In the year 2008, then prospective Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah’s 3rd District had a significant problem; he was polling at 4% support against incumbent Republican Chris Cannon and GOP firebrand David Leavitt. After testing the political waters early on, it became clear that Chaffetz needed to run a drastically more unique campaign than his opponents in order to have any chance of receiving his party’s nomination. He immediately changed financial tactics, pledging a minuscule seventy to eighty dollars per delegate only in his push for office, appealing to fiscal conservatives both by cutting campaign costs and quietly increasing his private contributions. Despite the fact that Chris Cannon was himself an ardent right-wing member of Congress, Chaffetz cut into his support by moving even further to the right, accusing his opponent of abandoning conservative principles. Chief among the talking points that shifted the tide that would result in his primary victory were two particular subjects which make Chaffetz seem prescient nine years later: accountability and national defense.
It should come as no real surprise then that, when he became one of the fastest-rising congressmen in history, ultimately resulting in his chairmanship of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that Chaffetz called no less than 33 separate hearings to investigate the events that transpired at the US Embassy in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans. While much of the GOP’s conduct surrounding Benghazi was little more than spurious mudslinging in an attempt to weaken the perceptions of the American people that the Democrats had or have any aptitude for national defense, Congressman Chaffetz, at least initially, did make the right call; we had just dealt with a tragedy in which Americans lost their lives and in which the security of a sovereign government entity was compromised. Such an event, with regards to our nation’s security, called for the American people to be given broader knowledge of what led to this breach through a formal investigation. That is the job of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Only when it became clear that there was no implicit wrongdoing and that Benghazi was the result of unique factors which went beyond the scope of established security protocols did Chaffetz’s hearings on the subject became a farce and a political prop. It is telling then that, in the wake of the Michael Flynn resignation, Jason Chaffetz has had an uncharacteristic change of heart on oversight, though I doubt he sees it that way. Last night, Chaffetz and House colleague Bob Goodlatte penned a joint letter calling for an investigation not into the White House’s potential links to the Russian regime, but instead voiced concerns that the compromising information to Flynn leaked in the first place.
First, a bit of legal reality to avoid prevaricating on the intelligence community’s leaks: yes, these actions are, in fact, felony offenses which can be investigated by the House Oversight Committee. That is something that the left should not deny whatsoever and should make peace with during a GOP majority legislature, and we may yet see indictments of US intelligence officials. That being said, the fact that the information was leaked pales in magnitude to the fact that there exists what appears to be an increasingly plausible potential that the executive branch is deeply compromised by Russian interests, though whether concerns should be levied against Russian oligarchs, the FSB, Putin, or all three of these groups acting in consort remains unclear. At this point in time, ignoring the seemingly massive scope of this entanglement in favor of investigating those who are blowing the whistle on potential wrongdoing would be roughly akin to letting the Iran-Contra Affair slide while leading an investigation into the Lebanese media.
We know that Michael Flynn had contact with the Russian government before the inauguration, which would not be improper had he not explicitly (according to intelligence sources) spoken about easing sanctions placed on Russia by the Obama administration for their interference in the election. We know that, during the campaign, Paul Manafort was removed from his post as Trump’s campaign manager due to suspicious relationships with Russian and Ukrainian bureaucrats. We now know, thanks to the work of the New York Times, CNN, and Newsweek, that a number of Trump aides had extensive contacts with Russian citizens during the campaign, which contradicts categorical denials by the campaign at the time this scandal began to surface, and that the existence of those contacts is corroborated by allied European intelligence services. We also know that the anonymous intelligence sources, both domestic and foreign, are staying off the record specifically to avoid public retribution by the chief executive, a common fear of any whistleblower from “Deep Throat” to Gary Webb. While due process allows little to no room for assumption, the factors surrounding the Flynn affair being occluded erodes faith in our democratic institutions and necessitates an investigation to restore faith in our government and to establish the full facts of the scandal, much as conservatives claimed was the importance of the Benghazi hearings. If there is concrete evidence to suggest wrongdoing or a larger conspiracy, that information would undoubtedly be revealed by such an investigation, and if it doesn’t exist, we are still left with a record of the Trump administration’s gross incompetence and lack of cohesion.
The executive branch appears to be girding itself to root out the sources of the leaks from the intelligence community, reportedly tapping long-time Trump and Bannon ally Stephen Feinberg to lead an independent investigation that sounds in principle more like a purge, and as a schism appears between Senate and House Republicans on which aspects of the Flynn resignation should be investigated, we’re left with one certainty: as of right now, it seems that no one in Washington is interested in addressing the full scope of this issue, buoyed by a public that is free to place partisan talking points around the facts established so far and to place understandable anger ahead of what we concretely know. In an ideal world, an investigation into Flynn could easily be facilitated at the outset by methods proposed by both parties and eventually evolve to encompass both aims, either through investigating the leaks and having those responsible testify to Congress what they know and what their investigations reveal about Trump’s administration as a means of furthering the investigation into the White House’s potential conduct, or through prioritizing the investigation of Flynn while offering intelligence sources immunity to go on record with their testimony. Sadly, we do not live in a world with an ideal political climate, and so we are presented with a troubling situation in which we are being asked to choose which aspect of an investigation we, as the American people, support instead of conducting a full and thorough investigation.
This is a point at which the cost of the partisan divide crystallizes in a way that is informative of the larger policy issues within government oversight itself: in response to suspect or illegal conduct by government officials, rarely is there unilateral support for how that conduct should be handled. Where the GOP was poised over the past eight years to stoke outrage over the conduct of Anthony Weiner, Benghazi, and Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, there is now a reluctance to perform an investigation into Russian interference, a demurring from calls to censure or fire Kellyanne Conway for promoting Trump family business interests, and a lack of concern over the many red flags raised regarding cabinet appointments. Once livid cries for the prosecution of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden turned into elation for WikiLeaks releasing material from the DNC hack and back to anger over the current US intelligence leaks, a 360 degree turn which took place over six years. Granted, this in no way exonerates the Democrats for their own cognitive dissonance regarding issues like their treatment of the Iraq War under Bush vs their treatment of the Obama drone program or the foibles created by kowtowing to the insurance industry in passing the Affordable Care Act, but cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy over government oversight has been, since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, a critical facet of GOP policy to the point where it is now the chief characteristic of the careers of many Republican congressmen, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is on record as stating his pride at rebuking his job responsibilities and violating Senate rules to prevent Merrick Garland from having a single hearing about his potential appointment to the Supreme Court while now balking at Democratic efforts to stop Neil Gorsuch’s appointment.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the frustrating lack of consistency from the GOP’s party line, it’s all the more troubling specifically because it’s indicative of the same forces that reportedly brought about Obama-era obstructionism: the business of government for the GOP appears to have become, much as the DNC’s actions for the Clinton campaign became, solely about winning. Though it is the duty of an elected representative to do the ever-malleable will of his or her constituents, and while there are very strong conservative districts (much like Chaffetz’s 3rd District in Utah) that give the party a legislative mandate, the rapacity with which members of the Republican party seem willing to change their minds purely to fit their best interests is deeply concerning. Look no further than the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which was intended to be an extension of a Republican idea pioneered by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and touted as one of the party’s biggest achievements at the state level.
We are currently reaping the result of what happens when governance becomes all about the victory as opposed to the exacting work of creating cogent policy. A campaign waged by two unsavory presidential candidates led us to a moment of genuine fear and panic in our history, and that panic is being misrepresented by the same partisan cognitive dissonance poisoning all of our politics, the GOP ignoring the sizable freak-out by their caucus that resulted in the creation of the Tea Party. Partisanship and blatant contradiction as political strategies have been exacerbated greatly since the Bush-Gore Supreme Court decision in 2000 by countless instances of both major parties crying “wolf” at any policy that counteracts their aims, and we appear to be at a point at which our division has become so contentious that we have conditioned the American public to disregard the presence of an actual wolf if that wolf potentially allows you to advance your individual interests.
There is, however, a means by which the GOP and all politicians can be kept on message and be held accountable, and that is the new significant problem Congressman Chaffetz faced at his now-infamous town hall appearance. His constituents blistered him and wore him down to the point where he cowered away from his personal accountability to his public and left forty minutes ahead of schedule. Since that time, there have been over 200 town halls cancelled around the country over fears of angry constituents, and it is beginning to belie the venality and the arrogance of our elected officials. The single positive offered by the Trump administration is that it has resulted in an outpouring of interest in civics and in our system of government and an awakening to ethical concerns in every branch of government. It has promoted a desire for accountability in a manner more pointed than just using that concept to generate buzz on the campaign trail. There is an assumption by many that the government does not care about individuals outside the upper classes, and there are certainly issues like the Citizens United ruling which need to be addressed to check the influence of the wealthy as a means of restoring the average American’s faith in his or her institutions, but the idea that your voice doesn’t have an impact when added to a cacophony is untrue. Pressure wears on us all, and it’s already wearing on the legislature. The uptick in civic involvement is driving members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to either answer to the outrage of their constituents or to out themselves as too fearful of public accountability to serve anyone but themselves.
Jason Chaffetz ran on the concept of accountability, and now he is struggling with the application of that concept when applied to his own perspective and to an issue that threatens to dampen support for Republicans in 2018. The only way we the people can counteract the reluctance of our representatives is to keep up the pressure for them to perform their duties without prejudice towards party agenda. The truth of the Russia Scandal will be found out. Eventually, those who committed the leaks may come forward with their identities and accept responsibility for their actions. The question now is whether or not the Republican-led House of Representatives will be a constructive part of the process in fully investigating all aspects of the affair. With constant pressure, Chaffetz just might find some of that accountability that took him from 4% to a major leadership role.