House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte sent a letter to the Department of Justice’s inspector general Wednesday calling for an investigation into leaks from inside the government, including the disclosure to the press by anonymous officials that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, had likely been intercepted by American intelligence.*
“Generally, collection activities by intelligence agencies are classified, as are the products that result from those activities,” they wrote. “Federal laws, and the Constitution, distinguish law enforcement investigation authorities from intelligence collection authorities for good reason, and in neither case is collection intended to enable the government’s publication of conversations surreptitiously recorded by intelligence agencies. Similarly, the release of classified national security information can, by definition, have grave effects on national security.”
Chaffetz told reporters Tuesday that his committee would not investigate Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador themselves, saying that such an investigation would fall under the purview of the House Intelligence Committee and that, anyway, Flynn’s resignation meant that the matter had “taken care of itself.” Chaffetz has been similarly reluctant to investigate Trump and routinely points out that the president is exempt from federal conflict of interest laws. This is true with the exception of the constitutional prohibition of the receipt of foreign gifts in the Emoluments Clause, which has been made relevant by Trump’s foreign business dealings and stays by foreign dignitaries at his American hotels. When asked directly by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer about the clause last Wednesday, Chaffetz said he refused to launch a “fishing expedition that the Democrats want us to go into.” In January, Chaffetz blasted the head of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, for criticizing Trump’s plan to end his conflicts of interest. From Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick:
The Republican threatened to subpoena Shaub if he refuses to participate in an official transcribed behind-closed doors interview. The calculus here seems to be that if nobody sees this crooked behavior by supposed ethics guardians like Chaffetz, then it didn’t happen.
OGE, set up post-Watergate, is nonpartisan and advises executive branch officials on avoiding conflicts. Shaub’s five-year term expires in January 2018.
Chaffetz demanded in a letter that he appear before lawmakers in the aforementioned closed-door, transcribed interview, to answer questions in a deposition-style setting. Richard Painter, who served as the ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, told the New York Times that this was “political retaliation” by Republicans against nonpartisan ethics officers for doing their basic duty.
Chaffetz’s unwillingness to investigate Trump has drawn ire from his constituents, including many who showed up to a town hall event in his district last Thursday to berate him. Chaffetz later alleged that many who attended the event had been paid protesters. In recent days, Chaffetz, perhaps in response to constituent pressure, has taken small steps toward probing the White House. The congressman sent a letter to White House chief of staff Reince Priebus on Tuesday asking him to detail security measures in place at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump held evidently public talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on North Korea’s missile launch over the weekend. Last week, Chaffetz sent a letter to the General Services Administration about the terms of its lease to Trump’s company for the Trump International Hotel and another letter to the Office of Government Ethics, co-written with Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, about Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand.
Correction, Feb. 16, 5:48 p.m.: This post originally stated that Chaffetz and Goodlatte called for an investigation into White House leaks. Their letter does not specify what parts of the government should be investigated.