The Lawmaker Behind the Secret Service Resignation

Jason Chaffetz wants to be the next chairman of the House Oversight Committee. The Secret Service may have just clinched the job for him.

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Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, listens to testimony at a congressional hearing.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, listens to testimony at a congressional hearing.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jason Chaffetz was going to give Secret Service Director Julia Pierson a chance to acknowledge an unknown security breach related to President Barack Obama.

The incident had not yet been reported, but the congressman had been tipped to its existence by whistleblowers, according to an aide with direct knowledge of the matter. Chaffetz asked Pierson if she advised the president when his security had been breached. "100 percent of the time," Pierson responded

How many times has that occurred in 2014? Just once, Pierson responded, following the September 19 fence jumping incident. 

Hours later, the news broke:  Three days before the fence-jumping incident, Obama had been inside an elevator with an armed, convicted felon, unbeknownst to his Secret Service detail. Lawmakers were outraged. Chaffetz took to Fox News say Pierson should resign. On Wednesday, she did.

In announcing Pierson's departure, the White House acknowledged that the President hadn't known about the elevator incident until Tuesday — hours after Chaffetz's questioning began to pry open another angle in a Washington scandal that toppled an agency director in breathtakingly swift fashion.

"Director Pierson’s resignation is a matter of national security and I am pleased she is stepping down," Chaffetz said in a statement. "The position should be filled immediately by new leadership from outside the Secret Service for a fresh start.

Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, is ambitious, a mix of show horse and work horse. Throughout three terms in the House, he's kept an eye on what's next for him. With the Secret Service investigation, Chaffetz appears to have hit the trifecta — a substantive, seemingly apolitical probe that could have major implications for his future on the committee.

That's good news for Chaffetz, who wants to be the next chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It's no secret — he's made his ambition clear, given interviews on what his term atop the committee would look like, worked to distinguish  himself from current chairman Darrell Issa and the other candidates. 

He's even traded district trips with Representative Elijah Cummings, the staunch Obama defender, Issa sparring partner and top Democrat on the Oversight committee. Chaffetz made the short trip north to Cummings's Baltimore district in June. In August, Cummings made the trip out to Chaffetz's decidedly different eastern Utah district.

So if one wanted to take a cynical view to Chaffetz's lead role in investigating the Secret Service and his overt concern for the safety of a president he has so strenuously disagreed with, there is fertile ground to make the case:

Yet it was Cummings, not Chaffetz's fellow Republicans, who appeared to be the first lawmaker after Chaffetz to say it was time for Pierson to step down. (He later walked that back on Twitter.) 

Chaffetz came to Congress in 2009 after unseating a six-term Republican congressman in a primary. Fiscal conservatism was central to his platform -- he ran his campaign without a paid staff. In some ways Chaffetz was a forerunner to a trend that has roiled the GOP since 2010: intraparty primary battles in which Republicans are challenged from the right. 

Yet Chaffetz resists pigeon-holing. A former placekicker on the Brigham Young University football team, Chaffetz served as a state co-chairman of Democrat Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign (it was because of a family connection, not politics.) He's conservative, but doesn't walk in lockstep with the far right of the House Republican conference. He supported Mitt Romney for in 2012 for president and was a constant presence on his campaign during the fierce Republican primary.

He's attacked the Obama administration for failures in the lead up, during and after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and on the targeting of political groups by the Internal Revenue Service. But has gone to great lengths to establish and maintain ties with Cummings.  

Chaffetz first took interest in the Secret Service in in 2012, when reports started to trickle out about a prostitution scandal in Cartagena, Colombia. Ultimately nine agents were dismissed, but Chaffetz thought he had found something that went deeper, according to an aide. In short order, whistleblowers began making their way to the committee and, at times, to him personally, the aide said.

Along with Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, Chaffetz began to hone in on the culture of the agency. Throughout he had the support of  Issa, who had taken a keen interest in the agency's operations after two party crashers snuck into the 2009 State Dinner for the Indian prime minister. 

By last month, Chaffetz's office had zeroed in on a 2011 shooting that resulted in at least seven bullets hitting the south side of the White House. It wasn't until four days later that the Secret Service realized shots had hit the White House.   

He requested a detailed briefing of the agency's activities before, during and after the incident. 

"There were two people on different shuttle vans who reported that they saw somebody firing a weapon at the White House," Chaffetz said during Tuesday's hearing. "Blocks away, moments later, somebody crashes a vehicle, an assault rifle is in there and the Secret Service is on the scene and nobody ties those two together. I don't understand that." 

Skepticism about Chaffetz's motivations exists, as the White House and Pierson herself suggested Tuesday.  Asked about a Washington Post story that reported on the 2011 shooting and the agency's failures, Pierson quickly pointed out that shortly before the story ran, her agency had given Chaffetz's office the detailed briefing on the matter. (A Chaffetz aide said that news organizations are likely hearing from the same whistleblowers as the committee.)

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday out that most of the most damning reports about the agency were provided to Congress before they reached the media. 

"It's no surprise to anybody in this room and certainly doesn't surprise anybody at the White House that information that is relayed to members of Congress would A) possibly leak out to interested reporters or B) uses information that is then compiled into questions that are asked of the director," Earnest told reporters. 

Regardless of where the information was coming from, it undercut the agency in the lead up to the hearing and, most notably in its wake. 

The Washington Post and Washington Examiner broke the news of Obama's elevator ride with the armed individual in Atlanta. It was later confirmed by the Secret Service. Coming just a few hours after a hearing that had been focused on the September 19 incident where an individual, later identified as Omar J. Gonzalez, scaled the White House fence and made it deep inside the White House, lawmakers responded sharply.

"I was led to believe that the only breach of the president's security was the Gonzalez fence jumping incident," said Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat on the panel.  "I feel like the committee was misled."

Earnest on Wednesday made an even more stunning disclosure: The agency simply had not informed the White House staff, or the president. 

"The White House first learned about the incident yesterday afternoon shortly before it was reported," Earnest told reporters. 

Chaffetz called for two things in the wake of the latest revelations: an independent investigation and Pierson's resignation. He got both. The Homeland Security Department announced plans to establish the first in the same release it announced the second. 

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