May 20, 2013 4:00 AM
The Impeachment Option
Jason Chaffetz raises the prospect.
By Robert Costa
Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, says President Barack Obama may face impeachment over his administration’s response to the Benghazi attack.
“They purposefully and willfully misled the American people, and that’s unacceptable,” Chaffetz tells me. “It’s part of a pattern of deception.”
Behind the scenes, he says, House Republicans are frustrated by the White House’s evasiveness, and the calls for impeachment will likely increase.
Chaffetz acknowledges that House speaker John Boehner is wary of moving too swiftly against the president, but the brash, 46-year-old conservative is tired of waiting for answers. He’s ready to issue subpoenas and schedule more hearings.
His chief concern is that the White House, which he says is staffed by “self-preservationists,” seems to be hiding documents related to the attack and the president’s decisions, in order to protect the administration from scrutiny.
“They’ve released 100 e-mails, but there are thousands of documents that we still need to see,” he says. “The truth gets colder as time goes on, so we need to stay vigilant.”
“Now, the speaker has more patience than I do,” Chaffetz says. “He has told me to be patient, that the truth will eventually surface. But I’m not a patient person, and if this administration makes us do this the hard way, that’s what we’ll do.”
Chaffetz’s tension with the White House has been building for months, ever since he took a fact-finding trip to Libya last October, less than a month after the terrorist attack. During that visit, he huddled with several U.S. diplomats, including Gregory Hicks, a former deputy chief of the Libya mission.
But the heavy-handed tactics of the president’s advisers, he complains, sullied his investigation from the start. He worries that allies of Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton have inappropriately pressured his sources — and restricted his access. “They’ve obstructed me from doing my congressional duty,” he says. “When I went over there, a State Department babysitter intimidated me and many others.”
“The State Department had people watching my every move,” he recalls. “But even as they watched me like a hawk, I was able to see how ill-prepared the embassy was for an attack. There were walls that weren’t very tall, and trees that could be climbed. One of the walls was so low that some people were able to prop up a ladder to dump trash on our embassy’s grounds. I asked one of my guides why that was allowed, and he shook his head and said, ‘Well, I guess we just didn’t want to offend the neighbors.’”
But the worst part of the journey, Chaffetz says, was having State Department lawyer Jeremy Freeman along, shadowing him through every meeting. Hicks and other U.S. diplomats, he says, were effectively muzzled by his presence. “And at one point, Hicks had to leave a meeting, only to be chastised over the phone by Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s top adviser,” he says. “It was unsettling — to see, up close, the depths to which Secretary Clinton was willing to go to manipulate the process.”
Chaffetz says he has relayed these stories to his Republican colleagues, especially after Hicks testified before the House oversight committee earlier this month. Chaffetz says the conversations about his experiences have stirred unease, and he expects members to press the White House for details on how officials may have obstructed Congress.
“The White House likes to say that our questions are a political sideshow, but it seems like it was their politics that caused a lot of the problems,” Chaffetz says. “Hicks testified about being suppressed from saying much to me during my trip, so it’s not like we’re running roughshod.”
Over the weekend, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer appeared on the Sunday talk shows and defended the administration. When asked about the editing of national-security talking points and the president’s conduct on the night of the attack, Pfeiffer argued that the administration was engaged and acted responsibility.
Chaffetz doesn’t buy it. “This is an administration embroiled in a scandal that they created,” he says. “It’s a cover-up. I’m not saying impeachment is the end game, but it’s a possibility, especially if they keep doing little to help us learn more.”
Look for Chaffetz, the chairman of the oversight committee’s subcommittee on national security, to lead the fight for accountability as the controversy — and talk of impeachment proceedings — escalates.
In the meantime, he’s trying to get back to Libya.
“Unless you go out there and kick the tires, you’ll never really get the proper perspective,” he says. “I’ve been kicking them for a while, but this is only the beginning. I’m going to spend months finding out the truth, and do whatever it takes.”