Two Democratic members of Congress from Maryland holding a town hall meeting Tuesday night found a worried but much warmer audience than some of their Republican colleagues have encountered at similar gatherings.
U.S. Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Anthony G. Brown reassured constituents at the Diyanet Center of America, a mosque and cultural center in Lanham, Md., that they would be a voice of resistance against the administration of President Trump, whom they accused of unfairly targeting religious and ethnic minorities, fomenting division and transgressing American values.
Democrats are in the minority in the House and limited in what they can do to oppose the Republican legislative agenda. But Hoyer, an 18-term congressman, and Brown, a first-year lawmaker, said they hope to tap into the energy that citizens are demonstrating in protests across the country to win back seats in 2018.
“We can’t bring a bill forward . . . but that does not mean we need to be silent,” Hoyer, the House minority whip, said to an audience of more than 100 people eager to denounce a Trump executive order that sought to bar entry to the United States by citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries as well as refugees.
“What we can do is try to stop things” in the Senate, where Republicans do not hold a filibuster-proof majority, Hoyer added.
Nearly everyone who took the microphone during the three-hour event wanted Democrats to more forcefully and publicly condemn anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies they said could marginalize entire groups of people.
One by one, Marylanders posed the same question in their own words: How can they stop Trump?
The temporary ban on U.S. entry for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, a move that Brown called “outrageous and hate-based,” triggered a humiliating episode for the country and for American Muslims in particular, audience members said. Doctors and academics who are citizens of the seven countries — Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Somalia and Sudan — were briefly barred from entering, while refugees who had waited years for visas were made to wait longer to enter.
In other countries, those at the meeting said, people in general and Muslims and Latinos in particular are receiving a message that the United States is no longer a haven. One speaker, an immigrant from Libya, said it hurt him to say that Trump’s scapegoating of foreigners reminded him of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
Another man said he views a reported rise in anti-Muslim assaults as a consequence of the rhetoric coming from Trump and his advisers. A registered nurse and Senegalese immigrant who works with Medicaid patients told Hoyer and Brown that she was the “true face of a Muslim in this community.”
“The president’s message that ‘you’re not welcome’ is not America’s message,” Hoyer said. He told the gathering that most members of Congress do not support the president’s actions.
Audience members asked what they could do to get senior White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon removed from the National Security Council or keep the president from adding Saudi Arabia to the ban list. Such a move could complicate American Muslims’ pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca.
“I think we’re probably stuck with him,” Brown said about Bannon, citing the president’s wide powers to choose and organize his staff.
Corey Flintoff, the recently retired Moscow correspondent for NPR, elicited cheers when said he thought Russia is a “far greater threat to our country” than any refugee. He asked the lawmakers whether there would be a “vigorous bipartisan investigation” into Trump administration ties to the Russian government.
After jokingly labeling Flintoff an “enemy of the people,” an echo of a phrase Trump used last week to attack news organizations, Hoyer said that Democrats are doing everything in their power to pursue the matter “until we have an answer” and that they have some Republican support in that endeavor.
Those attending included Paul Fitzpatrick, who said he is a lifelong voter who became a Democratic activist a few months ago and started a chapter of the “Indivisible” protest movement in Anne Arundel County. He said the town hall meeting confirmed that Hoyer and Brown “have our backs, because we’ve got theirs.”
Julie Mair, a mother and Muslim from Anne Arundel County who is working with Fitzpatrick, said she was hoping after the meeting to feel better about the ability of the country’s institutions to place checks on Trump.
But while she said she felt more empowered, her fears were not alleviated.
“They have sympathy,” Mair said of Hoyer and Brown, who served eight years as Maryland lieutenant governor and lost a bid for governor before being elected to Congress. “But I’m concerned about their ability to do anything about it.”
Brown told the audience that hope is not a strategy, recalling a story he heard from a fellow Democrat about a freed black woman who stood in the middle of her Texas town just as a notorious Confederate cavalry unit rode in. Everyone else had fled, but the woman defended her home with only a broomstick in her hands.
An enemy soldier mocked her resistance as futile and said she couldn’t stop the oncoming troops.
“I reckon I won’t,” the woman responded, according to Brown. “But at least you’ll know where I stand.”
“And that’s what we have to do as Democrats in Congress,” Brown said. “We need your voice. . . . We can’t do it alone.”