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Rep. Jason Chaffetz has repeatedly brushed off calls to probe Donald Trump's potential conflicts of interest, and now he's threatened to investigate and possibly subpoena a federal ethics official who has criticized the president-elect.
Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to Walter Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), questioning instances of the agency "blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance," according to a copy published by The New York Times.
The letter includes a series of tweets posted on Nov. 30 from the official OGE account applauding Trump's decision to divest his business. The problem? The president-elect hadn't committed to divesting at that time. And he still hasn't. Trump will instead shift his company assets into a trust to be managed by his two sons, falling short of what ethics officials and Democrats have called for.
"It was not clear whether the tweets constituted official OGE guidance or something less formal," Chaffetz's letter reads. "It is clear, however, the tweets publicized private discussions with the president-elect's counsel."
Chaffetz, R-Utah, hinted at an investigation, including questioning Shaub about his involvement. If Shaub refuses to participate in an interview, Chaffetz has threatened to subpoena him.
"He seems to be acting prematurely at best, without doing investigations or thorough looks," Chaffetz told POLITICO. "He's rendering opinions publicly that really cause you to scratch your head. We need the Office of Government Ethics to act ethically. Ironically, that's not what they're doing."
Attempts by The Salt Lake Tribune to reach Chaffetz and OGE for comment were not immediately successful. Chaffetz told The Washington Post on Friday that the letter, though sent Thursday, was written before Shaub explained the tweets in a news conference Wednesday.
The Office of Government Ethics nonpartisan group that investigates potential wrongdoings in the executive branch. President Barack Obama appointed Shaub as director of the office in January 2013 with a term set to expire in January 2018.
Shaub additionally criticized Trump's business plans during a Brookings Institution news conference on Wednesday.
"We can't risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit," Shaub said, according to a copy of his remarks. "That's why I was glad in November when the president-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, 'in no way have a conflict of interest' with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal."
Shaub later added: "The media covered some messages I sent the president-elect through Twitter. While some people got what I was doing, I think some others may have missed the point. I was trying to use the vernacular of the president-elect's favorite social media platform to encourage him to divest."
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., scolded Chaffetz for threatening an investigation of the ethics official.
"Mr. Chaffetz's attempt to intimidate the office is deplorable, and would be a distraction that would make it harder for OGE to do it's already difficult job," Schumer said in a prepared statement. "It is totally out of line when Americans want clean and accountable government. Mr. Chaffetz should instead focus on his job and let Mr. Shaub and OGE focus on theirs."
Condemnations of the Utah Republican's actions were plentiful. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the Oversight Committee, sent a letter to Chaffetz asking to hold a public hearing with testimony from Shaub on Trump's business dealings "to avoid any perception that [the ethics official] is being unfairly targeted behind closed doors for expressing his views."
"The Oversight Committee has not held one hearing, conducted one interview or obtained one document about President-elect Donald Trump's massive global entanglements," Cummings said in a prepared statement, "yet it is now apparently rushing to launch an investigation of the key government official for warning against the risks caused by President-elect Donald Trump's current plans. Rather than acting as a cheerleader for Donald Trump and attacking or intimidating his critics, the committee should do its job under the Constitution and investigate his sprawling business deals around the world."
Chaffetz is "selectively using his power to threaten and intimidate," according to a statement from the progressive-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah.
"Chaffetz's tactics are reminiscent of a schoolyard bully and are completely inappropriate in one of the highest and most important offices in the American government," the statement continues. "We call on Chaffetz to start his own investigation into these ethical concerns, rather than continuing to retaliate against the office responsible for assuring the public that our officials are working for the greater good and not their own self interests."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee admonished Chaffetz's "bizarre and fawning devotion to President-elect Donald Trump."
"Remember, this is someone who previously said: 'I can no longer in good conscience' support Trump because of his disgusting treatment of women," the remark notes. "But now that Trump is pulling the strings we are seeing a shocking level of hypocrisy on a near daily basis. Congressman, please blink twice if you need help."
The tweets aren't the first time Chaffetz has taken issue with Shaub's actions. In 2015, Chaffetz disagreed with OGE's dismissal of Hillary Clinton's failure to disclose speaking fees garnered by her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, because they were paid to the Clinton Foundation.
"Your agency had not conducted any investigation of the circumstances of the speeches that would have allowed it to determine whether the Clintons were acting as agents of the Clinton Foundation," Chaffetz says in the letter to Shaub.
Chaffetz has doggedly vowed to keep at an investigation of Clinton for her use of a private email server and handling of classified information, saying in November that he's "not out to get her," but is "here to find the truth and make sure that it never happens again." At the same time, Chaffetz has rebuffed calls from Democrats to investigate Trump.
It seems, though, that Chaffetz applauds Trump's ethics policy from comments made to POLITICO on Thursday.
"[It] appears he is going to great lengths to be as responsible as possible and comply with those requirements," he said.