SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Monday that if he's re-elected to Congress, his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would be just as tough on a President Donald Trump as it would be on a President Hillary Clinton.
Chaffetz, speaking at a forum on the 3rd District primary race hosted by the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said he's backing his party's controversial pick for president, Trump.
But the congressman, facing a primary challenge from fellow Republican Chia-Chi Teng, said his support for Trump "doesn't mean that's going to be as his surrogate. It doesn't mean I'm going to go out there and defend everything that he says."
And Chaffetz said that even though he'll vote for the billionaire businessman over the Democratic nominee, Trump shouldn't expect any preferential treatment from the oversight committee if he wins in November.
"I'm going to be like a kid in a candy store," said Chaffetz, chairman of the powerful committee. "Let me loose. We're going to have some very interesting hearings, and more bipartisan support than ever if that happens."
He also said he'll come after comments by Trump that go "above and beyond, or past the line," such as his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants. "I think that was a bridge too far," Chaffetz said.
Teng, who spoke separately to the 100 or so students gathered in the U. law school's moot courtroom for what was billed as a "conversation" with the two GOP congressional candidates, also said he'll vote for Trump.
"Between the choices that we have right now, if I have to vote, I will vote for Donald Trump," Teng told reporters after the forum, citing the U.S. Supreme Court appointments that will be made by the next president.
"That to me is more important than who will be in the White House the next four years," said Teng, a BYU professor and former Microsoft software engineer making his first bid for elected office.
Their comments come as Utah GOP Chairman James Evans is trying to come to terms with Trump at the top of the ticket in a state where Republican voters gave him a distant third-place finish in the party's March presidential preference caucus.
Evans, who traveled to Las Vegas on Saturday to meet with Trump before a rally, said the candidate recognizes he has work to do to win over voters in the usually reliably Republicans state.
"He understands his campaign approach is somewhat off-putting to the people of Utah," Evans told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright on Monday. "He said after the (July Republican National) Convention, he is coming out to Utah."
Evans said he found Trump "charming" in person, "versus what you see on stage. You just have to figure out a lot of that has to be a show." But it's one that's worked with millions of voters who gave Trump a primary election victory, Evans said.
Noting the intensity of the crowd waiting to see Trump, Evans said he's starting to ask himself, "What message are they trying to send to the political establishment? Maybe we need to start evaluating what's going on here."
Neither Chaffetz nor Teng said they were worried about the impact of Trump on voter turnout, even though Evans has been preparing what he initially called "Plan T for Trump" to ensure Utah Republicans go to the polls.
"I think they are giving the Utah voter too little credit," Teng said. "I think Utah voters are independent thinkers and they don't always vote with the party line. I think we always want to encourage people to be independent thinkers."
Chaffetz said Utah voters won't go for Clinton, a former secretary of state, senator and first lady, whose husband, former President Bill Clinton, managed only a third-place finish in Utah in the 1992 presidential election.
"There's no way the state is voting for Hillary Clinton. We're not that crazy," Chaffetz said. "So the choice may not be as obvious as it was when Mitt Romney was at the top of the ticket, but I still think he prevails, certainly here in Utah."
The four-term congressman, who campaigned around the country for Romney in 2012, said casting a vote for Hillary Clinton "is no contest for me. I sort of come from the ABCs of politics, which is, 'Anybody But Clinton.'"
Chaffetz said giving a candidate "void of moral compass" control over appointments to the Supreme Court "would dramatically alter our nation in a way that I just don't want to go."
What's positive about the presidential race, Chaffetz said, is the attention that's going to be paid to Utah, traditionally a so-called flyover state, skipped by candidates that assume it will go Republican.
"What's going to happen is they're going to spend more time in Utah," he said. "I think you're going to see real, legitimate campaigning, particularly from the Trump campaign."
Chaffetz also talked about his own campaign experience this year. He said after only about 300 GOP state delegates showed up to the 14 town hall meetings he held for them around the state, he probably will also gather voter signatures next election.
He said he was grateful to the state's caucus and convention system for nominating candidates but said party leaders should not withhold support from candidates who use the new, alternative path to the ballot.
Teng both competed at the state party convention, where he failed to meet the party's 40 percent delegate vote threshold. But because he also gathered voter signatures, he advanced to the primary ballot.
Gathering signatures was a way to build grassroots support, said Teng, and increase his name recognition.