At a recent town hall event in Cottonwood, Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) got a chance to hear from his constituents, and they gave him an earful. Over the course of the evening, Chaffetz was subjected to a torrent of ire from crowds repeatedly chanting “Do your job!” ― a reference, of course, to Chaffetz’s role as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, where it’s up to him to make sure President Donald Trump uses his office as the Constitution intended, and not as a vehicle for self-enrichment.
Chaffetz has since attempted to portray those protesters as paid outside agitators. It’s a strange stance to take with his constituents, since if he’s wrong, they’ll remember ― and indeed, no one has been able to find evidence for this bizarre claim. Of course, Chaffetz has another option here; he could, simply and as requested by the people who pay his salary, do his job. It’s a job that he used to do quite zealously, until Trump came around. Now, the man who once relished his role as an attack dog has opted for a self-neutering.
This has been especially apparent these past few days. As questions swirl about recently cashiered national security adviser Michael Flynn and his communications with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak ― questions with potentially grave national security implications ― Chaffetz is telling reporters that the “situation has taken care of itself.”
In reality, the situation is still very much unfolding. It’s true that Intelligence Committee, not Oversight, has jurisdiction over the matter, but it’s still remarkable to hear Chaffetz downplay recent events. He’s announced that he will get to the bottom of whatever went down at Mar-a-Lago last weekend ― although it hardly takes a genius to deduce what happened.
Chaffetz has maintained that the president is not bound by conflicts-of-interest laws. While this is technically true, the president is bound by the emoluments clause of the Constitution. More broadly, the fact that the president is not subject to conflicts-of-interest laws really means that he or she is obliged to go above and beyond in setting a strong ethical tone for the White House ― because everyone else in the administration will follow their boss’ lead.
This was only recently put to the test in a way that actually forced Chaffetz to evince some alarm. Last week, Trump aide-de-camp Kellyanne Conway went on “Fox & Friends” and urged viewers to purchase items from Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. This was an absolute violation of an Office Of Government Ethics regulation barring White House staff from endorsing products. The OGE, having learned about Conway’s actions, contacted the White House.
For a brief, mad moment, Chaffetz remembered that he was from a proud species of vertebrates, telling reporters that Conway’s actions were “over the line” and that “it should never have happened, and [the White House] better learn this lesson very quick.”
Chaffetz was essentially ignoring the fact that Conway was only following the example of Trump, who had tweeted in support of his elder daughter’s business interests as well. It’s really no wonder that Conway, even after she was supposedly “counseled,” felt free to announce that the president “supports me 100 percent.” And if you were wondering if Conway felt any remorse over her ethics violation, she made it clear on Twitter that she did not:
One could call this a demonstration of pure contempt for Jason Chaffetz, except Chaffetz himself has gone out of his way to invite this contempt. In his one post-inauguration meeting with Trump, Chaffetz was told that the topic of oversight was not to be brought up. Had it been discussed, of course, the whole imbroglio over Conway’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s clothing might have been avoided.
Chaffetz’s sudden lack of zeal is noteworthy. While he’s griping these days about people calling for “fishing expeditions,” it wasn’t long ago that he was telling anyone who’d listen that he was hard at work prepping his lures. Back when it seemed certain that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would become president ― and during those few hours that Chaffetz had “unendorsed” Trump, citing his daughter’s honor ― the Oversight chairman was loudly bragging about his plans to pepper the Clinton White House with investigations. As The Washington Post’s David Weigel reported in October:
Jason Chaffetz, the Utah congressman wrapping up his first term atop the powerful House Oversight Committee, unendorsed Donald Trump weeks ago. That freed him up to prepare for something else: spending years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton.
“It’s a target-rich environment,” the Republican said in an interview in Salt Lake City’s suburbs. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”
And during the Obama administration, Chaffetz was more than willing to escalate the threat level where the White House was concerned. As CNN reported in May 2013:
Rep. Jason Chaffetz reiterated Tuesday that the impeachment of President Barack Obama is possible as the White House faces scrutiny over its role in responding to the terror attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
“Look, it’s not something I’m seeking,” the Republican congressman from Utah said on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” “It’s not the endgame; it’s not what we’re playing for. I was simply asked, is that within the realm of possibilities, and I would say ‘yes.’ I’m not willing to take that off the table. But that’s certainly not what we’re striving for.”
Where did the passion go? At last week’s town hall in Cottonwood, Chaffetz told his constituents that he plans to take a wait-and-see approach to the river of potential emolument violations running through the White House. As Think Progress’ Laurel Raymond reported:
Before boos cut him off, Chaffetz also said that he won’t investigate the ways that Trump might personally profit from the presidency “until there’s evidence” that Trump has used his legal exemption from conflicts of interest to benefit his family. Politico reported Thursday that Trump has already received his first payment from a foreign government, the Saudis, for a room at his DC hotel.
In addition to the self-enrichment he’s already notched from the Saudis, it’s been reported that the Trump Organization is reviving “a long-dormant licensing deal involving a beachfront luxury resort in the Dominican Republic,” contravening Trump’s own pledge that his organization would pursue no further foreign development deals during his presidency. On top of that, one of Trump’s Indonesian business partners, Hary Tanoesoedibjo, recently appeared in a Jakarta-based magazine bragging about his access to Donald Trump, in a piece titled, yes, “I Have Access To Donald Trump.”
It is, as one might say, “a target-rich environment.” And yet Chaffetz seems to have hung up his guns.
What’s really puzzling about is that it’s not clear Chaffetz stands to lose very much by doing his job. In fact, if he wished to spin it this way, he could argue to voters that he’s doing the right thing while pursuing narrow partisan interests. If Chaffetz would like to see Trump have an effective presidency and win re-election, then he has a role to play in ensuring this. He should be discussing ethics and conflicts of interest with this White House, warning them about the consequences they could face and laying down the law by insisting that Trump set a proper tone and sign a strong ethics agreement with the OGE.
If Chaffetz were to do this ― which, again, is what he is paid to do ― he’d be helping Trump have a successful presidency, lessening the likelihood of scandal, and defanging some of the Democratic Party’s most potent talking points against the president. To pursue any other path is, frankly, bizarre.
Why would Chaffetz not want Trump to succeed? Why would he risk the wrath of his constituents by looking the other way? At some point, one has to wonder what Chaffetz is getting out of all this. For his sake, I hope it’s something big and shiny!
Jason Linkins edits “Eat the Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.