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Washington • House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz on Tuesday demanded the White House answer a litany of questions about President Donald Trump's handling of classified materials after news reports of him using the middle of a country club restaurant to discuss a North Korean missile test.
Chaffetz also said that he may launch an investigation into Trump's now-former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned Monday night and admitted misleading White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office.
In another development, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) said that it would pursue a disciplinary process for Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway for touting his first daughter Ivanka's fashion line, but the office noted that Chaffetz's committee has more authority to investigate Conway's comments.
"Unlike the committee, OGE cannot issue subpoenas, question witnesses, compel the production of documents or take action against individuals who refuse to cooperate," OGE Director Walter Shaub wrote to Chaffetz and the Oversight Committee's top Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
Chaffetz previously called Conway's endorsement "wrong, wrong, wrong," and had urged the OGE to probe any ethical lapses.
While Chaffetz has been criticized by Democrats and some constituents for not looking more closely at the Trump administration, Tuesday saw a new push by the Utah Republican to review actions by the White House.
Chaffetz said in an interview that he is taking his role seriously as Congress' top government watchdog even if critics don't think it's enough.
"I expect them to continue to pepper me with those questions. That's legitimate," Chaffetz said, noting that he loves "Democrats' newfound interest" in probing the White House after eight years of President Barack Obama.
"We'll be vigorous in our oversight," Chaffetz added.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who had been dismissed by Obama as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, resigned Monday night after concerns were raised that he had improper discussions with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions and then misled Vice President Mike Pence about those conversations. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump had known "for weeks" that Flynn had not been truthful.
"We've been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth," Spicer said.
Rep. Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican and member of the House Intelligence Committee, praised Flynn's military service but said that the president and vice president must be able to trust their advisers and "General Flynn could no longer serve effectively as national security adviser."
"In addition to the breach of trust, I am alarmed to yet again see an example of very sensitive information being leaked to the public," Stewart said, adding that he is troubled by "the seemingly continuous leaks of classified information and the national security problems they inevitably cause. I am committed to ending those leaks."
Cummings said Monday that Flynn was unfit to be the national security adviser and should have been "dismissed three weeks ago."
"Now, we in Congress need to know who authorized his actions, permitted them, and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing these risks," Cummings said. "We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security."
Cummings said congressional Republicans have "turned a blind eye" to their duty to oversee the new administration and therefore, Democrats would request investigations by the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Chaffetz, who has unilateral subpoena power, said he may still open a probe into Flynn's contact with Russia, though he hasn't yet decided to do so.
"I always keep that door open," Chaffetz said. "That's not a closed door."
The Utah congressman, though, began the initial stages of an investigation into reports of Trump and top aides huddled in the middle of a restaurant at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to discuss classified documents about North Korean's missile test last weekend. The discussion occurred as other diners looked on.
Photos posted to Facebook by a fellow diner showed the scene unfolding in an unsecured setting.
"There's no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater," tweeted House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Spicer said Tuesday that Trump was briefed in a secure room before and after dinner about the missile test and that the only discussion in the dining room was about "press logistics" and not classified information.
"I'm not really sure why people jump to conclusions," Spicer said.
In a letter to the White House chief of staff, Chaffetz said that reports of the evening seem to "indicate these communications occurred in the presence of other guests" and that documents from White House staff were given to Trump to review during dinner.
"Discussions with foreign leaders regarding international missile tests, and documents used to support those discussions, are presumptively sensitive," Chaffetz wrote. "While the president is always on duty, and cannot dictate the timing of when he needs to receive sensitive information about urgent matters, we hope the White House will cooperate in providing the committee with additional information."
Chaffetz said in an interview that his committee's charge includes reviewing such alleged actions.
"These types of things are very sensitive. I don't want there to be a cavalier approach to how classified information is handled."
Cummings said he was glad to see Chaffetz conduct oversight in the Mar-a-Lago national security matter.
"If House Republicans held President Trump to a fraction of the standard they held Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton to and requested documents and held hearings, that would be significant," Cummings said in a statement. "I hope the chairman will join our efforts to hold the Trump administration accountable to the American people. None of us have the right to remain silent."