POLITICS
02/09/2017 11:08 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2017

Congressional Oversight May Be More Important Than Ever. Is Jason Chaffetz Up To The Job?

So far, he hasn't shown much interest in investigating Donald Trump's administration.

WASHINGTON ― When Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president, he could barely wait to start investigating.

“It’s a target-rich environment,” he said in late October. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up.”

But now that it’s President Donald Trump’s administration Chaffetz is charged with monitoring, he’s willing to sit back and wait.

“Give it a few days, for goodness sake!” Chaffetz told The Huffington Post this week. “All the flailing before he was even sworn in was a bit silly, if not purely immature.”

Chaffetz ― a fresh-faced, calmly spoken 49-year-old who was a placekicker for Brigham Young University in the late ‘80s ― was one of President Barack Obama’s most outspoken critics. He won the oversight committee’s chairmanship in late 2014 by promising aggressive investigations but also a more bipartisan approach than the deeply politicized style of his predecessor, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Two years into his tenure as chairman, Chaffetz has proven he can work better with Democrats than Issa. But that is maybe the lowest standard of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. And in the early stages of the Trump presidency, there are hardly any signs Chaffetz will work with Democrats to conduct any real oversight of Trump.

“Everything I’ve seen so far, doesn’t sound like he feels there is much to investigate,” the top Democrat on the oversight committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, told HuffPost this week.

“Before, he was saying he was waiting for him to get sworn in,” Cummings said. “He got sworn in. Then he said he was willing to give him a chance to get his cabinet set. So we’ll see.”

If the committee’s organizational meeting in late January was any indication, don’t expect much.

Democrats offered seven Trump-related amendments — covering issues ranging from the Trump Hotel lease with the General Services Administration to legal restraints on the president’s ability to issue executive orders ― to the committee’s oversight plan. Chaffetz and Republicans on the committee adopted zero of them.

Democrats insist it is not normal to have foreign interference in a presidential election, that Trump’s financial conflicts of interest are unprecedented, and that robust oversight is necessary when you have a president who seems intent on doing whatever he wants. They openly wonder how is it that the oversight committee has no current plans to investigate Trump.

Constituents are wondering too.

Chaffetz got thrashed Thursday night during a town hall meeting in his district. Voters quickly filled up a 1,000-person school auditorium, and police had to turn away more. The crowd went after him for traditional Republican positions like repealing Obamacare, but they also attacked him for not looking into Trump’s more questionable conflicts of interest. They chanted “Do your job!” and ended the night by screaming “Your last term!”

After Chaffetz was such an aggressive watchdog of Obama, and after he looked poised to attack Clinton at every turn, Chaffetz’s hands-off approach to Trump is smelling like hypocrisy. But that’s not how Chaffetz sees it.

“He’s days into his presidency,” Chaffetz told HuffPost. “I laid out an oversight plan that will lead to lots of investigations.” 

Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Thursday, to his credit, Chaffetz did take a hard stance against the administration. Earlier in the day, Kellyanne Conway promoted Ivanka Trump’s clothing line during a morning Fox News hit from the White House. Later in the day, Chaffetz said the endorsement was “clearly over the line” and “unacceptable.” He and Cummings eventually sent a scolding letter referring Conway to the Office of Government Ethics for an investigation.

The other issue the media has given Chaffetz credit for looking into is the unprecedented situation with Trump Hotel, where Trump is both the tenant and now, technically, as the head of the federal government, the landlord. Trump is leasing the Historic Old Post Office from the government, and the contract clearly states that no elected official “shall be admitted to any share or part of this lease, or to any benefit that may arise therefrom.”

When HuffPost asked Chaffetz about the Trump Hotel lease in late November, he said the tenant-landlord situation was “true of every president,” pointing to payments the Secret Service makes when agents are housed on the property of their protectees. Chaffetz suggested he saw no difference between those situations and a contract explicitly prohibiting an elected official from being party to a $180 million lease.

But Chaffetz recently asked the GSA for an unredacted version of the contract, suggesting he might actually see a problem there, that maybe he’s interested in real oversight of Trump after all. Or maybe not.

“I wouldn’t term it an investigation,” Chaffetz said, “but I am curious as to what the GSA plans to do, if anything, about it.”

And if you didn’t think Chaffetz saw this as a minor issue that the GSA, not Trump, needed to resolve, he also said there was “probably an easy, simple remedy.”

“But I’d like to hear from them what they think that is,” he continued.

Democrats point out they have already sent GSA multiple letters asking for additional information about the Trump Hotel lease. If Chaffetz were really serious about aggressive oversight and working through this issue, they charge, why did he only ask for an unredacted version of the lease and not the other information committee members sought? Why aren’t lawmakers holding a hearing?

Part of the reason may be that Chaffetz believes the president, as Trump told the New York Times, can’t have conflicts of interest.

“The president is exempt from conflicts of interest,” Chaffetz said. “He is exempt. That’s the law. And Democrats are flailing and that’s about all they have at this point.”

A short report issued by the Congressional Research Service in late November concluded that, yes, presidents are not subject to the same rules on financial conflicts of interest as the rest of the executive branch. But that same report also said Trump is “potentially” subject to the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution, which prohibits officeholders from taking any gift from a foreign state.

Chaffetz, however, appears dead-set on not poking around into Trump’s finances. He notes he never did a personal investigation into Obama or Clinton ― that he only probed issues surrounding their government service ― and he doesn’t sound eager to go after Trump.

In fact, the person who Chaffetz has seemed to go after most aggressively this year is the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub. Chaffetz sent Shaub a stern letter accusing him of “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance” when Shaub’s office tweeted about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest. Chaffetz demanded a meeting with Shaub, even threatening to subpoena him when a meeting did not work out. (Emails between Chaffetz’s office and OGE seemed to show that the botched sit-down was more Chaffetz’s fault than Shaub’s.)

In a scrum with reporters during the GOP retreat two weeks ago, Chaffetz downplayed his feud with the ethics chief. “I just think he stepped out of bounds a little bit,” he said. But he made it clear during that session with the press just how uninterested he is in investigating the president.

When he got a question about the White House demanding to review scientific reports before they are sent out publicly, Chaffetz dismissed the question by noting he had not heard about the issue. When he got a question about Trump using an unsecured phone, he said he didn’t know about that either, and he wondered what Obama had done. When a reporter answered that Obama had a secure BlackBerry, Chaffetz made a joke.

“BlackBerry? What’s that?” he said, moving on to the next question.

When another reporter asked about Trump’s insistence that there was massive-scale voter fraud, Chaffetz did say he saw no evidence of that, but he also added that Trump was free to use the Department of Justice to investigate. When a reporter asked whether that might be wasteful, and whether Chaffetz could do an investigation on that waste, he shrugged.

“I’ve kind of given you my position on it. It’s not something I’m pursuing,” he said.

On Tuesday, Trump summoned Chaffetz to the White House for a meeting. Chaffetz said he had no idea why Trump wanted to see him, but Chaffetz later reported that Trump made it clear he didn’t want to talk about oversight.

“Before my bum even hit the chair, the president said, ‘No oversight. You can’t talk about anything that has to do with oversight,’” Chaffetz said. Instead, they talked about Chaffetz’s reform agenda, including civil service reform and the Postal Service, an aide told HuffPost. But first, they began the meeting by discussing the Bears Ears Monument in Utah.

Over the objections of local politicians, Obama designated roughly 1.35 million acres in San Juan County, Utah, as a national monument. Chaffetz and the rest of the Utah congressional delegation want Trump to reverse that action, as locals worry that the designation might prevent them from collecting firewood or visiting sacred sites to perform religious ceremonies.

Trump could help Chaffetz by reversing Obama’s decision — and win a favor down the road. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a member of Congress advocating for the interests of his state. But Trump’s transactional view of the world might present problems for the lawmakers who are supposed to keep him in check. And it’s just remarkable to see a relationship developing between Trump and Chaffetz, given where they were a few months ago.

On the day that a recording came out of Trump bragging he grabs women by their genitals and forcibly kisses them without their consent, Chaffetz was the first congressional Republican to say, “I’m out.”

“My wife and I,” Chaffetz told a local news station on Oct. 7, “we have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.”

He called Trump’s words on that “Access Hollywood” tape “some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine,” and he said he didn’t know who he’d vote for, only that it wouldn’t be Trump or Hillary Clinton.

That’s not the end of the story, though. Less than three weeks later, Chaffetz had a change of heart.

He tweeted that while he wouldn’t “defend or endorse” Trump, he would vote for him. He had apparently figured out how to look his daughter in the eye.

“I asked her who she’d vote for and she said Donald Trump,” Chaffetz told HuffPost this week.

He again reiterated that he saw a difference between endorsing someone and voting for them, and he expressed his relief that Clinton had lost.

“I’m just thrilled beyond anything that it’s not Hillary Clinton,” Chaffetz said. “I’m just thrilled that we’re not calling her President Clinton.”

Chaffetz punctuated that point on Inauguration Day, when he posted a picture on Instagram of he and Clinton shaking hands with a caption that read: “So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.” 

As much as Chaffetz clearly despises Clinton, some members of the House have a different theory on why Chaffetz re-endorsed Trump: They think he was angling to become speaker.

Had Clinton won, and had House Republicans taken the beating that many were predicting, conservatives were preparing to block Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) from another term in the speakership, with the idea that someone like Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) ― now Trump’s CIA director ― could take the job.

Another plausible contender for the job? Chaffetz.

The member who recounted the discussions to HuffPost in December was clear that Chaffetz was not involved in any of the coup planning before the election. But Chaffetz’s move to re-endorse Trump before November was seen by some members as political positioning. Chaffetz, they believed, had correctly calculated he could never become speaker if he had openly opposed the Republican nominee.

Chaffetz had, after all, run for speaker in October 2015, before Ryan got into the race, back when it was just Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and heavy front-runner Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Chaffetz’s decision to run against McCarthy was a bit surprising to the majority leader. Chaffetz was the keynote speaker for his re-election kickoff less than five months earlier, and he considered Chaffetz a friend. But once Chaffetz was in the race, he was relentless, even suggesting that McCarthy was incompetent. He told Republicans they needed “a speaker who could speak.”

Chaffetz dropped out of the race once Ryan got in, but the whole episode illustrated his “Game of Thrones” view of politics.

Of course, there is another, less Machiavellian theory about why Chaffetz re-endorsed the president: He honestly isn’t that troubled by him. And every day he shrugs off the latest Trump abuse of power, that theory looks a bit more convincing.

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