Speaker Ryan's Farewell (copy)

Former S.C. congressman Trey Gowdy. Carolyn Kaster/AP

Nothing is small with a presidential impeachment.

Word that former S.C. congressman Trey Gowdy could join Donald Trump's legal team was hot news this month with breathless headlines and tweets over the prospect of the former Upstate prosecutor helping a president under fire.

The news gave the South Carolina law firm Gowdy joined this year — Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough — a front-row seat to the biggest national political controversy in years.

And Gowdy was not the Columbia-based firm's first ties to the impeachment inquiry.

Nelson Mullins attorney Jon Sale spent time this month representing his former law school classmate Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer who was facing a subpoena to hand over documents to U.S. House committees.

Most folks in the legal and political communities around South Carolina know Nelson Mullins.

The firm, which traces its origins 122 years to Patrick Nelson in Camden, is the state's largest with more than 200 attorneys in four offices around the state. Overall, the firm has 25 offices in 11 states and Washington, D.C.

In South Carolina, Nelson Mullins' roster boasts a former governor (the Riley in the name is Dick Riley), former chiefs of staff for governor, former lawmakers and a former U.S. attorney.

And the firm's attorneys sit on college boards, the number of which has raised eyebrows in political circles. 

Three of Nelson Mullins attorneys are on the University of South Carolina board, with tax specialist John von Lehe chairing the trustees. (For the record, two Nelson Mullins attorneys voted for retired Army Gen. Bob Caslen as president in July, while a third voted present.)

Meanwhile, David Wilkins, a former House Speaker and U.S. ambassador to Canada, and business attorney David Dukes serve on Clemson University's board. Managing partner Jim Lehman chairs the board at Claflin University. Nelson Mullins attorneys have led boards at College of Charleston, Benedict College and Erskine College.

Lehman said this is part of the firm's long-standing efforts to serve the community, which includes its charitable work, and nothing more.

But it's Gowdy that put a bit of a national spotlight on Nelson Mullins outside the legal world and outside South Carolina. 

Gowdy, the leader of the Benghazi investigation into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said he was done with politics when he decided to not seek re-election to Congress.

"There’s no way I’ll return to it," Gowdy told the Greenville News in January as he joined Nelson Mullins. "I’m not going to lobby. And if I enjoyed politics, I wouldn’t be leaving.”​

But he kept a toe in the water by offering political observations on Fox News. This month came a weeklong will-he-or-won't-he dance over coming to Trump's legal team.

He joined, per The New York Times, with help from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a fellow South Carolinian elected to Congress with Gowdy in 2010.

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Then Nelson Mullins leaders weighed some concerns: What role would Gowdy play with the White House? 

Lehman declined to discuss the details of deliberations, saying he could not comment on pending representation.

Gowdy was sought, in part, to go on television to defend Trump, The Times reported. Gowdy, like all former congressmen, is not allowed to lobby for a year after leaving office.

That was a sticking point. Now impeachment observers will have to wait until January to see if Gowdy joins Team Trump. 

In the meantime, Sale has acknowledged that he no longer represents Giuliani after sending a letter to Congress last week saying the former New York mayor would not comply with a subpoena for documents. Sale, a former Watergate prosecutor, wrote that the impeachment inquiry was "unconstitutional, baseless and illegitimate," and added that the documents were covered under attorney-client and executive privilege.

Lehman said he has no indication if this month's national news is helping or hurting the firm. He stressed the firm has grown over the past year because of its recent trial work in national medical cases. 

Still, some of the chatter over social media targeted Nelson Mullins' politics with its attorneys defending the president.

Lehman notes his firm's political-action committee gives more money to Democrats, data backed up by the Center for Responsive Politics. And he said to consider the firm's roster of attorneys with Riley, who was a cabinet member for Democrat Bill Clinton, and Wilkins, who was was an ambassador under Republican George W. Bush.

Lehman added that his firm has represented some clients who rankled some leaders in a state led by Republicans. Firm attorneys worked for reforms at the state departments of Juvenile Justice and Corrections and assist poorly funded schools.

"We've never taken on a legal matter," Lehman said, "because it was necessarily popular."

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