The chairman of the House Oversight Committee knows some Democrats don’t trust his motives in launching an inquiry into President Trump’s meeting with his administration’s top cop.
But Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in an interview Wednesday that he simply wants to get to the facts behind claims that the president pushed his FBI director to shut down an investigation of Michael Flynn, a close aide.
If the records and facts lead to impeachment proceedings against President Trump, so be it, Chaffetz said. But, the Utah Republican cautioned, his Oversight committee has a long way to go before that.
Chaffetz said that when he first heard the reported allegation on his home television Tuesday evening, he was gobsmacked.
“I thought `Holy crap. This could get really ugly,’” Chaffetz said. “How ugly it gets, I just don’t know yet.”
Chaffetz applauded the selection of Robert Mueller Wednesday as a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian officials seeking to meddle in last year’s election. He called Mueller a fair and impartial investigator “with impeccable credentials.” But he said he would continue with his Oversight probe, and noted that Comey and Mueller had a previous working relationship.
“We’re still moving full steam ahead,” Chaffetz said.
“People on both sides of the aisle should take comfort in his objectivity,” Chaffetz said of Mueller. “But Comey used to work for Mueller. So we will still want to see the memos and I’m still waiting to hear from director and confirm his appearance at the hearing. “
Chaffetz said he wants to hear both sides of this January meeting at the White House, which is why he asked the Justice Department late Tuesday evening for copies of any documents or memos pertaining to the conversation between then-FBI Director James B. Comey and the president.
According to close associates, Comey memorialized the meeting in a memo and recounted that the president said he hoped Comey could drop his investigation of Flynn’s contact with the Russians. Comey’s memo, close aides said, also noted that the president asked the vice president and attorney general to leave the room before having a private chat with Comey.
Chaffetz has also called for a hearing, likely next week, where he wants Comey to appear and answer questions. The chairman said he has been trying since Tuesday night to reach Comey on a cellphone number he had for the director. He said he has gotten no answer so far, but has passed the message along through Comey’s contacts.
“I don’t think this is just going to fade away,” Chaffetz said of the reason to address whether the president obstructed a criminal probe. “There have been a series of missteps and self-inflicted wounds. There is a propensity and pattern of him doing this.”
The Oversight chairman said it’s possible Comey will say he did not feel pressure to close the probe. Perhaps the White House can document that Trump made no such request. Perhaps Trump was simply relaying that Flynn was a nice guy and felt sorry for him.
The events that followed that January meeting are important. The two men met immediately after Department of Justice officials warned Trump that Flynn had lied about his contacts with Russian officials. The FBI continued its Russian investigation after that meeting. Trump fired Comey with no warning May 9. The president acknowledged in a television interview that the FBI’s “fake” Russian investigation was part of the reason.
“We’re going to let the facts take us wherever they go,” Chaffetz said, acknowledging it will involve some “weighty decisions” by the Oversight panel. “We need to move cautiously. We need to hear the other side of the story, too.”
Chaffetz said he consulted with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) Tuesday evening before launching and got “a thumbs up.” He tweeted his plans to the press, and then he quickly texted White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to give him a heads up. In the hours after, several Republicans privately texted Chaffetz, thanking him for taking on the subject. Most are from competitive districts and fear how Trump’s actions may play in the midterm elections, he said.
“I had a number of members send me a personal text saying, `Thank you, good job, keep it up. Glad we’re out there, not ducking this’,” he said.
Some Democrats argued his effort was a smokescreen, aimed at looking tough but signifying little.
But Chaffetz called himself the Democrats’ “best shot.” A thorough probe is good for the Republican Party, too, he argued.
“The public is really good at sensing authenticity. If we fall anywhere short of being thorough, responsible and complete in our investigation, the public will get it and they’ll get rid of us,” he said.
Chaffetz likely won’t be around to see the results of the probe he began Tuesday evening. He has already announced he may leave office before his term ends in December; on Thursday, he plans to discuss the timing of his departure. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), one of Chaffetz’s closest friends on the Hill, is considered a top contender for the chairmanship.
At the minimum, Chaffetz said he hopes this work can cast a spotlight on a troubling pattern in the Trump White House. Trump and his aides are not making use of time-honored White House protocols or operating procedures for how a president should announce decisions and communicate with aides, foreign governments and others.
“I get the sense that the president just does his thing. He wants to move fast. This president doesn’t sit still well …. and it’s hurting him,” Chaffetz said. “I hope this is one of the realizations that happens in TrumpWorld: Let’s think this through before we just do it.