SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, defended the White House Tuesday for not providing any documents about whether former national security adviser Michael Flynn failed to disclose payments from Russian and other foreign sources.
Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said a review of documents provided by other agencies showed no evidence Flynn reported the payments when renewing his security clearance as required by the law.
But Chaffetz downplayed concerns raised by the committee's ranking Democrat, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, that "despite all of these very troubling developments," the White House refused to turn over "a single piece of paper."
Such a response from GOP President Donald Trump's White House to a bipartisan request from the government watchdog committee is "simply unacceptable," Cummings said at a joint news conference with Chaffetz in Washington, D.C.
However, Chaffetz, who has announced he won't run for re-election and may leave office before his term ends, told the Deseret News he believed the White House complied with the committee's request to Trump's chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
"If they don't have any (documents), that doesn't mean they're not complying," Chaffetz said. "I don't feel like they have withheld any information. It really doesn't involve the White House and, if it did, it would be the Obama White House."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Chaffetz's reaction "seems consistent with a continued willingness to defend the Trump administration."
Chaffetz has been criticized, including by his constituents at a raucous town hall meeting, for not investigating Trump's alleged Russian ties the same way he went after the Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Even though Chaffetz made the effort to announce the committee's findings on Flynn with a Democrat at his side, Karpowitz said that had more to do with "how blatantly Micheal Flynn violated the law" than taking a tougher stance on Trump.
"It's not really an announcement that puts current members of the Trump administration on notice," Karpowitz said. "Because Flynn has left the administration, there's more freedom to take him on."
Flynn, who had advised Trump on national security during the campaign, was forced to resign in February because he reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Payments to Flynn that were supposed to be disclosed included about $34,000 for speaking at a December 2015 gala hosted by a Kremlin-backed Russian TV network, where he dined with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Chaffetz said the payments in question, from entities connected to the Russian as well as the Turkish governments, were not something the Trump administration should have known about before naming Flynn to a sensitive national security spot.
"It's not the way the system works. There's an application process and the White House relies on the (intelligence) services to either grant a security clearance or not grant a security clearance.
"I don't know if there is anything else the White House could — or should — have done. I really don't," Chaffetz said. "I think Democrats desperately want to pin this on Donald Trump. I find that without merit."
Now, he said, it's up to the Department of Defense, not Congress, to determine what happens with Flynn, suggesting the retired general's pension be docked for what he was paid because he appears to have failed to obtain permission for those activities.
Chaffetz may not remain chairman of the powerful oversight committee much longer. He announced last week won't seek re-election in 2018 and said he might leave office early for an as-yet undisclosed position in the private sector.
That decision has several Republicans in Congress already scrambling to fill his chairmanship. But Chaffetz wasn't ready to talk Tuesday about when he would give up the post.
"We haven't made any such announcement," he said, adding it wasn't coming anytime soon."Not today, not tomorrow, not next week."
Chaffetz, first elected in 2008, also declined to say whether he would definitely step aside before his term ends in early 2019. He has said "maybe" he would run for governor in 2020.