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Opinion Jason Chaffetz defends warning letter to ethics chief

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press/File)

As we reported, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, announced at a press conference on Wednesday that President-elect Donald Trump’s “fix” to his ethics and emoluments clause problems didn’t fix anything. Shaub’s job is to enforce government ethics rules and sign off on executive branch nominees’ ethics arrangements, including such divestment as is required.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, before election day announced he would be investigating Hillary Clinton, who almost everyone thought would win the election. He was a dogged investigator on Benghazi and other matters in the Obama administration. In the wake of jaw-dropping evidence of Russian interference with the election and, specifically, members of the Trump campaign having contacts with the Russian government, Chaffetz has shown zero interest in investigating. He has shown no interest in forcing disclosure of Trump’s financial ties to Russia.

And now, in the wake of Shaub’s announcement, Chaffetz sends the ethics policeman a letter accusing him of unprofessionally blurring politics and ethics guidance. Citing a string of tweets, he demands that Shaub make himself available for the committee to “interview” him (presumably not a public hearing). He slams him for  attempting to engage in “public relations.” He also raises at the tail end of the letter Congress’s need to reauthorize the OGE.

Ranking member on the committee Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), in a letter to Chaffetz, demands a hearing be held so Shaub can publicly discuss his finding that Trump’s arrangement violates bipartisan precedent and invites corruption.

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Democrats are outraged over Chaffetz’s letter, viewing this as an effort to intimidate Shaub, rather than make certain the president follows the Constitution and avoids scandal. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared, “The Republicans are at it again, filling the swamp instead of draining it. First, House Republicans tried to gut the Office of Congressional ethics. Now they’re trying to handcuff the Office of Government ethics. Mr. Chaffetz’s attempt to bully Mr. Shaub out of doing his job are absolutely despicable,” he said.

The head of the Office of Government Ethics issued a stern and unusually public rebuke of President Trump's business separation plans in January. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

We spoke to Chaffetz by phone this afternoon. The letter, he says, was written before Shaub’s press conference in which he responded to the press conference announcing Trump would not divest himself of his business. He claims his concerns about Shaub predated the election. “I had deep concerns during the campaign,” he told me. He says he invited Shaub to come in to discuss his concerns and reauthorization of the OGE but Shaub has not done so. He denied raising reauthorization in the letter as a threat to Shaub. “That’s the role of Congress,” he said. He indicated he is open to “talk about reauthorization” and any changes needed. He sounded irate about Shaub’s public tweets, some of which praised Trump for public statements that he would avoid conflicts. “How did Mr. Trump go from being ‘brilliant’ to what [Shaub] said [in the press conference].” He insists that even the press conference was inappropriate because Shaub has not seen the actual documents Trump brought to the press conference. He claims public discussion was “unethical.”

On the subject of Trump continuing to own his business, Chaffetz denied his committee is concerned with the invitation to corruption or the potential for self-dealing. His only concern is enforcement of the law. “The president and vice president are exempt,” he says. “The voters understood this was a wealthy individual.” When I reminded him of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” Chaffetz reiterated that his only interest was enforcing the law.

I asked Chaffetz about the ongoing emoluments clause issue. He said he wanted to talk to Shaub about it. Has he or his staff investigated the issue independently or read memos by esteemed independent experts? No. Isn’t he concerned that the president could be in violation of the Constitution on day one. “Not necessarily,” he said breezily. He said he would look at what is sent to him.

Laurence Tribe also sees this as thinly veiled intimidation. “For a member of Congress to make veiled threats to the federal ethics chief for publicly criticizing the President-elect’s plan to comply with the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and to avoid ethical conflicts – a plan that Director Shaub of the Office of Government Ethics rightly slammed as meaningless – is profoundly disturbing,” said the legal scholar and litigator. “Such threats can only chill fully protected speech and expression of opinion that is vital to our republic. Nothing about the job description of the Director imposes a gag or compels him to keep his concerns to himself or to limit those concerns to purely internal government memos. Chaffetz has truly gone off the reservation here.”

Chaffetz’s passivity in the face of well-publicized concerns about the Emoluments Clause stands in stark contrast to his aggressive, self-initiating action during the Obama years. He is not alone. Indeed, the entire Republican House seems entirely uninterested in keeping its promise to act as a check on Trump. The oath they take is to defend the Constitution, an obligation which places on Chaffetz and other Republicans the responsibility to investigate, not sit idly by, if a week from today the president will be in violation of the clear text of the Constitution. If Republicans do not show more initiative in policing potential corruption and in preventing Trump from trampling on the Constitution, Democrats will have a solid argument in 2018 that a change in the House majority is necessary to curtail corruption and act as an independent check on the executive branch.

UPDATE: Jordan Libowitz of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington observed, “If you were wondering how long it took Chaffetz to go from worrying about the possibility of even the perception of corruption to being not necessarily concerned about the President of the United States violating the Constitution: five months.”