Jason Chaffetz is so ambitious that his last name is a verb.
In the political world, to Chaffetz means to throw a former mentor under the bus in order to get ahead, and various prominent Republicans, from former Utah governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. to House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, have experienced what it’s like to get Chaffetzed. But the five-term Utah Republican and powerful chairman of the House oversight committee shocked Washington on Wednesday when he announced he would not seek reelection in 2018 or run for any other political office that year in order to spend more time with his family.
“I am healthy. I am confident I would continue to be re-elected by large margins,” he said in a statement. “I have the full support of Speaker [Paul] 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.”
His surprise announcement has fueled speculation of a possible scandal, though Chaffetz told Politico there’s nothing to the rumors about a skeleton in his closet: “I’ve been given more enemas by more people over the last eight years than you can possibly imagine… If they had something really scandalous, it would’ve come out a long, long time ago.”
Chaffetz, who on Thursday said he might not finish out his term, has been considered a contender for Utah governor in 2020 and perhaps one day for the presidency. But the early days of the Trump administration haven’t been easy for him. The once-brash congressional inquisitor has twisted himself into a pretzel trying to explain why he hasn’t been investigating President Trump, the most conflict-ridden commander-in-chief in modern US history. And the 50-year-old congressman has experienced an unexpected level of outrage in his own deep red district.
By heading back to the private sector Chaffetz risks lowering his public profile, which could impede any gubernatorial effort. No one knows this better than Chaffetz, who sought the spotlight in DC and who built a career in public relations before running for Congress in 2008.
But Chaffetz’s rise in politics was hardly conventional, and it was aided by a publicist’s eye for reputational pitfalls and opportunities. His curious retreat should not lead any political observers to count him out of future contests. In fact, it’s probably best interpreted as a sign that he’s very carefully planning his political future—not abandoning it.
From the beginning, Chaffetz didn’t chart an obvious path to political power. The great-grandson of Russian immigrants, he was born in California and raised Jewish. He converted to Mormonism during his college years at Brigham Young University, the Mormon Church-owned school where he played on the football team as a place kicker.
Chaffetz majored in business and minored in communications, and after graduating he went to work for a local multilevel marketing company—think Amway—called Nu Skin, where he worked in PR. At the time that he joined, the company had some pretty significant public-relations needs. It was facing class-action lawsuits and investigations by state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission, all related to allegations that the company was operating as a pyramid scheme. (The company has been Chaffetz’s biggest campaign donor.)
Chaffetz spent more than a decade at Nu Skin before leaving the company abruptly in 2000 without any obvious next stop. He worked briefly in the coal industry, unsuccessfully applied to join the Secret Service, and eventually started a marketing firm with his brother called Maxtera.
In 2004, when Jon Huntsman Jr. ran for Utah governor, Chaffetz volunteered for his campaign; Chaffetz, whose mother died of breast cancer in 1995, says he was impressed with the work Huntsman had done to advance cancer treatment. Huntsman eventually asked Chaffetz to become his campaign’s communications director, and then his campaign manager. When Huntsman won the election, he appointed Chaffetz as his chief of staff. But Chaffetz only lasted a year in the job.
For the next two years, Chaffetz doggedly laid the groundwork to challenge Chris Cannon, a six-term incumbent Republican congressman—a politician whose campaigns Chaffetz had previously volunteered for. Cannon, who hailed from a well-connected political family, was conservative, but he was firmly in the Republican camp that supported immigration reform. This stance put him in the crosshairs of anti-immigration activists, as well as the grassroots agitators who would become members of the tea party. Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin dubbed Cannon a “shamnesty Republican.”
Chaffetz saw an opening, and he was aided by the somewhat arcane system through which Utah Republicans, until recently, selected their congressional candidates. Districts elected about 4,000 delegates, who in turn voted for their desired candidates at the state party’s convention. The top two winners moved on to the primary, unless one marshaled 60 percent of the vote, in which case that person became the GOP nominee. The system, it turned out, was well suited to a poorly funded upstart like Chaffetz, who could initially concentrate on winning a small group of delegates rather than tens of thousands of voters.
When Chaffetz decided to run, he invited Kirk Jowers, then the director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, to breakfast. Jowers was a veteran of dozens of GOP campaigns and Chaffetz asked him if he’d help with his long-shot race against Cannon. “I said no,” Jowers recalls. “He then asked, ‘Would you be willing to be part of the campaign in any capacity?’ I said no. He said, ‘Do you think I have any chance to win?’ and I said no. He said, ‘Do you mind if I just give you a call to talk about politics and policy?’ and I said no. I couldn’t have been worse to him,” Jowers says with a laugh.
But Chaffetz persisted, calling Jowers every two weeks for the next year and a half to update him on his progress. The former place-kicker campaigned largely on a harsh, anti-immigration platform. With an army of volunteer staffers, he worked each delegate heading to the convention—twisting arms and otherwise persuading them to vote for him, though he refused to succumb to the long-standing tradition of plying them with free food. Jowers slowly realized that the determined upstart actually had a shot.
Chaffetz’s lobbying blitz was overlooked by most polls, which until the GOP convention put him at a mere 3 percent in the race, a number so small he didn’t qualify to participate in the GOP’s televised debate. When the moderator asked Jowers afterward how he thought the debate went, Jowers responded, “It was great, except you didn’t have the one who was going to win.”
Jowers was right: Chaffetz won the convention, gaining nearly 60 percent of the delegate vote and very nearly knocking out Cannon in the first round. He went on to handily beat Cannon in the primary, even though the incumbent had a more than 4-to-1 spending advantage and had been endorsed by virtually the entire Republican establishment, including then-President George W. Bush. The loss so angered Cannon that he reportedly refused to talk to Chaffetz during the transition.
Barely had Chaffetz been elected to his first term in the House when he registered a new domain name: ChaffetzforSenate.com.
Even before he was sworn in, Chaffetz managed to vault himself from the House’s backbench into the national spotlight, albeit through an unusual route: leg wrestling Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. The goofy segment—the type of unscripted moment that politicians typically avoid—was the beginning of a media charm offensive that would make Chaffetz popular among journalists, whom he cultivated assiduously by passing out his personal cellphone number to reporters and accepting almost any interview request. It’s all about “old-fashioned human relationships,” he told National Journal in 2015. “You’ve got to get out there and invest the time. Work with the media!” (Apparently that rule doesn’t apply to Mother Jones. Chaffetz told me twice that he’d be happy to sit for an interview for this story but then never made himself available.)
The freshman congressman also scored an early PR coup by starring in a short-lived show, Freshman Year, produced by CNN on incoming members of Congress. He was shown unfolding a cot in his office, a sign of his commitment to living in Utah rather than Washington, DC, where he refused to rent an apartment.
Even as he courted reporters and TV bookers, Chaffetz warned the GOP establishment that his election was a warning sign. In the online diary that accompanied the CNN show, Chaffetz recounted how, during his first weeks in office in January 2009, he had gotten up before a House Republican strategy session and told the assembled members, “I am your worst nightmare.” He explained how the advent of social media had allowed him to bypass the mainstream media and, with very little funding, knock off an establishment candidate.
Chaffetz’s reading of the political winds proved prescient. His election foreshadowed the rise of the tea party movement that took over the GOP in 2010, prompting the ouster of many more incumbent Republicans, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.
By 2011, it looked like Chaffetz was going to need that ChaffetzforSenate.com web address. He was talking openly of challenging his state’s most venerable senior statesman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, currently the longest-serving Republican in the Senate. Despite his powerful position in Washington, Hatch was vulnerable at home. Polls showed Chaffetz had a decent chance. And another upstart tea party conservative, Mike Lee, had just knocked off the state’s other elder Republican senator, Bob Bennett, by challenging him from the right.
For months, Chaffetz held meetings and events that gave every impression he planned to challenge Hatch. The Salt Lake Tribune declared that Chaffetz had even picked a date to unveil his candidacy, September 27. But shortly before Labor Day, Chaffetz hastily organized a press conference and announced that he would not run for Senate. He said the race would be a “multimillion-dollar bloodbath” and that he’d rather spend the next 18 months doing the job he was elected to do. Still, even as he put himself out of contention, he jabbed Hatch, declaring the Utah congressional delegation “dysfunctional” and lacking leadership from the senior senator.
Tim Chambless, a University of Utah political-science professor, says the announcement caught many in Utah off guard. “That has been mystifying to us.” It suggested that something in Chaffetz’s well-laid plans had gone seriously awry.
Ultimately, Chaffetz may have underestimated Hatch, whose mild-mannered exterior belies a ruthless political operator. There’s a reason he’s served longer than any Republican senator since Strom Thurmond. Cherilyn Eagar a conservative Republican activist and local talk radio host who lives in Chaffetz’s district, echoes what various sources told me. She says Utah political insiders suspect “the Hatch campaign had gotten heavy-handed. There was a bit of information they were going to disclose if he ran. Things were going to get ugly.” (Hatch’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Instead of running against Hatch, Chaffetz stapled himself to Mitt Romney, serving as a regular campaign surrogate for the failed GOP presidential nominee, whom he endorsed over his former mentor, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Chaffetz, now running for reelection in 2012, quickly found other ways to nab the spotlight. Before the FBI had secured the Benghazi compound following the September 11 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, Chaffetz demanded to visit the scene in his capacity as the chairman of the House oversight subcommittee on national security and foreign operations. He dashed off to Libya less than a month later—without any Democrats, as the oversight committee’s policy dictates—to supposedly conduct an independent investigation.
The closest he got to the crime scene was Tripoli, 400 miles away. Chaffetz, who had previously voted to cut $300 million from the State Department’s budget for embassy security, claimed the purpose of his trip was to discern whether the Obama administration had denied requests for more security for the Benghazi compound. He uncovered little of substance, other than discovering that the State Department was a bit lax in allowing neighbors to throw trash over the embassy wall in Tripoli. The overeager gumshoe also managed to disclose the existence of a secret CIA base on the Benghazi compound during a subsequent hearing on the attacks.
Chaffetz’s Benghazi grandstanding helped to make him a right-wing hero, but it didn’t earn him the spot he desired on the select committee created by the Republican-led Congress in 2014 to investigate the Benghazi attacks.
By then, Chaffetz had already set his sights higher. He launched a campaign to win the chairmanship of the House oversight committee, then run by the bellicose Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), whose term on the panel was expiring in 2015. Issa had seen potential in Chaffetz and had helped him early in his congressional career by making him the chairman of the national security subcommittee. Chaffetz wasn’t in line for the oversight job by seniority, so launching a bid for this plum post—a platform for politicians seeking to grab headlines—took some chutzpah.
Within the Republican caucus, Chaffetz campaigned for the chairmanship as the anti-Issa, implicitly critiquing the oversight chairman’s combative style and suggesting that he could bring to the committee an element of media savvy that Issa lacked. Once again, Chaffetz stabbed a mentor in the back and won. In 2015, he became one of the most junior members of the House ever to chair the high-profile committee.
After assuming the chairmanship, one of his first moves was taking down the portraits of past chairmen, including Issa, that hung in the hearing room. Issa was not pleased. “It’s not a big deal, but it’s just indicative of what his mindset was and how self-centered he is,” says Kurt Bardella, who worked for Issa as the committee’s spokesman. Fellow lawmakers, Bardella notes, were repelled that “Jason would be so willing to throw under the bus someone who really tried to help mentor him, for his own gain.”
Running over people who helped him on the way up was becoming something of a pattern for Chaffetz. He’d chaired the oversight committee for less than a year before launching an audacious bid for speaker of the House when John Boehner retired. Aside from being a very junior member of Congress, Chaffetz’s bid for the speakership also meant he would be running against his friend and former champion, Rep. Kevin McCarthy. As House Majority Leader, McCarthy had helped to launch Chaffetz’s rise in the House, dispensing with old seniority rules and working to promote telegenic young legislators, including Chaffetz. Hearing the news about the Chaffetz challenge, Jon Huntsman tweeted: “.@GOPLeader McCarthy just got “Chaffetzed.” Something I know a little something about. #selfpromoter #powerhungry
Chaffetz dropped his bid for speaker after Rep. Paul Ryan was cajoled into entering the race. He returned to his oversight committee work with a renewed zeal, threatening to impeach the head of the IRS over his handling of the nonprofit status of tea party groups and suggesting there might be grounds to remove President Barack Obama from office over Benghazi. He devoted a portion of the oversight committee’s website to enumerating the bureaucrats he claimed to have gotten fired—Salt Lake Tribune columnist Paul Rolly described this list as a “trophy case.”
Not all his targets have gone quietly into the night. In 2015, Chaffetz launched an investigation into problems with the Secret Service after a pair of drunk senior agents crashed a car into a White House barricade. Not long afterward, the Daily Beast reported that Chaffetz had been a wannabe agent himself prior to his career in politics but his application had been rejected in favor of a “BQA,” or “better qualified applicant”—a revelation leaked from inside the agency. Chaffetz told the Daily Beast that he believed he was rejected because he was too old. (He was in his mid-30s at the time, and the agency cutoff for agents was 37.)
A later investigation found that more than 45 people within the Secret Service had taken a look at his protected personnel file. Referring to the file, then-Assistant Director Edward Lowery emailed another director that March, saying, “Some information that he might find embarrassing needs to get out. Just to be fair.”
The election of Donald Trump seriously interfered with Chaffetz’s plans.
During the campaign, Chaffetz couldn’t make up his mind about the GOP nominee. After audio of Trump bragging about sexual assault during an Access Hollywood taping was published, Chaffetz disavowed the real estate mogul. “I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine,” Chaffetz said. “My wife and I, we have a 15-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person.” But Chaffetz soon reversed his stance, writing on Twitter that he’d still be voting for Trump. “HRC is that bad,” he wrote. “HRC is bad for the USA.”
HRC, a.k.a. Hillary Rodham Clinton, would have been good for Chaffetz’s political fortunes, however. He had been expecting to use his remaining tenure on the oversight committee, which expired in 2019, tormenting President Clinton. The month before the 2016 election, Chaffetz told the Washington Post that Clinton had provided him with “a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up.”
But after Trump won, Chaffetz seemed slow to acclimate to the new political environment. The day of Trump’s inauguration, Chaffetz Instagrammed a screen grab from Fox News, showing him shaking hands with Clinton at the ceremony. Under the photo he wrote, “So pleased she is not the President. I thanked her for her service and wished her luck. The investigation continues.”
The post—which earned him widespread scorn—may have been the first sign that Chaffetz was misreading the national mood and especially the attitudes of his largely Mormon constituents. While they largely disliked Clinton—she won a mere 23 percent of the vote in his district—they also harbored concerns about Trump, whose ethical conflicts and curious associations with Russia were rapidly piling up.
On February 9, Chaffetz got a wake-up call when he returned to Utah for a town hall, where he was besieged by a hostile, heckling crowd, shouting “Do your job,” and “We want to get rid you.” These listening sessions are typically subdued affairs, but this one drew hundreds of angry constituents, who demanded to know why the chairman of the House oversight committee was not doing more to investigate President Trump. (A pair of Utah Republicans recently bought a billboard on the highway to Chaffetz’s Utah office that asks, “Why won’t Chaffetz investigate the Trump-Russia connection?”)
Chaffetz, who during the Obama administration reveled in launching headline-grabbing investigations, suddenly seemed reluctant to unleash his committee’s typically aggressive investigative powers. Trump’s conflicts of interest, he claimed, fell largely outside his jurisdiction. “I know it’s surprising and frustrating to Democrats, but the president is exempt from these conflicts of interest,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. As for the Russia connections, particularly those related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Chaffetz said there was no need to further probe Flynn because he’d been fired. “It’s taking care of itself.”
“He is in an unenviable position,” Chris Karpowitz, a political-science professor at Brigham Young University, told me weeks before Chaffetz’s surprise announcement that he was giving up his seat. “He’s still trying to figure out what his role is in a government in which Republicans control everything. I think he used the fact that he could investigate an administration of an opposing party to his advantage during the Obama years that allowed him to be in front of the cameras repeatedly, and to be seen as pursuing the interests of the Republican Party. But I think what has people, or at least some people, in his district concerned is the appearance of a double standard, that he was very eager to investigate Hillary Clinton and has been extremely hesitant to pursue serious questions about the Trump administration.”
Chaffetz’s district is one of the reddest in the nation, and he’s used to being popular at home. He was reelected last November with nearly 75 percent of the vote. But after four easy reelection campaigns, his poll numbers have plunged to their lowest levels ever. Before he announced that he would not seek reelection, opponents on his left and the right were lining up to take him on. Trump nemesis Rosie O’Donnell recently donated $2,700—the maximum allowed by law—to Chaffetz’s Democratic opponent, Kathryn Allen, giving her fledgling campaign a Twitter boost that has helped Allen rake in more than $500,000 in contributions. The former independent presidential candidate, Evan McMullin, who launched his anti-Trump effort in Utah, had suggested he might consider challenging Chaffetz or Hatch.
Even so, Chaffetz would likely prevail in a reelection bid. But that doesn’t mean the next two years would be a breeze for the ambitious congressman.
“I told him on election night that he just miraculously had gone to having the best job in America to the worst job in America, and that has been prophetic,” says Utah political expert Kirk Jowers, who now serves as a corporate vice president for doTERRA, a Provo-based multilevel marketing company. “He has almost the perfect rainbow of hate. Liberals will never think he’s doing enough in that position. And of course the alt-right may think anything he does against President Trump is feeding into this frenzy against their president. It has put him in a place where it’s very tough to do right by anyone.”
The current political atmosphere, in which Republicans control Congress and the White House, mainly holds downsides for Chaffetz, who has flourished as an opposition figure. Historically, the president’s party often suffers big losses in midterm elections, and early signs show that Democrats are gaining momentum in unexpected places, including deep-red Kansas.
Chaffetz, a canny political operator, has surely read the tea leaves, wagering that it is in his best interests to sit out the bruising political fights of the Trump administration’s first term lest Trump bring Chaffetz down with him. Given Chaffetz’s talent for self-promotion, it’s likely that he won’t veer too far from the public eye. Talk on Capitol Hill is that he may take the path of other high-profile members of Congress and nab a lucrative contract with one of the networks, where he can maintain his visibility, build up his bank account, and bide his time for the right moment to get back in the political game. Chaffetz has been less than subtle in hinting he’s interested. “I’d be thrilled to have a television relationship,” Chaffetz told Politico on Thursday.
But even as he announced that he was stepping away from politics, Chaffetz and his supporters seemed to be quietly planning his political future. In early April, his campaign committee registered the domains Jason2028.com and JasonChaffetz2028.com.