses. Our convention included eight meals and many speakers. Chairman Gowdy was not paid for his appearance, nor did we raise money at the luncheon at which he spoke. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and the Democrats are flat-out wrong," said Holly M. Lintner, the executive director of the National Federation of Pachyderm Clubs.
She and Gowdy's committee office noted that Benghazi came up only briefly in Gowdy's remarks to the convention.
Jamal Ware, a spokesman for Republicans on the Benghazi panel, defended his comments about efforts to force the State Department's hand with the appropriations bill.
"Many news outlets have reported on a recent appropriations bill that withholds non-security related funds to incentivize the State Department to ensure the American people and Congress gain access to what should be public records," Ware said. "Chairman Gowdy noted this fact in his speech. If some do not see the importance of government transparency for the people and don't think it should be mentioned, then that is their own issue, but Chairman Gowdy believes in it."
This story has been updated.