a portrait of Jason Chaffetz
Gary Cameron / Reuters / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Prince of Oversight

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz chairs the House’s watchdog committee. But critics charge he’d rather overlook the Trump administration’s infractions than look into them.

When Donald Trump’s now-notorious Access Hollywood tape first leaked in October last year, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz reacted to the news the way he usually does—he got himself in front of a camera, and fast.

Within hours after the story broke, he was on the set of Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 News, declaring, “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president.” Chaffetz was the first Republican in Congress to officially withdraw his endorsement from Trump, and he milked the moment for all it was worth—going on for several minutes in the interview about Trump’s “abhorrent and offensive” language, about the “awful place” the nominee had put the country in, about how he could no longer look his teenage daughter in the eye while supporting this candidacy.

Two and a half weeks later, he announced he would vote for Trump after all.

The apparent reversal did not escape the attention—or derision—of the political press. (“Jason Chaffetz just set some sort of modern record for flip-floppery,” wrote one Washington Post blogger.) To the congressman’s detractors, the episode encapsulated all the worst traits Chaffetz is accused of: the shameless camera-mugging, the brazen partisanship, the wet-finger-in-the-air opportunism. Chaffetz, though, has no regrets.

“Look, I think I went through a lot of the gyrations that people in Utah and across the country [did],” he said in a recent interview. But in the end, he told me, the voters made the right decision. “I can’t imagine what the world would look like if Hillary Clinton were the president right now. I mean—” he paused and searched for a way to adequately express his disgust at the thought, before settling on a guttural gagging sound. “Blech.”

The truth, of course, is that a world where Clinton is president right now is one that looks pretty good for Chaffetz’s career. Up until Election Day, he appeared poised to occupy one of the most coveted perches in Congress for a certain breed of conservative up-and-comer. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Chaffetz serves as the chamber’s chief White House watchdog—and if Clinton had won, he would get to spend the next four years basking in rapturous Fox News coverage as he led high-profile investigations into her administration.

Instead, Chaffetz now finds himself saddled with the responsibility of policing his own party’s administration—rooting out conflicts of interest, exposing abuses of power, and generally causing headaches for President Trump. It’s an awkward and unpleasant task, and one that he does not seem to savor. As one Utah politico put it to me, “Aside from Trump and Clinton, nobody’s fortunes changed more on presidential election night than Jason Chaffetz.”

On a recent afternoon in his Capitol Hill office, I read through a litany of headlines detailing potential entanglements between President Trump’s business and his administration with the congressman. As he listened, Chaffetz leaned back in his chair—jacket off, an ankle resting casually on one knee. One of the stories I flagged reported that online sales had skyrocketed for the first daughter’s clothing line after Kellyanne Conway went on TV and urged Americans to “buy Ivanka’s stuff.” I asked Chaffetz if he was concerned about Trump reaping financial rewards from his presidency, but he just shrugged.

“He’s already rich,” Chaffetz said. “He’s very rich. I don’t think that he ran for this office to line his pockets even more. I just don’t see it like that.”

What about the recent New York Times story about Jared Kushner’s family exploring a $400 million deal with a Chinese company while he serves as a foreign policy adviser to the president—was that worthy of investigation?

“I don’t see how that affects the average American and their taxpayer dollars,” Chaffetz said. “Just the fact that a staff person’s family is making money? It’s not enough.”

He promised that Trump won’t get an entirely free ride under his watch. “Somebody’ll do something stupid at some point, and we’ll be all over it.” But, he added, “I think the people who voted for Donald Trump went into it with eyes wide open. Everybody knew he was rich, everybody knew he had lots of different entanglements … These other little intrigues about a wealthy family making money is a bit of a sideshow.”

If this is not quite the attitude you’re hoping to see in a designated Washington watchdog, you aren’t alone. Chaffetz has spent much of the Trump presidency thus far taking flak for his apparent partisanship. In just the past month, he has been booed off the stage by constituents at a town-hall meeting, had his office flooded with angry phone calls after saying on CNN that poor Americans could afford health insurance if they simply didn’t buy the latest iPhone, and found himself embroiled in a public feud with comedian Rosie O’Donnell. At home in Utah, he faces an increasingly well-funded and concerted campaign to unseat him next year, complete with a dedicated super PAC and a cast of challengers from both right and left. Their common case against Chaffetz boils down to hypocrisy: How can the same guy who was champing at the bit to expose President Clinton’s sins now justify giving Trump a pass?

Chaffetz now faces the greatest conundrum of his career—how to balance the weight of his current responsibilities with his own outsize personal ambitions. As oversight chairman, he is tasked with being a fair-minded guardian of good government; as an aspiring GOP power-player, he is in pursuit of conservative stardom and higher office. In Donald Trump’s Washington, he may soon have to choose which matters more.

For a politician who inspires such animus in his critics, Chaffetz is easy to like in person. He has a disarming, laid-back bro-ishness about him, and a skill for self-deprecating humor. When I first entered his office he apologized for the black leather slippers he was sporting, and said an old injury was causing his heel to act up. He then retrieved some X-rays from a nearby drawer—he apparently keeps them on hand for occasions like this—that showed a badly malformed foot.

“How did it happen?” I asked him.

“I was cliff-diving in Mexico,” he began, somberly. “There was a young child who was drowning—” He snorted, and then abandoned the gag. “I’m sorry. No, I fell off a ladder changing a lightbulb in 2005.”

Chaffetz grew up in California, where he was recruited out of high school to be a placekicker for Brigham Young University’s football team. He entered college a Jewish Democrat and left a conservative Mormon. His more cynical detractors like to note the careerist convenience of these conversions, but those who know him best attest to his sincerity. In any case, Chaffetz did exhibit his well-honed media instincts at BYU, where he was known among teammates for removing his helmet after successful kicks, showing off his carefully manicured coif for the TV cameras.

After graduating, he hustled his way up the corporate ladder at a Utah-based multilevel marketing company, and in 2004 went to work for Jon Huntsman Jr., who was then launching a gubernatorial bid. Chaffetz excelled as campaign manager—but after they won, he struggled with his new chief-of-staff post. State lawmakers found him abrasive, arrogant, and power-hungry, and within a year he left the job.

“He was definitely ambitious, and maybe some would say overly ambitious,” said Derek Miller, the CEO of Utah’s World Trade Center, who has known Chaffetz for years. “He didn’t really leave the Huntsman administration on good terms.” In 2007, Chaffetz further flummoxed the state’s GOP establishment when he decided to mount a long-shot primary challenge against Representative Chris Cannon. “People kind of thought he was crazy,” said Miller. “I mean, you’re taking on a solidly entrenched Republican in a solidly entrenched Republican district.”

But Chaffetz, the quintessential young man in a hurry, out-hustled the incumbent with a guerilla army of unpaid volunteers and a proto-Tea Party message of insurgency. He ended up winning the primary handily. In a bitter concession speech on election night, Cannon proclaimed, “Politics is way too important to leave to the boors.”

Once elected, Chaffetz was determined not to languish in back-bench obscurity, and he immediately went to work raising his own national profile. “Very early on, I made a concerted effort to invest in my connections with the media,” he told me. He went on The Colbert Report, produced a “freshman year” video diary for CNN, and took bimonthly trips to Manhattan to schmooze cable-news bookers. “As a young, no-name member of Congress, oftentimes I would not even go on their shows at first—but then, when stations needed somebody on a sunny, warm Saturday, I always said yes.” He quickly became known among political reporters as one of the D.C.’s most reliable dial-a-quotes.

Meanwhile, Chaffetz demonstrated a keen sense of where to hitch his wagon. Early in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, he made headlines for endorsing Mitt Romney over Huntsman—a move that contributed to a nasty falling-out between himself and his former boss. Given Chaffetz’s personal history with Huntsman, nobody would have blamed him for staying neutral in the primary fight. But Romney was the frontrunner, and the clear favorite in Utah—to Chaffetz, the choice was obvious. Huntsman has since referred to this brand of self-interested betrayal as “getting Chaffetz’d.”

But Chaffetz’s savviest brand-building move may have been his decision—not at all obvious at the time—to join the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. When he was first preparing to enter Congress, his incoming chief of staff, Justin Harding, tried to steer him toward the more traditionally influential and high-profile posts. “I struggled with whether [Oversight] was really a great place for a freshman congressman from Utah looking to make his mark … but Jason had a way of looking into the future and seeing that there was a change coming to Washington.” More precisely, Chaffetz intuited that the oversight committee—charged with ferreting out waste, fraud, and abuse in the executive branch—could be a valuable platform for a conservative in the Obama years.

Plus, it was a place where he could rise quickly. “I knew I wasn’t going to be here 20 years, and I really would like to be a chairman and be able to maximize my voice and my influence,” Chaffetz said. “And this is one of those non-‘A’ committees that would allow a younger person like myself to have a shot.”

He was right, and within six years Chaffetz was named chairman. He won the job with an ambitious plan—detailed in a slick, glossy booklet that he circulated to party leadership—to rebrand, revamp, and weaponize the committee, redesigning its logo, supercharging its social media feeds, and picking more aggressive fights with Democratic targets.

“I don’t know if it’s true,” Chaffetz said, straining to conceal the pride in his voice, “but they tell me I’m only the fifth person in a hundred years to become a chairman after three terms.”

Many of the same strategic decisions that raised Chaffetz’s profile have made him a magnet for grassroots opposition in the early days of the Trump presidency, and a growing chorus of wishful thinkers on the left is making noise about unseating him next year. When I asked him about re-election, Chaffetz dutifully told me he was taking nothing for granted. But it seems clear he’s not too worried about losing to Kathryn Allen, a left-wing doctor who has filled her campaign war chest thanks to shout-outs from Rachel Maddow and Rosie O’Donnell. A much tougher challenge could come from Evan McMullin, the anti-Trump conservative Mormon who ran for president last year as an independent. Chaffetz’s district is the only one in the country where McMullin was able to pull off a second-place finish in 2016, and it’s home to thousands of Republican voters who have no love for the president. So far, though, McMullin has appeared reluctant to enter the fray.

In any case, Chaffetz says he doesn’t plan to stick around Congress too much longer. “I’m going to hang up my cleats at some point, and I don’t want to be—” he paused, and then smirked. ”With all due respect, I don’t want to be Orrin Hatch. I just don’t. Great admiration for the man, but that’s way too long.”

The 83-year-old Utah senator had recently announced that he was considering a run for reelection in 2018, despite his earlier promise that this would be his final term. When I asked Chaffetz if he was surprised by Hatch’s decision, he scoffed. “No, not really. It’s the third time this has [happened].”

Chaffetz is openly considering a bid for the Utah governorship in 2020—“Definitely maybe,” he joked when the subject came up, grinning at his own kabuki coyness—and when I asked him what he thinks Utah voters expect from him as Oversight chairman in the meantime, he said they wanted him to be an “honest broker.” But, he added, “Remember, the federal government is 2-plus million people. We can’t investigate everything all the time.”

One issue Chaffetz is in no hurry to tackle is Russia’s alleged interference with the 2016 election. Despite noisy calls from some constituents back home to open an investigation, Chaffetz said he didn’t believe it was his job. “It’s not breaking news that Russia has engaged in espionage against our government, our elections, or corporate America,” he told me. He said he would would play “a supporting role” for the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation—and then couldn’t resist adding, “How quickly the democrats forget that it was Mitt Romney that pointed out our biggest geopolitical foe was Russia.”

As our conversation wound down, we discussed the political eccentricities of his home state. While Trump managed to carry Utah in 2016, he did so with only a modest plurality of the vote—and many Utahns, including Republicans, remain troubled by the president’s actions. Chaffetz has so far dismissed liberals’ complaints about his handling of the Trump administration as nothing but partisan whining—but what about conservative criticism? I asked him if he could at least respect the concerns of these wary Utah Republicans.

Chaffetz considered the question for a moment, making an “Ehh…” sound that seemed to signal skepticism. But eventually he nodded, returning to his true north. “There’s a saying,” he told me. “The voters are always right.”