Last week, just before House Republicans cast their votes to repeal Obamacare and replace it with the inexplicably destructive American Health Care Act, the Roll Call photographer Bill Clark set his sights on the Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz had returned to Washington just to take this vote—he’d recently undergone surgery on his foot, and entered the chamber with the aid of a sleek, metallic scooter.
The photo punctuates—possibly with a story-ending period—Chaffetz’s bizarre turn on the national stage, which began last October, shortly after the infamous release of the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape that definitively unearthed Donald Trump’s boorish, violent understanding of fame and power, sublimated into sex. As the recording played again and again on cable TV, convincing the political class that Trump’s candidacy had suffered a mortal wound, Chaffetz made a morally narcissistic performance of rescinding his endorsement. “My wife and I, we have a fifteen-year-old daughter, and if I can’t look her in the eye and tell her these things, I can’t endorse this person,” he said. A few weeks later, with nary a clarifying explanation, or an apology to his kid, he declared himself a Trump voter afresh. “HRC is that bad,” he offered weakly. “HRC is bad for the USA.” HRC bad, USA good, ergo: ILU, DJT.
After Trump’s Inauguration, Chaffetz, who had been licking his chops at the prospect of questioning a President Hillary, took a conveniently lax approach to his job as House Oversight chairman. “He’s already rich,” he said in an interview, in answer to questions about Trump’s apparent conflicts of financial interest. Then, in April, following months of complaints from his constituents—including a contentious and widely YouTubed town hall, after which he whined that the voters had come to “bully and intimidate” him—he announced that he wouldn’t seek reëlection in 2018, and might even quit Congress before his term ends.
Perhaps he’s preparing for Utah’s 2020 gubernatorial race, or even a bid for the Presidency later on. More likely, he senses the danger—reputational, at least—in continuing to stand between Trump and the scrutiny he deserves. (He’s also been transparent about his desire to “enter the private sector,” as the buck-chasing euphemism goes. “I started poking around to see what I might be worth and what sort of possibilities are there,” he told Politico.) Only a week later, adding injury to incoherence, he announced that he’d be taking a monthlong leave of absence in order to undergo surgery on his foot.
All of this is a prologue to Clark’s very funny, and quickly viral, photograph. Chaffetz, summoned from his convalescence to vote, yet again, on the A.H.C.A., slides onto the House floor, his right leg strapped to his scooter. Aside from the leg, he’s as slick as ever: smoothed-back hair, red tie, dark suit. He seems to have been slightly surprised by Clark’s lens: he’s just in the middle of propping up a smile—his mouth’s turned up but his eyes are still unready for the flash.
The picture is a perfectly concise joke about his conference’s callousness vis-à-vis health-care reform. It doesn’t help that he’s framed by chandeliers, marble walls, and pristine tiles. Or that the state of his foot makes him perfect as an emblem of Republican inner confusion. The photograph has already inspired a raft of memes, and—if the Democratic social-media managers are at all smart—will probably reëmerge during the 2018 congressional midterms. Chaffetz—hollow, hobbled, half-retired—is a man coming apart, steadily dismantled by the venality of his President and the careless incoherence of his party.
Still, despite his odd few months, he looks like a gleeful child—like he’d love to give that scooter one big, galloping push with his good foot. (Or have his wife give him a boost.) The narrator of the book of Proverbs complains about sinners whose “feet run” on the way to malfeasance. Chaffetz and his colleagues do one better: they roll.