A handful of top Republicans have a message for outgoing Rep. Jason Chaffetz: It’s time to relinquish the House Oversight Committee gavel.
Several senior GOP lawmakers are quietly encouraging Chaffetz to step down from his chairmanship soon, even though the Utah Republican doesn’t plan to resign from Congress until June 30. While his retirement announcement Thursday said nothing about his future work, Chaffetz has told lawmakers he’ll be heading to Fox News.
But GOP insiders say Chaffetz has been reluctant to let go of his panel’s leadership before he leaves Congress — and now he’s thrown himself into the thick of the Russia scandal that’s consuming Washington. It’s made for an uncertain transition at the committee and a sore subject for House Republicans.
“If the chairman is on his way out… he should step down and allow the Steering Committee to move immediately to appoint a new chairman,” said Rep. Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican who sits on the Steering panel, which selects committee chairmen. “Sooner, not later.”
Critics are grumbling that even as Chaffetz was planning his retirement, he summoned newly-fired FBI Director James Comey to testify before his panel next week. Chaffetz said he wants to question Comey about allegations that President Donald Trump tried to pressure him to drop an investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The explosive hearing announcement — and Chaffetz’s threat to subpoena related FBI documents should they refuse to hand them over — has annoyed a number of GOP lawmakers. They worry that a major chairmanship transition in the middle of a high-profile probe of the president’s actions could create confusion at the committee.
These sources believe it would make more sense if a new chairman took the lead before the committee’s Comey probe takes off.
“Chaffetz is job-hunting when he should be doing the people’s business,” said one Republican who asked not to be named.
Chaffetz, reached by phone Thursday night, said he was “trying to do the right thing” by notifying colleagues of his departure weeks before he steps down. He said he still has a number of ongoing investigations and doesn’t plan to drop them just yet.
The transition to a new chairman, Chaffetz continued, “doesn’t have to be immediate but also doesn’t have to be on my last day either.” He said he wants to work with leaders and committee members to ensure a smooth handoff.
The House Steering Committee announced Thursday that it will meet the week of June 5 to consider his replacement.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, who previously ran the House Select Committee on Benghazi, is expected to take the reins of the Oversight Committee and is already making his case to Steering panel members. GOP insiders say the South Carolina Republican has the position locked up.
Behind the scenes, there is some concern that Chaffetz is hanging onto Oversight for the wrong reasons. The telegenic 50-year-old would garner major publicity for chairing a high-profile interrogation of Comey, whose story is one of the most sought after in the Beltway.
At least one Republican mused to POLITICO that Chaffetz’s continued chairmanship could create a conflict given his possible future endeavors in television. Asked about a potential conflict with Chaffetz during a press conference Thursday, Speaker Paul Ryan demurred, saying he had not yet heard the news that Chaffetz planned to leave June 30 for Fox.
Most Republicans, however, are just concerned about the transition.
“If he’s a lame duck for another five weeks… why would you start such a big event, with the Comey hearing, and then switch horses in the middle of the stream?” asked one senior House Republican aide.
Chaffetz said he’s still unsure whether Comey will testify next week. He has yet to hear back from the former FBI director.
Not everyone is anxious about the looming transition. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) doesn’t believe there is any rush to move Chaffetz out of the post. Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker also said that while “normally I would be” worried about a transition in the middle of such an investigation, “there’s one reason I’m not.
“That is because that transition would probably go to Trey Gowdy,” he said, before praising the former federal prosecutor at length.
A fifth-term lawmaker, Chaffetz is no stranger to high-profile interrogations. He was one of the all-star questioners of former IRS chief Lois Lerner, who Republicans blamed for the agency mistreating conservatives groups. Chaffetz was also a key investigator on the Benghazi probe and during the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking investigation.
On Capitol Hill, he’s known for his ambition to climb the ranks. After Speaker John Boehner resigned, he challenged Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for the top job, before Paul Ryan was ultimately drafted.
Many believed Chaffetz would run for leadership again someday. That’s why his retirement caught much of Washington off guard. Insiders, however, believe he could run for Utah governor someday. And should that be his ultimate goal, his position as Oversight chairman is not necessarily conducive to helping him attain it.
While it’s easier to grill an administration run by the opposite party, Chaffetz in recent months has had to become Trump’s watchdog in Congress. That means he has found himself in the middle of Democratic calls to investigate Trump’s finances and ties to Moscow.
And back home, Chaffetz has been slammed by left-leaning constituents who want him to do more to uncover Trump’s tax returns. Should he act on that, Chaffetz risks alienating the GOP base. If he doesn’t act forcefully, however, he could be accused of giving the president a pass.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.