On Thursday, we reported on Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s (R-Utah) ongoing delinquency in investing President Trump’s conflicts of interest, his hotel lease with the General Services Administration and the emoluments clause. Chaffetz later in the day, along with the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a stern letter regarding Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s clothing line to the director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter M. Shaub, whom Chaffetz had previously attacked for criticizing publicly Trump’s failure to resolve his conflicts of interest. Chaffetz even went so far as to tweet, “What she did was wrong, wrong, wrong.”
— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) February 9, 2017
Ethics guru Norman Eisen, who previously criticized Chaffetz for appearing to bully Shaub, was encouraged. “I think that it is a material step forward that he has joined with the minority to demand a real investigation by OGE of Kellyanne Conway’s conduct, and not just the cursory wrist tap (It doesn’t even amount to a slap on the wrist) represented by the ‘counseling‘ that she got today,” Eisen told me. “The letter is all the more impressive because the bipartisan leadership of the committee is entrusting the matter to director Shaub, with whom the chairman has at times differed. I hope this will be the first step in a series of true joint oversight actions, including re: emoluments.”
So far, however, that does not seem to be in the cards. Chaffetz called me early Thursday evening. He said my column was “unfair.” I asked if he then was investigating Trump’s emoluments issue. He said he had just put out the letter regarding Conway. I said I would surely report on this (as I did above), but that this had nothing to do with the emoluments issue. He thanked me and reiterated that he thought the column was unfair. “I started to read it and couldn’t get through the first paragraph,” he said. I once again asked if it wasn’t correct that he was declining to investigate Trump’s emoluments issue. He then hung up.
On Thursday night, there happened to be a town hall in Chaffetz’s district. The Associated Press reports:
Hundreds of people lined up early for a town hall with U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, many holding signs criticizing the congressman’s push to repeal the newly-named Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah.
The main complaints among the crowd Thursday at a high school in a Salt Lake City suburb were that the Republican congressman is not doing what is best for the state’s natural resources and that he needs to investigate President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
Other news reports described a loud and rowdy crowd that questioned Chaffetz about everything from Obamacare to “refusal to investigate President Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest.” Politico reported, “Chaffetz added, to clamorous boos from his constituents, that he would not pursue other avenues of investigation into Trump’s potential personal gain from his office ‘until there’s evidence he’s somehow used that to ingratiate [sic] his family.'” Chaffetz continued, “You’re not going to like this part: the president, under the law, is exempt from conflict of interest laws.” Actually,Trump is not exempt from the emoluments clause and does have to abide by the terms of his lease with the GSA. Moreover, the potential for corruption and self-dealing certainly falls within his committee’s purview.
One attendee, Laura Barnett, described the event to me as “very contentious.” She said a whole array of questions got asked, but, “It was mostly Trump and the Oversight Committee, though. Lots of people chanting ‘Do your job.'” She added, “I do give Jason Chaffetz credit for showing up — it can’t have been easy.”
Chaffetz, as was evident from his town hall, cannot dismiss his constituents without risking their support and maybe inviting a primary challenge. Perhaps he will, after getting an earful, decide it really is his obligation to review the Trump lease and demand action if Trump is now in breach. Maybe he will conduct hearings on the emoluments clause. Given Trump’s willingness to personally badger Nordstrom for ending a business relationship with Ivanka Trump and Conway’s attempt to hawk Ivanka’s goods, Chaffetz might even consider whether there are serious ethical issues or the danger of corruption that flow from the “blind trust” Trump set up. Maybe he could even recommend legislation to require Trump to disclose his tax returns and holdings so as to prevent a string of scandals from damaging his presidency.
If Chaffetz did all that, his constituents and the public at large might think he was conscientiously performing his job and rising above partisan hackery. We’ll keep an eye out for further developments.