SALT LAKE CITY —Jason Chaffetz stood behind the curtain of the high school auditorium, listening to the fire marshal try to calm the crowd. It was early February, just weeks after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and Chaffetz, a five-term congressman, had come to Cottonwood Heights to hold his first town hall since the election.
Police had warned him not to bring his family. In secret, Facebook groups' agitation had been growing for weeks. More than 1,000 protesters stood outside: soccer moms who’d driven from Provo, bearded granolas in Patagonia fleece with spray-painted signs demanding he keep Utah wild, lefties who’d driven up from California and Arizona. A few protesters were masked and dressed in black. They worried Chaffetz most. They carried guns and, he would later learn, were prowling the parking lot trying to find his car.
Out on the stage the fire marshal was getting nowhere. He was trying to point out the exits, in case of mayhem, but the crowd had no interest. Let them in, they chanted of the protesters outside. Utah was known for being civil and calm. This didn’t feel like Utah. This didn’t feel like home.
Jessica Mamey approaches the stage to ask Rep. Jason Chaffetz a question during a town hall meeting in Cottonwood Heights on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. | Ravell Call, Deseret News
Something had flipped after the election, Chaffetz had noticed, an ugly impulse unfurling across America. He had seen anger directed at him before, but nothing like this. He’d been getting death threats, on his voicemail and in his inbox, and in the ensuing weeks it would only get worse.
He had become a target, the face of Republican fecklessness. At his D.C. office, his young staffers fielded calls from all over the country, hundreds a day, demanding he investigate Trump. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee and Government Reform Committee, Chaffetz had risen to national prominence for his aggressive inquiries into missteps by the Obama administration, making him a hero to the “Fox and Friends” crowd.
He’d hammered the Secret Service, demanded documents on the Fast and Furious gun running scandal, and most notably, grilled Hillary Clinton for hours on the deaths of four Americans at a compound in Benghazi, Libya. So why wasn’t he investigating Donald Trump? People asked him this wherever he went, at the airport, at Five Guys when he was standing in line for a burger. Tonight they wanted answers.
He stepped out from behind the curtain.
The crowd erupted in deafening boos, rising to their feet. Chaffetz smiled. He’d seen worse. As a placekicker at BYU in the mid-1980s he’d played before hostile football crowds with Ty Detmer and Jason Buck. “You think this is bad,” he thought to himself. “You’ve never been to Laramie, Wyoming.”
Besides, plainclothes police officers were standing behind the curtain, and others were scattered throughout the crowd. No one here could rattle him, not really. And even if they did, he wouldn’t let them see it. He would keep smiling, no matter what he felt inside.
Clips of the town hall were starting to go viral. For the part of the electorate who felt the Trump administration was a threat to the republic, this was a moment, #Resistance. Here was one of the few people who could bring Trump to heel, who could subpoena his tax records, force him to testify under oath, really anything he wanted, and his constituents were demanding he do it.
“Do your job! Do your job!” they chanted. Chaffetz smiled through his teeth, pleading for the crowd to calm down, but no one was listening.
In the ensuing weeks, Chaffetz insisted the protesters didn’t bother him, but those closest to him began to worry if all the unhinged Facebook posts and death threats were taking a toll. Trey Gowdy, the Republican congressman from South Carolina who Chaffetz considers his best friend, openly wondered if Chaffetz’s ever-ready smile was masking pain.
“Some of the stuff left on his voicemail,” Gowdy said, pausing. “He plays it for me and I’m trying to evaluate, do you take it seriously? What do you do about it?”
Over the years, Chaffetz’s wife, Julie, had learned to tune out criticisms of her husband, but what she saw at the town hall was different, something that she had not witnessed before, and this time, she couldn’t just tune it out. “I felt it,” she said.
Chaffetz began seriously thinking about his political future. He publicly toyed with the idea of running for senator, and then governor. What no one outside of a very tight circle knew is that he was also considering something else: quitting.
An abrupt exit
On Wednesday morning, Chaffetz showed up at the KSL Broadcast House in downtown Salt Lake City for a spot on the “The Doug Wright Show,” the most respected talk radio show in the market.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, leaves after giving an interview on the KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Chaffetz just turned 50, but he carries himself with a youthful energy and the gait of an athlete. Ready for the cameras (as always), he was dressed in a tailored, pin-striped suit, his curly, dark hair perfectly coiffed as usual. He flashed a smile at a reporter he recognized, gave a nod to a cameraman that looked familiar, and stepped into the studio.
Earlier that morning, he had shocked the nation by announcing on Facebook that he would not run for re-election. Now he was here to answer the question on everyone’s minds: why?
He said that after “prayerful consideration,” he had decided he wouldn’t run for any office in 2018 (killing speculation he had an eye on Orrin Hatch’s Senate seat), but didn’t rule out returning to political life sometime in the future.
Standing in the KSL studio, which was crammed with reporters and TV cameras from every station in the city, Chaffetz explained that he had grown tired of sleeping on a cot in his D.C. office and trekking home to Utah every week. He’d spent more than 1,500 nights away from his family. He’d had enough.
Wright asked him if the town hall had been a factor. “The temperament, the civility, the pressures, has that affected you at all?”
“I tend to gravitate toward, I tend to be attracted to the volatility, I like to go into the firestorm,” Chaffetz said. “ I kind of like being in that position. I don’t mind it, it doesn’t really faze me and this decision really didn’t have anything to do with it. Think about that, 1,500 nights away from my family over the past eight years. That’s a lot and it takes its toll.”
He didn’t bring up the death threats he’d been getting, or the fact that his family now had to travel with security.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, talks to reporters at the KSL Broadcast House in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Speculation in the media began immediately. Jonathan Martin, a national political correspondent for the New York Times, tweeted that this was really about prepping for a run for governor in 2020 against Mitt Romney’s 40-year-old son, Josh.
But no one knew for sure what to make of the timing of the announcement, or what it really meant. The night before, Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old with no political experience, had nearly won a special election for the Georgia seat vacated by Tom Price, who had become the head of Health and Human Services under Trump. That came a week after another Democrat nearly took a House seat in Kansas. Both seats were in deeply red districts, and the fact that they were even in play wasn’t a good sign for the GOP.
Chaffetz said he had no doubt he’d win “by a large margin” if he ran again, but he’s also always had a knack for sensing shifts in the political landscape early.
“He sees around corners,” a staffer said, always thinking of next steps. Case in point: Chaffetz rose to power in 2008 as an insurgent candidate, running to the right of four-term congressman Chris Cannon and blasting the Republican establishment as out of touch. No one recognized it at the time, but his election heralded the arrival of a new movement in Republican politics — the tea party.
Chaffetz also broke from Republican orthodoxy in his embrace of the media beyond friendly outlets like Fox. From the time he was elected, he made regular trips to New York to woo low-level bookers to get on cable news shows. His critics have long called him a publicity hound, but for Chaffetz his ready accessibility was always strategic. The higher his profile, the more he could advance his ideas, his influence and power.
This became most apparent when he parlayed his rising visibility into a chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which he used to go after Planned Parenthood, Hillary Clinton and other favorite punching bags of the right. He became the most high-profile antagonist of the Obama administration, the tormentor-in-chief, and in the final weeks of the campaign he vowed that he would continue to investigate Clinton for using an unclassified email server, improperly staffing the embassy in Benghazi, and any other possible crimes, whether she won re-election or not.
Oversight Committee Reports, 2016-2017
During Chaffetz's tenure as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, the committee issued ten full committee reports.
January 11, 2016: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT IS BROKEN
June 15, 2016: CONTEMPT RESOLUTION FOR ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICIAL
October 27, 2016: OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE REPORT FINDS POLITICIZING OF WOTUS RULEMAKING
Then Donald Trump got elected and everything changed.
“Trump getting elected was the worst possible thing for him,” says one Utah political insider. “Under a Hillary Clinton presidency, he would have had a nightly gig on Fox News. It would have been Crooked Hillary every night. Instead he got Trump.”
Had Clinton won, Chaffetz would have used the platform to attack the administration at every turn, the subpoena power literally resting in the pen in his pocket. But now, he was suddenly limited by demands to play team ball for a team that was already struggling, fumbling health care right out of the gate. And whatever Trump and the fractious House Republicans did, he would be held accountable, even though he would have little control.
And if the town hall was any indication, he was already being held accountable for his team’s performance. His approval rating in the 3rd District had dropped by 14 points since the election, according to an April Dan Jones and Associates poll.
Money, mostly from out-of-state, had started to pour in for a Democratic challenger with no political experience named Kathryn Allen. Allen had only raised $20,000 in an exploratory account and then her campaign went viral when Chaffetz went on CNN in early March and made one of his most embarrassing gaffes trying to sell the Republican overhaul of Obamacare.
"Americans have choices, and they've got to make a choice," he said. "So rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care.” In less than a week, Allen’s campaign war chest had skyrocketed to $410,000.
It’s unlikely Allen or any Democrat would have beaten Chaffetz, who still had a 72 percent approval rating in his district, but the amount of money Allen had raised suggested that for the first time since his election, Chaffetz would actually have to campaign and spend a good chunk of the next year aggressively fundraising, a chore he’s never enjoyed. The campaign could get costly, loud and bruising. And for someone who had much greater ambitions than the House, it could do lasting damage to his brand.
Chaffetz says the decision not to run came down to family, and there’s no doubt that was a factor. His wife, Julie, always made a point of never complaining, never being an obstacle to his aspirations, insiders say, but the strain and isolation were wearing on her, and Chaffetz said it was time for him to spend more time with family now that he and Julie were nearly empty nesters.
Among political insiders in Utah and Washington, there was widespread speculation Thursday that Chaffetz was stepping down because of a scandal, and that word of his resignation was imminent. Chaffetz told Politico news of a scandal was “absolutely, positively not” true.
“Not in any way, shape or form,” he told Politico. “I’ve been given more enemas by more people over the last eight years than you can possibly imagine. From the Secret Service to the Democratic Party. I am who I am. If they had something really scandalous, it would’ve come out a long, long time ago.”
Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz , R-Utah, right, meets with staff members including his staff director Andrew Arthur, left, at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015.| Laura Seitz, Deseret News
And yet, it’s hard to imagine Chaffetz truly stepping away from the spotlight. This is a man who appears on TV so willingly and so often he carries two earpieces with him for live interviews and has the names of Fox News hosts programmed into his phone. As the New York Times recently put it, he practically rushes “toward television cameras with an eager smile.”
Chaffetz’s announcement came the same day Fox News announced it was severing ties with Bill O’Reilly, its most popular host. When asked Wednesday about rumors Fox has offered Chaffetz a hosting gig, he demurred. “None of that can come to fruition until you actually go forward and make this announcement,” Chaffetz said. “Then you can pursue what these opportunities might be.”
Chaffetz hasn’t revealed how long he's going to stay in office, but he probably won’t remain chairman of his committee. A Fox hosting gig would be lucrative — Sean Hannity makes many millions each year — and it would provide Chaffetz the sort of platform he had on the committee during the Obama years but with an even wider audience. By 2020 he’d be perfectly poised to run for office again. Already the page for jasoninthehouse.com redirects to jasonforgovernor.com. And that might not be the full extent of Chaffetz’s ambitions. Two weeks ago, Chaffetz’s campaign committee registered domains for a possible presidential run: jason2028.com and jasonchaffetz2028.com.
It’s unlikely this is the end of Jason Chaffetz’s political career, but if his abrupt announcement is a pivot to something bigger and better, what is it? More importantly, how and why did someone so ambitious walk away from one of the most high-profile positions in American politics?
A shifting landscape
A month or so before Chaffetz announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, he was in Washington on his way to dinner with two reporters. He checked his phone, where he keeps apps for his favorite restaurants: McDonald’s, Dominos and Five Guys. Tonight, he wanted Five Guys. The apps sped things up, he explained, at least in theory. He could order his favorite burger while his press secretary, MJ Henshaw, drove. The apps also saved money. He was always finding deals on the McDonald’s app.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz eats a hamburger while talking with Deseret News reporters. | Eric Schulzke, Deseret News
Except tonight the apps weren’t working, and Chaffetz was getting mildly annoyed. As Henshaw slowed for a motorcade of blacked out SUVs, Chaffetz looked up.
“Looks like Mike Pence,” he said. “We love Mike Pence.”
“Would you rather Pence were president?” a reporter in the back seat asked.
Chaffetz nervously chuckled and changed the subject.
At Five Guys, Chaffetz ordered a burger and a jumbo-sized carton of fries and tucked his large frame into a small corner table. He talked with great enthusiasm about how much he loved fast food and how often he ate out of vending machines. He ate out of the one in the basement of his office in the Rayburn Building so often he had the number memorized for his favorite Hostess cupcakes.
Chaffetz seems determined to push the image of the everyman, the guy who eats out of vending machines and drives a truck, even though he lives in one of the most expensive zip codes in Utah and wears camo not to hunt, but to take pictures of wildlife. Every politician has an image, a brand they’d like to push, and this is Chaffetz’s: the tightwad congressman who sleeps on a cot to save his constituents money (even though it actually saves him money). The cot has become his most reliable prop in self-branding, and it still comes up in pretty much every profile written about him, but the thing is, it’s actually uncomfortable, and he said he’s getting a little tired of sleeping on it.
“I’m turning 50 and I’m sleeping on a cot,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate my life.”
Chaffetz seemed constrained by the image he’d created for himself. If he was governor, he could sleep in his own bed.
“I say I’m a definite maybe,” Chaffetz said of running for governor. “You also think about when you hang up the cleats, too. I’m not a lifer. I’m just not.”
It had become clear to him he would have a hard time rising any higher in the House. Two years before, he’d thrown his hat in the ring for speaker, testing the water and he got crickets.
He seemed wistful when asked if another run for speaker was in the cards, as if he wanted it, but couldn’t imagine it happening.
“I don’t know how I would get from here to there,” he said. “I would have to do some things that are very hard. And I’m up for hard and difficult, but I would have to be a prolific fundraiser. That’s part of it. Never say never, but only a handful of people in the nation have ever been able to pull that off. It’s harder than anybody thinks.”
Chaffetz was also struggling to find his footing as oversight chairman in a Republican administration. “I think most people, including myself, expect me to hold the Trump administration to the same high standard, of course they do.”
He pointed out that he had, in fact, opened a number of inquiries into the Trump administration, including Trump’s lease of the Old Post Office building (which Trump turned in to a Trump hotel), and Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, but he’d left most of the heavy lifting on possible collusion with the Russians to the House Intelligence Committee, which had frustrated the Democrat Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the oversight committee.
Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland, and Jason Chaffetz , R-Utah, joke around during their staff's holiday party at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. Cummings and Chaffetz are members of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
“When it comes to Russian interference issues, it’s hard for me to tell whether it's his own beliefs that he should not look into that too deeply, or whether that is also coming from higher-ups. I don’t know. I can’t tell,” Cummings said. “ We’ve sent all types of letters to Chaffetz trying to get him to join in on the various things. And he says he wants to wait to see if something is going to go wrong. I keep telling them, I say, ‘Chaffetz, you keep saying we will cross that bridge when we get to it, and as each little thing happens, I keep telling them, we’re on the bridge.’”
Tom Davis, who chaired the oversight committee during the George W. Bush administration, said the very nature of the chairmanship was political, and there was no way Chaffetz could avoid it. “Your job is to over-investigate when the other party is in power and under-investigate when your party is in power,” Davis says. “Part of his job is to protect the quarterback.”
Gowdy, a fellow member of oversight committee, agreed with Davis. If Chaffetz got too aggressive to appease the Do Your Job! crowd back home, his party could turn on him, Davis said.
Chaffetz shook his head when he heard this.
“No, heaven’s no,” he says. “The quickest way to lose all the credibility I’ve built over eight years is to give Donald Trump a pass. That’s not my job. We need to call balls and strikes as we see them.”
The next night, Chaffetz stayed late for a possible vote on the Obamacare repeal. The party was sharply divided, and the public didn’t like the bill. But the leadership was pushing it, with Trump and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, threatening those who didn’t come along with political payback. Sitting in his office in the Rayburn Building, a white marble monolith across the street from the Capitol, Chaffetz checked off the positives of the bill, but he looked tired, and it was clear he felt conflicted. Chaffetz had hoped to fly home to Utah that night, but a rumored 2 a.m. vote to rush the bill through had kept him in D.C. and he was looking at another night on the cot.
He got up and opened a closet door to show off his latest cot. He’d first showed his cot (an earlier model he’d eventually broken) with pride to Stephen Colbert for a bit on Comedy Central and then suggested they leg wrestle. He’d lost, improbably, and Colbert then tagged him with the nickname Spaghetti Legs, which Chaffetz admitted he thought was pretty cool. He’d shown the New York Times the cot, too, and they’d even put a picture of it on the front page. But tonight when he unfolded the cot he did it with a hint of resignation, and seemed to dread the thought of sleeping on it for one more night.
As he was talking, his phone rang. He looked down and his face lit up. He held up his phone to show the name on the screen.
“It’s Greta,” he said with a grin, referring to the MSNBC News host Greta Van Susteren. “You’re going on the air in 30 minutes, right?” he glanced at his watch. “I’ll work on it. You mean Mike Lee. I’ll work on it.”
He hung up, explaining that Van Susteren wanted to talk to the Utah senator, Chaffetz’s good friend. Their kids had gone to prom together and Chaffetz had once been close with Lee’s father, the late Rex Lee, former U.S. solicitor general and the 10th president of BYU.
For the first time all night, he looked excited.
Web of influence
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz is loved and hated by some of the most powerful people in the country. Here are a few.
An uncertain future
In early February, President Trump summoned Chaffetz to his office. If the president was confused about how Chaffetz felt about him, he wasn’t alone. In the final weeks of the campaign, Chaffetz issued a brutal rebuke of then-candidate Trump after video surfaced of Trump making lewd comments about women.
“I’m out,” he said on Channel 13 in Salt Lake. “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. 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.”
He wasn’t just grandstanding; privately he had, in fact, sat down around the kitchen table with his daughter and explained why he was pulling his endorsement, even though it would bring the wrath of Republican leadership (which it did). Then, 17 days later, Chaffetz backtracked. He wasn’t endorsing Trump, he tweeted, but he would vote for him. Twitter erupted in mockery.
“Jason Chaffetz just set some sort of modern record for flip-floppery,” a blogger for the Washington Post wrote.
If Chaffetz had lingering qualms about Trump prior to the meeting, they seemed to dissipate by the time it was over. They met for 35 minutes. Chaffetz says he found Trump to be warm and well-versed on policy. Trump began the meeting by insisting they don’t talk about anything related to what Chaffetz may be investigating as head of the oversight committee. Instead, they talked about issues related to Utah, including former President Barack Obama’s decision to declare Bear’s Ears a national monument. Chaffetz left the meeting with a feeling that Trump may undo the action.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of the meeting, however, was what happened right before Chaffetz met Trump. Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff, opened the door and there sat Jon Huntsman Jr., the former governor of the state of Utah.
Chaffetz didn’t know why Huntsman was there, but now he does; Trump was vetting Huntsman to be ambassador of Russia (which has yet to be formally announced).
In terms of Utah political history, it was a moment heavy with meaning, like two supertankers passing in choppy waters. One of them was being harassed about refusing to look into ties the president may have to Russia; the other, pending confirmation, may be headed there to represent that president.
Huntsman had also given Chaffetz his political start. After an 11-year career at Nu Skin, a Provo multilevel marketing company, Chaffetz was tapped by Huntsman to run his campaign. When Huntsman won in a landslide, he hired Chaffetz as his chief of staff, even though Chaffetz had no political experience.
Chaffetz’s high-energy style and lack of experience started rubbing people the wrong way, particularly Lt. Governor Gary Herbert, and the two began to openly clash. Six months in, a member of the staff walked into the governor’s office and delivered some unsettling news: if Huntsman didn’t fire Chaffetz, the rest of the staff would quit.
Gov. Gary Herbert, front left, talks with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, following Herbert's monthly news conference at KUED in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016. At back left, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, talks with Bob Bernick, a contributing editor with UtahPolicy.com.| Ravell Call, Deseret News
“He was terribly ambitious,” says someone with direct knowledge of the situation. “He was a chief of staff who wanted to be the governor.”
Huntsman ironed things out and Chaffetz stayed on. In 2008, he decided to run against four-term congressman Chris Cannon. At the state convention, Chaffetz nearly unseated Cannon with what one party operative called “the finest red meat conservative speech I’d ever wanted to hear. There was a groundswell of support among delegates for Chaffetz.” The speech was also a stinging rebuke of the moderate brand of Republicanism Huntsman represented, and Huntsman felt betrayed.
That deepened during the presidential campaign of 2012, when Chaffetz, now a congressman, flew to New Hampshire to campaign for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Huntsman had staked his entire campaign on taking New Hampshire and he feared the press would have a heyday with his former chief of staff campaigning against him. He was right. Romney took New Hampshire and Huntsman was finished.
Payback for Huntsman came two years ago, when Chaffetz decided to run against his friend, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, for speaker of the House. “McCarthy just got "Chaffetzed,” Huntsman tweeted. “Something I know a little something about. #selfpromoter #powerhungry.”
Chaffetz says he wasn’t anti-Huntsman when he campaigned for Romney, he just thought Romney had the best chance of beating Obama. Romney had also believed in Chaffetz before anyone else. The morning he defeated Cannon, Romney called him, Chaffetz says.
“It was 7 a.m.,” Chaffetz recalls. “He says, ‘Jason, Mitt Romney, so proud of you.’ And I said, ‘Thanks for giving me a chance.’ It was a big deal in my world at the time.”
Chaffetz says he and Huntsman are now on good terms, and laughs as he recalls their brief meeting in the White House.
If the incident with Romney illustrates anything, some say, it’s that Chaffetz has a sense of what's coming next and where to hitch his wagon. His first chief of staff, Justin Harding, tried to steer him away from the oversight committee, suggesting there were more high-profile places he could make his mark, but Chaffetz had a vision for his role.
He spent a year aggressively campaigning to become chairman, putting together a multimedia presentation and a 68-page, spiral-bound “Game Plan,” selling his vision to Republican leadership. Chaffetz argued that they should be more focused and more media-savvy. He also saw it as an opportunity to raise his own profile and his combative style started to gain attention. His instincts were right.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, talks to people during a Utah delegation reception in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Room in the Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Chaffetz has always had a knack for recognizing opportunity. He grew up playing soccer, but when his high school didn’t have a soccer team, he put his energy into placekicking for the football team. That led him to BYU, fresh off a national championship, where his instincts surfaced again. Most kickers are anonymous, often maligned members of the team, typically only rising to attention when they miss a game-changing field goal or extra point. Chaffetz wanted to be noticed. And so he made a point of taking off his helmet after every made kick, revealing his handsome face and his thick locks of black, wavy hair.
His brother Alex says he did this to introduce himself as an eligible bachelor, but Chaffetz insists he took off his helmet because his head was too big, perhaps not realizing saying your head is too big is sort of the same thing as saying you took off your helmet so everyone could see how good looking you are.
“I’ve got crap for that for 20 years,” Chaffetz says, laughing. “My helmet really was too small.”
His years at BYU were foundational to his later thinking in other ways. Raised a Democrat (Chaffetz’s father had been married to Kitty Dukakis, future wife of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, before Chaffetz was born, and the families remained close), Chaffetz became a Republican while in college.
He also found the Mormon religion. Chaffetz had never been particularly religious (he spent his Sunday afternoons at Provo at Movies 8), but one day his senior year his roommate suggested he read the Book of Mormon and pray about it.
Jason Chaffetz, a confirmed junk food addict, stops by his favorite vending machine on his way to a Republican Conference meeting to sort out a key vote on health care, on the evening of Thursday, March 23. | Eric Schulzke, Deseret News
“I had never really prayed in my life although I felt like I’d had religious experiences,” Chaffetz says. “ I didn’t believe there was just a big bang and here we are. I was always in awe of space, of planets and stars. So I read the Book of Mormon, I got down on my knees, I prayed about it and was like, ‘You know what? This is true.”
Chaffetz decided to tell legendary head coach Lavell Edwards.
“I said, ‘Coach I have to talk to you,’” Chaffetz recalls. “He had this little button under his desk, which is intimidating, and he closed the door (with it). You sit in this awkward football helmet chair, your feet don’t fit quite right, and I told him I was getting baptized he was so excited, he got up and gave me a hug. He said ‘When is it?’”
Chaffetz told him the appointed date but explained that he was getting baptized for the “right reason,” and wanted to keep it private. “I said, ‘Coach, I don’t want you to come,’” he says.
Chaffetz had struck up a friendship with then BYU president Lee, who often came into the locker room and hung his suit coat in Chaffetz’s locker because it was closest to the door. Edwards told Chaffetz he needed to tell Lee, and sent him to the president’s office.
Lee was delighted to hear the news, and then Chaffetz told him he couldn’t come either.
“In retrospect I can’t believe I told Rex Lee and Lavell Edwards they couldn’t come to my baptism,” Chaffetz says, laughing. “And they didn’t come.”
The path ahead
What the future holds for Chaffetz at this point remains with Chaffetz. Perhaps, as in the past, he spotted a shifting political landscape before anyone else, an uprising similar to the Tea Party movement he helped usher in, except this time from the left.
The last three times one party held the Senate, House and presidency, they lost in the midterms, and if history holds, that may happen again.
If Democrats were to take the House, Chaffetz would have been reduced to ranking member on the oversight committee, playing the role of foil and defender for Trump, but mostly having to go along with a committee now doing to the bidding of Democrats who would like nothing more than to see Trump lose re-election, or face impeachment.
By getting out now, Chaffetz clears the path for other Republicans to run in the 3rd District, and by making it clear he won’t run for Senate either, donors can decide if they want to bet on Hatch for one more term, or back Mitt Romney, who is being pushed to enter the race.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, left, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, center, listen to speakers during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Overstock.com's new Peace Coliseum office building in Midvale on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. The project cost just under $100 million and occupies over 18 acres of land. | Nick Wagner, Deseret News
Politically, at least, Chaffetz’s most likely path seems the governorship. “My guess is he wants to start rebuilding a base for (governor) in 2020,” a Utah political heavyweight says. “No member of Congress has been elected Utah governor in recent years — maybe ever — though many have tried. His PR instincts probably tell him that he can't be seen as coming straight from Congress, therefore some distancing before things get serious.”
Despite the public hectoring Chaffetz got at the town hall, the death threats, the zingers from late night talk show hosts and "Saturday Night Live" writers, conventional wisdom is that he’d have a good shot of winning in a race for Utah governor, even against Josh Romney, who some see as inexperienced and unqualified. While Chaffetz was initially seen as a policy lightweight, more interested in attention than actually getting anything done, that perception has changed, and he’s now seen as a serious politician with a strong grasp of policy.
“I had initially been pretty skeptical of him,” said someone in the governor’s office who requested anonymity. “But I’ve become very impressed. He’s very intelligent and articulate.”
Then again, maybe Chaffetz is serious about a return to the private sector. On Thursday afternoon, rumors circulated he planned to announce his retirement, and he told Politico he’d already started looking for a job, hoping to “link up with a television network.”
“I started poking around to see what I might be worth and what sort of possibilities are there,” Chaffetz said. “And I got a series of ‘Let us know when you’re serious.’ Well now I can say, ‘Can you tell I am serious?’”
Perhaps a Fox deal is already in hand. Joe Scarborough left Congress to become a TV host at MSNBC, and it didn’t kill his political career. As recently as the last election, his name was floated as a potential vice presidential candidate for the Trump ticket.
As for when Chaffetz might leave Congress, only he knows.
“I might depart early. It’s not tomorrow, it’s not next week," he told Politico. "If it is, it’s going to be in the months to come.”