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Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz won’t seek re-election in 2018

UPDATED: Wed., April 19, 2017

In this Feb. 9, 2017, file photo, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, speaks during a town hall meeting at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
In this Feb. 9, 2017, file photo, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, speaks during a town hall meeting at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
By Elise Viebeck Washington Post

WASHINGTON – House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz announced Wednesday he will not run for re-election to his House seat in 2018.

The Utah Republican said he won’t seek any political office in 2018, stirring speculation that he may run for governor in 2020. Last year, he told the Deseret News he would “take a serious, serious” look at a gubernatorial bid in Utah once his term as chairman of the House’s primary investigative committee had expired.

Chaffetz, who was first elected in 2008 and has considered running for the Senate, is the target of rising criticism over his disinterest in aggressively investigating President Trump.

He said Wednesday he plans to return to the private sector, though he did not provide more detail.

“For those that would speculate otherwise, let me be clear that I have no ulterior motives,” Chaffetz, 50, wrote on his Facebook page.

“I am healthy. I am confident I would continue to be reelected by large margins. I have the full support of Speaker Ryan to continue as Chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That said, I have made a personal decision to return to the private sector.”

He added: “I may run again for public office, but not in 2018.”

He is one of nine House Republicans who have resigned or announced plans to retire in 2018, four of whom left to join Trump’s administration and sparked special elections like the one in Georgia Tuesday night in which Democrat Jon Ossoff nearly avoided a runoff for Rep. Tom Price’s old seat.

Anti-Trump energy has buoyed Democratic hopes of retaking the House in the midterm elections next year and a well-funded Democratic challenger has emerged in Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, which is now open. Although it’s red territory that Chaffetz has easily won previously, 2018 dynamics could make it more competitive.

First-time candidate and Democrat Kathryn Allen touted her campaign on Twitter Wednesday as news of Chaffetz’s decision spread. “This changes the field but not my commitment to bringing integrity to Congress,” she wrote. “Since he won’t do his job, I will.”

Chaffetz has made his mark on the House since his election nine years ago, and ascension to the Oversight Committee chairmanship in 2015. As chairman, he was a pugnacious prosecutor of the Obama White House and its then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton, taking a lead role in challenging the administration on the deaths of embassy personnel in Benghazi, Libya as chairman of the National Security subcommittee and relentlessly probing Clinton’s private email server.

He intended to expand his oversight of the new president – if Clinton had won in November.

“It’s a target-rich environment,” the Republican said in an interview at the end of October. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

But instead, Donald Trump won the election and Chaffetz has not subjected him to the aggressive oversight called for by Democrats and ethics watchdogs over possible conflicts of interest raised by the president’s sprawling business empire.

Before Trump’s inauguration, Chaffetz urged some “breathing space” to allow the soon-to-be-president to “get his affairs in order.”

His first request to the Trump White House came in mid-February, when he asked the White House for information about security at Mar-a-Lago after Trump pored over documents related to North Korea on the club’s outdoor terrace.

The move was interpreted as a small concession to critics, but failed to quiet them after Chaffetz said on the same day he would not investigate Trump’s ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had just resigned. The situation with Flynn was “taking care of itself,” Chaffetz said. He eventually joined his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland to request information about Flynn’s security clearance applications.

Chaffetz waffled on his support for Trump before the election, stating emphatically that he couldn’t look his teenage daughter in the eye if he backed the GOP nominee following his lewd comments toward women revealed in the “Access Hollywood” videotape. But a few weeks later, Chaffetz back-tracked, saying he would vote for Trump because he just couldn’t stomach Clinton.

“I will not defend or endorse @realDonaldTrump, but I am voting for him. HRC is that bad. HRC is bad for the USA,” he tweeted at the time.

His district re-elected him with 74 percent of the vote last year, but Chaffetz had already attracted a Democratic challenger before his retirement announcement – first-time candidate Allen, who has outraised the congressman by collecting $534,000 since the start of the year. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Allen’s contributions spiked after Chaffetz appeared on national television and suggested low-income Americans would be able to afford health insurance if they chose to forgo new iPhones, a comment he later tried to walk back.

Republican Damian Kidd is also considering running for Chaffetz’s seat,saying he was too interested in media attention.

Earlier this month, he held a town hall meeting during which an angry crowd criticized his tenure as Oversight chairman, which began in 2015. Chaffetz has faced several angry demonstrations in his district since Trump’s election, but dismissed them in February as “very, very small minority” that is “not representative of the average person, certainly not in Utah.”

Protesters’ primary complaint is Chaffetz’s unwillingness to aggressively investigate the Trump administration and the potential conflicts of interest that come with Trump’s sweeping business empire. Their concern was reflected in a recent Salt Lake Tribune cartoon that depicted Trump as Jabba the Hutt, with a miniature Chaffetz sitting in his lap. “Republicans refuse to investigate Trump’s shady dealings,” the cartoon’s title read.

Chaffetz’s legacy is likely to be one of forceful investigation of the Obama administration in matters ranging from Benghazi and Clinton’s email server, to the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In 2015, his investigation into security lapses and misconduct by the Secret Service coincided with a news report that he was rejected by the agency as a job applicant in 2003. Forty-one Secret Service employees were disciplined in connection with the leak.

In the last year, Chaffetz led a movement among the conservative Freedom Caucus to impeach Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen, whom he accused of erasing back-up tapes containing thousands of emails written by IRS officials in a scandal over scrutiny of conservative groups. That campaign has sputtered without support from House leadership.

The District of Columbia has been a frequent target for Chaffetz. Recently, he led the Oversight Committee in a vote to block a D.C. law allowing assisted suicide and he warned D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser not to use local tax dollars to defend undocumented immigrants from deportation. He infuriated local residents when he said the District should rejoin Maryland in order to gain votes in Congress.

Chaffetz has also taken a hard line on misconduct by federal employees, particularly sexual harassment, and is leading a nascent effort to overhaul the federal civil service under Trump.

Cummings praised Chaffetz in a statement Wednesday, calling him a “tenacious and dedicated public servant.”

“I thank him for showing sincere interest in issues that matter to me and many others on the Committee. He has fundamentally changed the culture on our Committee so Members, as he says, can disagree without being disagreeable,” Cummings said.

A frequent face on cable news, Chaffetz is known among House Republicans for his ambition.

In 2015, he launched a quixotic bid to succeed former Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, before stepping aside when Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he was willing to run for the position.

Chaffetz mounted his bid when Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whom he had called a good friend, was favored to win. The decision earned a swipe from former Utah Republican governor Jon Huntsman, who once employed Chaffetz as his campaign manager and chief of staff. Their relationship deteriorated after Chaffetz endorsed Mitt Romney over Huntsman in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

“McCarthy just got ‘Chaffetzed.’ Something I know a little something about,” Huntsman tweeted.

It is unclear who will replace Chaffetz as Oversight chairman when he leaves Capitol Hill.

Rep. John Duncan of Tennessee is the second-most senior Republican on the panel, but he also holds seniority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he might prefer to claim the gavel once the term of Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., as chairman ends.

The next most senior Republican is Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a conservative firebrand who lost the chairmanship to Chaffetz in a four-way race in 2014. The other two candidates were Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and then-Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.

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