Town Hall Briefing: Republicans Charge Into Resistance at Tumultuous Town Halls
As members of Congress return home during a legislative recess many Republicans are dreading, a hearty few on Saturday charged headlong into the resistance. At events across the country, lawmakers have strained to quell the boiling anger at Mr. Trump — and often, the Republican Party — after four extraordinary weeks.
The break from Capitol Hill is doubling as a real-time stress test for both pro-Trump Republicans and anti-Trump protesters — an early signal of how much latitude will be afforded to members who continue defending the president and how much venom they are willing to absorb.
Constituent descriptions of Mr. Trump were rarely kind: “huge red elephant octopus,” orange-hued “Nixon” reincarnate, and “drunk driver” at the American wheel.
“No one paid us to be here,” Amanda Taylor, 44, said before the South Carolina forum, in a rejoinder to some Republicans’ claims that agitators were being compensated to hijack their appearances. “This is our time.”
For the lawmakers, early returns were mixed. In North Harmony, N.Y., Representative Tom Reed confronted what felt like interminable jeers, navigating hostile questions about abortion rights, efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and Mr. Trump’s tax returns. The crowd at a senior center was so large that the event was moved to the parking lot outside. Chants of “Do your job!” rang out.
When he declared that the Affordable Care Act would be repealed, boos rained.
“What I have heard is passion,” Mr. Reed said. “What I have heard is democracy.”
“It’s O.K., it’s O.K., it’s O.K.,” he offered at one point. A retort came quickly: “It’s not O.K.!”
Even calling on a child offered no respite: When he turned to a young girl for a question, she asked him, pointedly, why he wanted to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. The crowd roared.
In a brief interview afterward, Mr. Reed suggested that he appreciated the feedback, to a point. “I’m a human being,” he said. “Obviously, you have a human response to it.”
In South Carolina, the twin billing of Mr. Sanford and Mr. Scott allowed for a live comparison in how to handle Trump queries. The town hall-style event was organized by Mr. Sanford’s office in conjunction with Indivisible Charleston, the local chapter of a national organization founded on the stated goal of “resisting the Trump agenda.”
The result, predictably, was a tough room, particularly for Mr. Scott, a late addition to the gathering and a Republican less willing than Mr. Sanford to criticize Mr. Trump.
“May I finish?” Mr. Scott asked repeatedly, as attendees interrupted his answers defending dismantling the Affordable Care Act.
At one point, Mr. Sanford supplied a lifeline. “Can I interject for a second?” he asked.
“Oh, please,” Mr. Scott replied.
Later, he sought to explain his support for Betsy DeVos as education secretary, assuring those gathered that he did not think he knew more about education than teachers.
“Wait, wait, I’m not done,” a teacher interjected as he spoke, berating him for failing to visit her school.
“Yes, ma’am,” the senator said.
By Saturday afternoon, perhaps only Mr. Sanford had won many new admirers, holding forth for over three hours, including two spent addressing the overflow crowd outside.
He earned cheers for challenging Mr. Trump to release his tax returns and for lamenting the administration’s embrace of “alternative facts.”
One woman sang “Big Yellow Taxi” to him, for reasons that were not entirely clear. Another said she had driven hours to see him.
“That’s a way to trash a weekend,” Mr. Sanford said.
The night before, the congressman issued a prediction of sorts.
“They’re down to watch me become a human piñata,” he said Friday evening, gesturing to two reporters trailing him in Charleston, S.C., at the Ducks Unlimited Oyster Roast and Lowcountry Cookout.
Mr. Sanford’s stop there included constituent outreach of another kind: He inhaled shrimp, grits and Miller Lite in the company of acquaintances who seemed broadly supportive of Mr. Trump. He did interrupt the glad-handing long enough to shuck oysters, greet a black Labrador retriever puppy up for sale, flash a peace sign at a banjo player and insist that a reporter buy a shotgun at auction for $20. (He declined.)
“It’s like Nascar,” Mr. Sanford said of his return to the town hall fray on Saturday morning. “They’re just waiting for the car wreck.”
There was no car wreck, precisely. Mr. Fava, the initial questioner, said Mr. Sanford “did good” in his answer. At times, people nodded to Mr. Sanford’s dissents, urging him to venture further out on a limb.
But often in Washington, he can seem like a caucus of one. In a city with a dress code, Mr. Sanford disdains formal wear. While he is not the only member of Congress to pursue an extramarital affair, he is almost certainly the first to turn “hiking the Appalachian Trail” into a euphemism for all time.
The fallout from that episode — the disappearance to Argentina to visit his mistress, the wrenching public confession upon his return, the journey from possible presidential contender to political pariah to humble congressman — appears to have left him more eager than most to sort through uncomfortable truths.
So it was on Saturday, in a moment of boiling anger on the left and skittishness among many Republican lawmakers to face their own constituents, that Mr. Sanford seemed inclined once more to embrace his inner masochist.
He slogged through questions about health care, immigration and, in at least one instance, word choice.
“Irregardless …” Mr. Sanford began, during a debate on pre-existing conditions.
“Irregardless is not a word!” a man cried.
“Regardless,” Mr. Sanford amended.
By then, about an hour after starting, Mr. Sanford had gone to address the outdoor crowd beside a football field. Mr. Scott said he had to leave to attend a funeral.
Several constituents expressed gratitude that the two had bothered to come in the first place. One young woman, greeting Mr. Scott as he left, said she hoped to pursue public service herself.
“You still want to be in government?” he asked with a smirk, motioning toward the masses.
Mr. Sanford was just getting started, and would nearly outlast his questioners.
He was asked if he still felt like a human piñata after the fact.
“I’m always a human piñata,” he said, turning to jog across a busy roadway, looking for his car.
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