Rather than commit to investigating President-elect Donald Trump’s ongoing conflicts of interest and his refusal to comply with the letter of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has decided to dragoon the head of the Office of Government Ethics, who spoke out about Trump’s ethical shortcomings, to a closed-door session. Chaffetz prefers to browbeat the messenger rather than enforce the Constitution and prevent rampant corruption. (The Post’s editorial board today argues, “Mr. Chaffetz is already prioritizing partisanship over responsibility. Undercutting the executive branch’s ethics office would represent a larger failing.”)
Well, Chaffetz’s fellow Utahns do not like this one bit. The Salt Lake Tribune reports: “Utahns overwhelmingly want Rep. Jason Chaffetz, as chairman of the House Oversight [and Government Reform] Committee, to investigate President-elect Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interests — an endeavor Chaffetz has strongly resisted. A new poll by The Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics found 65 percent of registered voters surveyed in the state support such a probe, compared to just 31 percent opposed.”
On Monday, Shaub wrote a letter to Chaffetz recounting that his request for an open hearing had been denied. Clearly, Chaffetz wants to do his bullying behind closed doors. Chaffetz previously demanded a transcribed interview. Over the weekend, according to Shaub, Chaffetz’s office “modified your original request and proposed a private meeting with you and the Ranking Member and your respective staffs to take place on January 23.” Shaub told Chaffetz: “In recent weeks, I have spoken publicly about my concerns about the President Elect’s current plan to not divest—as well as to applaud some of his nominees’ ethics agreements, such as Rex Tillerson’s. My remarks were intended to educate the public about the shortcomings of the President Elect’s current plan and made in the hopes of persuading him to make adjustments that will resolve his conflicts of interest. I believe these remarks to be in line with OGE’s mission.” He continued: “As these communications make clear, the public wants to understand conflicts of interest in government and the role that OGE plays in preventing conflicts from hindering effective governance. Holding our meeting in public is in accordance with OGE’s educational function and will further ensure transparency in how we approach ethical governance.” He added that he will agree to a private meeting if Chaffetz insists but is “hopeful that [Chaffetz] will agree that a public meeting is preferable.” He even offered to provide alternative dates.
Ethics experts were aghast. “It is the job of the Office of Government Ethics to publicly promote ethics and attempt to avoid conflicts of interest,” said Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Committee leaders of both parties have a long bipartisan history of working across party lines and with civil society on government transparency and accountability issues. It is alarming that Rep. Chaffetz wants to speak to the head of OGE during the President-elect’s ethics vetting and does not want the public to know what he says.” He added that the insistence on a private meeting will be seen as “an attempt to silence any discussing of the incoming President’s many potential ethical issues.”
Laurence Tribe echoed that sentiment. “It’s crucial not only that the government’s chief ethics watchdog be permitted to do the vital job for which that independent officer was appointed but that the public be permitted to watch that job being done rather than having to sort, after the fact, through potentially misleading descriptions of who said what to whom at a closed meeting,” he told Right Turn.
The contrast between Chaffetz’s current conduct and his dogged pursuit of Hillary Clinton could not be more vivid. Dispassionate observers understandably will construe his behavior as political hackery of the worst kind. Clinton’s hearings were conducted in the open so that the public could assess the credibility of the witnesses and the good faith of the questioners. “What’s wrong with doing oversight in the sunlight? I support a public hearing, where everybody can talk about the main issue here: Trump’s impending constitutional violations and other conflicts,” said former White House ethics counsel Norman Eisen. “Indeed, 2 out of 3 Utahns want him to probe those conflicts.” He added, “I do appreciate that both sides are talking and trying to move the particular disagreement about the meeting towards a resolution, with the Chairman’s offer of an informal chat already a step forward from the formal, recorded inquisition where this all started.”
Chaffetz’s effort to evade his constitutional obligations and his committee’s oversight responsibilities does not sit well with voters back home. His refusal to hold an open hearing only underscores his intent — to protect the president-elect, not to get to the bottom of serious issues of governance, corruption and constitutional fidelity. Should Chaffetz not consent to an open hearing, Shaub should hold a news conference afterward to summarize the conversation for voters.
Fellow Utahn and former independent conservative presidential candidate Evan McMullin has denounced Chaffetz’s ethical sloth. Perhaps McMullin or another conservative primary challenger might prompt Chaffetz to do his job. Chaffetz and other Republicans might want to look at Trump’s abysmal poll numbers and the overwhelming desire among voters for him to release his tax returns (which would assist in determining any conflicts and revealing potential loans from foreign banks). Chaffetz and Republicans are on the wrong side of the issue, and they had better not incur the wrath of voters who thought they were serious about draining the swamp.