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Rep. Chaffetz Says Town Hall Protesters 'Intimidate And Bully People'

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on February 24, 2017 2:04 pm

Earlier this month, House Republican Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, was booed at a town hall meeting by voters who wanted him to investigate President Trump.

Chaffetz said he'd been targeted by paid protesters from out of state, and speaking to NPR's Steve Inskeep on Friday, still insists law enforcement told him that some were from out of state. Morning Edition on Thursday interviewed three voters who attended. We verified they live in his district; one even says she voted for the congressman.

Chaffetz says he doesn't mind criticism, "but I did think it was a bit over the top for an hour-and-15-plus minutes to yell, scream, flail and try to, I think intimidate and to bully people."

Like other Republicans, he faces pressure to use Congress as a check on the White House. Chaffetz insists he's doing that.

"He is the president of the United States. He has a duty and an obligation to put the country first, and we'll keep a watchful eye on that," he tells Inskeep. "But I'm also not going to go on fishing expeditions."

Chaffetz says he's examining four things relating to the president. He's investigating Michael Flynn, the recently departed national security adviser. He criticized presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway for promoting a Trump brand. He's asked questions about Trump's Washington hotel and the president's handling of classified information, although Chaffetz knows some voters expect more.

"I think a lot of liberals in particular are surprised and shocked that Donald Trump actually won. There's still a lot of concern and some of it's very legitimate concern. I have questions myself," he says. "But I want to have that dialogue and I want to try to come up with as much bipartisan support as we can for our way forward."


Interview Highlights

On whether the president is really exempt from any business conflict of interest

The president is exempt from the conflict of interest laws. And a lot of people who for instance wanted to see his tax returns — I went on national news multiple times saying I thought Donald Trump as a candidate should have released his tax returns. But it's not required by law.

On former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter's contention that the Emoluments Clause applies to the president, and that Trump should have unwound certain business interests by Inauguration Day

You're going to have to ask the White House about that. But I disagree with Mr. Painter. I've met with him. I've spoken with him. He's got a very interesting perspective. But the president is exempt from the conflict of interest laws.

On whether Trump is profiting from his office

That's ridiculous. I really think that's just silly. That's the silly season. We were very concerned in the Oversight Committee about the potential mishandling of classified information while he was at [Trump's private club in Florida] Mar-a-Lago. That did not seem acceptable, and I did send a letter asking for clarification and really need further clarification that they are able to handle classified information.

But it is something the committee is concerned about. Any time you have mishandling of classified information, I am very, very concerned about that. I was very concerned. That does raise a lot of eyebrows, enough so that the committee is investigating that.

On Trump's conducting of a domestic deal that include foreign investment though his lawyer said he would be making no new foreign deals

I think it's something that should be paid attention to long term. If there's evidence that somebody was using the White House inappropriately to overstep their bounds — as we saw the situation with Kellyanne Conway, who went on television and started talking about Ivanka Trump's clothing line. You can't do that.

First I've ever heard of that. [To investigate it] there would have to be evidence. Again, not looking at any of the details, but unless there's evidence that they were somehow misusing the office, that would be a different standard than the normal course of business that the Trump organization — and there's lots of different investments in companies in holding companies and whatnot.

Absent to that, I don't think that the committee would be looking into that.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear a congressman who was booed at a town hall meeting this month. It's one of many meetings that have turned raucous.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOWN HALL MEETING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Do your job. Do your job. Do your job.

INSKEEP: Some of the crowd told Jason Chaffetz of Utah, do your job. Chaffetz leads a House committee on investigations, and voters wanted him to investigate President Trump. The congressman said he'd been targeted by protesters from out of state. On MORNING EDITION yesterday, we interviewed voters who attended. We verified that they live in Chaffetz's district. And one even said she voted for him, which we told the congressman as we began a lengthy discussion.

Do you accept that the people at that town hall meeting were your constituents?

JASON CHAFFETZ: Oh, I think the overwhelming majority of people were from Utah.

INSKEEP: He still insists law enforcement told him that some people were from out of state. He says he doesn't mind criticism.

CHAFFETZ: But I did think it was a bit over the top for an hour and 15-plus minutes to yell, scream, flail and try to, I think, intimidate and to bully people.

INSKEEP: Congressman Chaffetz was on the line from his home in Utah. He's 49 years old, in his ninth year in Congress, having easily won re-election. Like other Republicans, the chairman of the House oversight committee faces pressure to use Congress as a check on the White House. Chaffetz insists he's doing that.

CHAFFETZ: He is the president of the United States. He has a duty and an obligation to put the country first, and we'll keep a watchful eye on that. But I'm also not going to go on fishing expeditions.

INSKEEP: The congressman says he is examining four things relating to the president. He's investigating Michael Flynn, the recently departed national security adviser. Chaffetz criticized presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway for promoting a Trump company. He's asked questions about Trump's Washington hotel and the president's handling of classified information, although Chaffetz knows some voters expect more.

CHAFFETZ: A lot of liberals in particular are surprised and shocked that Donald Trump actually won. They still don't understand it, and there's still a lot of concern. And some of it's very legitimate concern. I have questions myself. But I want to have that dialogue, and I want to try to come up with as much bipartisan support as we can for our way forward.

INSKEEP: Congressman, you said you have some questions yourself about President Trump. Let me ask about that - is the president really, as you have said, exempt from any business conflict of interest?

CHAFFETZ: He is. In fact, Chuck Todd on "Meet The Press" was very good in clarifying that. The president is exempt from the conflict-of-interest laws. And a lot of people who, for instance, wanted to see his tax returns - I went on national news multiple times saying I thought Donald Trump, as a candidate, should have released his tax returns. But it's not required by law.

INSKEEP: I want to be clear on this because you're correct that there is a federal conflict-of-interest law that excludes the president. But we were speaking with Richard Painter, who's a Republican ethics lawyer. He served under President George W. Bush in the Bush White House in an ethics position. And he said there are a lot of other laws that do apply. Let's listen to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RICHARD PAINTER: The Emoluments Clause applies to everybody in the government, including the president. We have foreign state-owned banks that lease space in Trump buildings, loans from the Bank of China, the various Trump businesses - all of that needs to be unwound by January 20, or he needs to sell those businesses. That's the price of public service.

INSKEEP: That was Richard Painter, by the way, saying back in December, President Trump, then President-elect Trump was wrong to say he could not have a conflict of interest. Obviously, the president's businesses were not unwound by January 20. He still owns everything. Should everything have been unwound?

CHAFFETZ: You're going to have to ask the White House about that, but I disagree with Mr. Painter. I've met with him. I've spoken with him. He's got a very interesting perspective. But the president is exempt from the conflict-of-interest laws.

INSKEEP: Congressman, I just have to be...

CHAFFETZ: But...

INSKEEP: Forgive me. I have to be really clear on this. You said the president is exempt from conflict of interest. There's a law about what you're supposed to do before you go into office and the way you're supposed to recuse yourself from certain decisions. President is exempt from that. But the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution forbids him from receiving gifts. There are bribery laws that forbid federal officials from receiving bribes. Are you suggesting that it's OK - it's legal if the president takes a bribe or takes a gift from a foreign nation?

CHAFFETZ: No, of course not. Nobody suggests that a bribe is acceptable at any level of government. But businesses and their ongoing operations - does that constitute a violation? At least as what I've seen so far, I don't think so.

INSKEEP: There are some specific items that have come to our attention that do seem interesting. For example, the president, a number of times, has visited Mar-a-Lago of course, which he owns, which is a home and also a resort, a private club. And an ethics lawyer who spoke with us, Kathleen Clark, said that amounts to product placement. And she went on to point out that according to CNBC...

CHAFFETZ: (Laughter) Come on.

INSKEEP: Well...

CHAFFETZ: Seriously?

INSKEEP: Well, because...

CHAFFETZ: That's ridiculous.

INSKEEP: ...It gets lots of publicity. And as of January 1, according to CNBC...

CHAFFETZ: (Laughter) He's not buying that publicity.

INSKEEP: That's true. He's getting free...

CHAFFETZ: (Laughter) That's ridiculous.

INSKEEP: That's right. He's getting free publicity.

CHAFFETZ: Keep going, but that's ridiculous.

INSKEEP: OK, I'll keep going.

CHAFFETZ: But keep going.

INSKEEP: So he gets free publicity, according to the ethics lawyer anyway. And as of January 1...

CHAFFETZ: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...According to CNBC, the fees for this private club went from $100,000 to $200,000 dollars. Is the president profiting from his office?

CHAFFETZ: (Laughter) That's ridiculous. I really - I think that's just silly. That's the silly season. We were very concerned in the oversight committee about the potential mishandling of classified information while he was at Mar-a-Lago. The pictures we've...

INSKEEP: Oh, sure. There were photos of him out on a deck...

CHAFFETZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...With the public...

CHAFFETZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Or with the members.

CHAFFETZ: And I - and that did not seem acceptable. And I did send a letter asking for clarification and really need further clarification that they are able to handle classified information. But it is something that the committee is concerned about. Anytime you have mishandling of classified information, I'm very, very concerned about that. I was very concerned with Hillary Clinton on that. I'm very concerned at Donald Trump. That does raise a lot of eyebrows, enough so that the committee is investigating that.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another case. Kathleen Clark - ethics lawyer, professor at Washington University in St. Louis - was on the program February 10, and she raised concerns about a Trump business project. Now the Trump Organization has said it's supposed to stop new overseas deals, although it's continuing to do business overseas. They're continuing to do domestic deals. And Kathleen Clark was interested in a deal that appears to include foreign investment. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KATHLEEN CLARK: What we now know is that the Trump Organization plans to go forward with hotel deals, among others - for instance, one in Dallas that involves foreign money - money from, among other places, Kazakhstan. And so there's a legitimate concern about whether the president is going to be influenced in how he acts as president by the prospect and by receiving benefits.

INSKEEP: Is that a legitimate concern, as she says?

CHAFFETZ: I think it's something that should be paid attention to long term. If there's evidence that somebody was using the White House inappropriately to overstep their bounds, as we saw the situation with the person - Kellyanne Conway who went on television and started talking about Ivanka Trump's clothing line, you can't do that.

INSKEEP: Are you looking into that Dallas deal and the foreign money in that Dallas deal?

CHAFFETZ: I have not. That's first I've ever heard of that.

INSKEEP: OK. Is that something that would be a legitimate subject of investigation for your committee?

CHAFFETZ: You'd - there would have to be evidence. Again, not looking at any of the details - but unless there's evidence that they were somehow misusing the office, that would be a different standard than the normal course of business that the Trump Organization - and there's lots of different investments and companies and holding companies and whatnot - you know, absent to that, I don't think that the committee would be looking into that.

INSKEEP: I should give you a chance to be clear on this because someone will be listening and thinking - isn't that the reason you investigate, to find evidence rather than waiting on evidence before you investigate?

CHAFFETZ: Oh, sure, sure. And, you know, we - the federal government has some 2 million employees. They spend $4 trillion, and we have some 60 people that work in our committee, at least on the Republican side of the aisle. So we have to pick and choose where to go. Right now, we have four areas in which we are looking very specifically, you know, at the White House. And I also don't pre-announce all of our investigations either. As much as NPR would love to have me pre-announce it, I oftentimes will look at it before we ever announce anything publicly. And certainly, anybody who's ever done any sort of investigation would know and appreciate that we usually, generally, don't pre-announce them.

INSKEEP: Elijah Cummings, your Democratic colleague, the ranking member on your committee, was on the program and accused you of a double standard. He said if it were Hillary Clinton who was president, you'd be trying a lot harder. Is that true?

CHAFFETZ: No. That's disappointing that Elijah Cummings would say that. I have the greatest respect for him. I've worked well with him. We have done a lot of things together, and we're doing things together right now. But...

INSKEEP: I should quote him directly to be totally fair. His quote was "all you have to do is say, if Hillary did this, what would the Republicans do?" That was his specific language.

CHAFFETZ: I think that's an oversimplification. And I would remind people, people who'd said, you know, Elijah Cummings, say - well, let's start investigating Donald Trump before he was sworn-in. I didn't start investigating Hillary Clinton before she was sworn-in. I started investigating what Hillary Clinton said and did after the attacks in Benghazi some nearly four years after she took office. I started looking at the email investigation because the inspector general found that there was classified information in a non-classified setting. That's why I started that investigation. So for using the Hillary Clinton standard - if that's the standard, wow. We're about four years ahead of schedule.

INSKEEP: Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, thanks for taking the time.

CHAFFETZ: Oh, thank you.

INSKEEP: He's chairman of the House oversight committee. Now, on Inauguration Day, Chaffetz posted a photo with Hillary Clinton and a caption, the investigation continues. He told us he's still focused on the defeated presidential candidate's emails. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.