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Chaffetz says Bears Ears was first topic in meeting with Trump



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SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz said the effort by state leaders to overturn the Bears Ears National Monument designation was at the top of his list when he met with President Donald Trump in the White House on Tuesday.

"I took this unique opportunity when meeting with the president to bring it up as subject No. 1," Chaffetz said in a conference call with Utah reporters after the half-hour meeting.

Trump did not indicate whether he will rescind the monument designation made by President Barack Obama shortly before leaving office, the Utah Republican congressman said.

"He was more in the receiving mode. I think he was very sympathetic to the hardship that it creates for Utah," Chaffetz said. "It was obvious that he had heard about it previously."

What wasn't on the table, Chaffetz said, was any issue related to his role as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Trump made that clear, he said, "before my bum even hit the chair."

Chaffetz said he did not push back because that was not the purpose of the meeting. He said it was set up by Trump after they ran into each other recently. Then, Chaffetz said, Trump encouraged him to "do what you need to do. Do your job."

Although Democrats on the committee have called for an investigation into Trump's business dealings, nothing dealing with the new president is on a list of 43 potential inquiries put together by Chaffetz.

But Chaffetz, who has made it clear the committee will continue to go after the Democrat who lost the presidential election, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has raised questions about Trump's hotel in Washington, D.C.

Chaffetz said he does not need answers from the president.

"Questions really need to go to (the General Services Administration). It’s their contract. So I want to get their opinion, and if they think it’s a problem and if they have any ideas on how to deal with it," he said. "Maybe the answer is nothing."

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Chaffetz has said he wants to see an "unredacted" version of Trump's lease with the federal government for the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue for the hotel, a possible violation of prohibitions against elected officials from such deals.

Politico reported Chaffetz told reporters he has received the "500-plus page contract" and is reviewing it to clarify the situation. He indicated he hasn't found answers to his questions about the arrangement.

"A lot of it's just basic template type of stuff. But we'll see," he said, according to Politico. "His being both the landlord and the tenant is something we're curious as to what the GSA's opinion of that is."

As he entered the Oval Office for the meeting, Chaffetz said he passed along a letter from Utah's congressional delegation opposing the Bears Ears National Monument, as well as a copy of the resolution passed last week by the Utah Legislature.

The letter from the all-GOP delegation states that although no president has rescinded a monument designation, "what can be done by presidential action can be undone by presidential action."

Calling Bears Ears is "uniquely offensive" and warning that future administrations could restrict access to the land, the letter said the designation "warrants use of this heretofore-dormant authority."

The backers of the resolution calling for the new president to rescind the monument designation that set aside 1.35 million acres in San Juan County said it had to be dealt with quickly by lawmakers to get it before Trump.

Chaffetz said he does not believe the White House needs more information on Bears Ears. Supporters of the new monument, who turned out to oppose the resolution, are also expected to contact the new Republican administration.

For opponents of the new monument, Chaffetz said it's up to the state's congressional delegation and Gov. Gary Herbert to continue making what he called a "very compelling" case.

Trump was told that not a single representative of the monument area supports it, Chaffetz said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has said he spoke with the president about Bears Ears during Trump's first week in office. Hatch said at the time that he raised the issue because "changes to a national monument have to come from the president.

Chaffetz and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, had tried get their Public Lands Initiative through Congress that would have made portions of Bears Ears conservation areas with less restrictions on land management.

The president and Chaffetz spent about five minutes on Bears Ears before moving on to other topics, the congressman said, including the question of whether sales taxes should be collected on all online purchases.

Trump "really did sympathize with retailers who are struggling because of the disparity in their state," Chaffetz said.

His own bill attempting to create parity between online and brick and mortar retailers has not advanced in Congress.

The discussion of Bears Ears at the meeting between Chaffetz and Trump drew a sharp response from the Center for Western Priorities, which had praised the designation of Bears Ears as the only remaining option available to protect the land.

The center's advocacy director, Jesse Prentice-Dunn, cited last week's decision by Chaffetz to withdraw a bill that would have transferred federally owned land back to several states, including Utah, amid a backlash from hunters and fishermen.

Chaffetz clearly "didn't get the message," Prentice-Dunn said. "When will Rep. Chaffetz realize that America’s public lands are an asset that drives a powerful outdoor economy, not a punching bag?”

The Senate sponsor of the Legislature's Bears Ears resolution, Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the discussion between Chaffetz and Trump on the issue was "encouraging. And I'm glad it got such quick attention."

Niederhauser said he expects Trump to now talk about the monument with others in his administration.

"We'll keep our fingers crossed," he said.

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Lisa Riley Roche

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