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Chaffetz says he's already taken on Trump administration

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz said Tuesday he has already taken on President Donald Trump's administration on four issues, but believes the question of potential Russian influence is best handled by another congressional committee.

Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said "the Russia connection" is already being examined by the House Intelligence Committee, "and I think they're best situated to handle that information."

Speaking to the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards, the Utah Republican who represents the 3rd District also discussed his raucous town hall meeting earlier this month, describing most of the participants as Utahns.

The crowd that filled the Brighton High School auditorium raised questions about why Chaffetz was not pursuing the Republican president more aggressively, as have Democrats, given his ongoing investigations into Trump's Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"I just want people to look at the facts. They try to say Congress isn't looking at (Trump ties to Russia), that's just factually inaccurate. The intel committee has been looking at this for a long time," he said, acknowledging he has been "very aggressive" on Clinton.

"I only did that after four Americans were killed in Benghazi," Chaffetz said, referring to the 2012 attack on a U.S. government compound that left a U.S. ambassador and others dead, and following a referral made to the FBI about Clinton's use of a private email server.

"I didn't start off by going on a fishing trip," he said of investigating Clinton, calling it "laughable" that Democrats began pushing for probes even before Trump was sworn in, including for the release of the president's tax returns — something not mandated by law.

The congressman, who said before the election that he had "years of material" to investigate on Clinton, said she remains under investigation by multiple entities, including the State Department, and many documents have yet to be released.

"I didn't start the investigation of Hillary Clinton because of a political election, and I'm not going to end it because of a political election," Chaffetz said, calling it "absolutely, totally false" to view it as politically motivated.

As for concerns about a Trump-Russia connection, Chaffetz said the intelligence committee, which has special clearance, "has taken the lead on that and will continue to lead out on that. I'm keenly interested in it."

But, he said, "every investigation that happens in Congress doesn't necessary go through my committee. I usually get involved in most of them, but as it relates to a nation-state and what they may or may not be doing, you really need to dive into sources and methods, CIA, NSA, other clandestine-type of operations."

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Republicans in Congress, including Chaffetz, aren't going to treat the new president the same way they did Clinton, even though they can't ignore the issues surrounding Trump.

"My sense of what he’s going to do at this point in terms of investigating the Trump administration is he’s going to tread very lightly," Burbank said of Chaffetz. "I strongly suspect the message he's getting is, 'If you have to do something, make it minimal.'"

The issues he has gotten involved in, Chaffetz said, are the ongoing probe into Trump's federal contract to operate the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., in a former post office building and referring Kellyanne Conway, White House counselor, to the Office of Government Ethics for promoting Ivanka Trump's products.

Chaffetz noted he has also called for a Department of Justice investigation into what he termed the "mishandling" of classified information related to news reports about Trump's now former national security adviser Michael Flynn's ties to Russia, as well as a look into fees Flynn received for one or more speeches in Russia.

Asked about whether he believed there were paid agitators at his town hall meeting, an issue he had raised afterward, Chaffetz said Tuesday: "The overwhelming majority of people were Utahns and they weren't paid. Were there some paid components to it? Yeah, I'm convinced there were."

The congressman said he did not know if they were behind the friction that surfaced at the meeting, "but certainly ginning it up and getting it to the point where it became what it became when we started, I think so."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said the frustration can't be ignored.

"In Utah, I think we're seeing a large groundswell of people who are angry with Congressman Chaffetz. I certainly hear it from the Democratic side. I think there is some dissatisfaction on the independent and Republican side," Corroon said.

The Democratic leader said even though the party typically has trouble recruiting candidates, he's suddenly "getting a lot of calls from people who want to run against Congressman Chaffetz" next year.