BRANCHBURG, N.J.— Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) faced a record crowd at a town hall meeting Wednesday night where audience members pressed him to urge President Trump to release his tax returns and investigate Russia’s interference in U.S. elections.
In what his office said was the largest turnout of his congressional career, more than 900 people were packed in a community college auditorium, the largest such space in his district, and an overflow room was filled with another 250 people. More than 350 protesters gathered outside.
“I believe those in the audience were constituents,” Lance said afterward. “I don’t believe they were paid.”
Lance faced countless hecklers shouting “Do your job!” and “Answer the question!” Audience members rose to their feet when demanding that Trump release his tax returns, and for Lance and all other politicians to “put country before party.”
In the end, Lance said he felt that “the vast majority tried to listen to my responses.”
Among Lance’s most pointed answers were his response to calls for Trump to release his tax returns — “I urge him to do so,” Lance said — and his stance that he wants to maintain, and possibly increase, sanctions against Russia.
Speaking of Trump’s taxes, however, Lance added, “I don’t like overreach from Congress” and said he did not support the House Ways and Means Committee investigating “returns of a private individual.” To which the crowds responded angrily: “He’s the president! He’s a public individual!”
Four of 15 questions — a surprising number, Lance said — touched on Russian interference in U.S. elections and hacking.
“I am very suspicious of the Russian government, and I share the views of the secretary of defense and of General McMaster, who was just appointed the national security adviser,” Lance said, adding that he felt Trump’s appointment of H.R. McMaster was “a significant step in the right direction.” Lance also said he supports U.N ambassador Nikki Haley, and that he hopes the president will listen to all the appointees. “I hope the president will follow the advice that he receives,” he said.
“My views are that Russia is not a friend of the United States, and that Vladimir Putin has been a bad actor on the world stage,” Lance told the crowd.
During last year’s presidential election campaign, Lance criticized Trump’s comments about women in an “Access Hollywood” video as “offensive and vulgar,” but still supported him as the GOP nominee in November, saying, “While no one would confuse my personality with his, Donald Trump will have my enthusiastic support for president against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.”
Since the election, Lance has moved to distance himself in some ways from the president’s actions. He was the first House Republican from New Jersey to publicly criticize the president’s immigration order barring visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, calling it “rushed and poorly implemented.” Last week, Lance co-sponsored the Russia Sanctions Review Act, which would mandate congressional approval before the United States could lift any sanctions on Russia. Lance also announced support for a bipartisan investigation into Russian actions by the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Lance also has taken issue with the costs of protecting the president during visits to Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, which is in Lance’s district. He has asked the Department of Justice to issue grants for local police who assist the Secret Service, saying that future Trump visits “could be a considerable financial burden for Bedminster Township.”
Wednesday’s event, which was Lance’s 41st in-person town hall, lasted 90 minutes. Constituents asked him about the Affordable Care Act, immigration, freedom of the press, local and national oil pipelines, the plans to build a wall along the Mexican border, education, gun control and oversight of the banking industry.
On environmental issues, a constituent from Readington told Lance, “All of us feel betrayed because you have flip-flopped on the environment. Pick a position!”
Lance responded that he believes that climate change exists and that he did vote for cap-and-trade, but would not vote for it again because he believed the Obama administration had done a poor job of negotiations with China during environmental talks in Copenhagen and Paris.
Lance added that he favors tax credits for “cleaner forms of energy” including wind and solar, but also supports plans to help coal workers. “We have to make sure that American workers have employment opportunities,” Lance said.
On building a wall along the Mexico border, Lance said he does not believe it is necessary to build a wall along the entire border. The $20 billion price tag for such enhancements is “far too much” and could face congressional opposition, he said.
On immigration, a constituent from Bethlehem Township asked if Lance would publicly condemn any discriminatory travel bans based on religion or country of origin. Lance answered that he hopes the president’s new executive order, expected next week, will be “much more narrowly tailored.” The Trump administration’s original order on the travel ban was stayed by federal courts.
“I favor letting refugees in this country so long as they are fully vetted,” Lance said. “I believe that it is a matter of national security.”
The final question of the night came from a Bridgewater resident who asked about freedom of the press and about why the GOP has failed to push back against Trump when he utters falsehoods or accuses the media of publishing fake news.
“I favor a free and unfettered press,” Lance said, a response that erupted in the evening’s only chant: “Push back!” the crowd shouted repeatedly. “Push back!”
On the Affordable Care Act, Lance said he favors repairing the existing law because the health-care exchanges, in his opinion, are not doing well. “I do not favor repeal without there being a replacement in place,” he said.
Democrats have targeted Lance’s seat for 2018, because while Lance won the district handily, voters here also swung for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. Lance stated several times Wednesday night that his views have always been his own and that he plans to continue along that path.
Lance is a longtime political presence in New Jersey. First elected to the U.S. Congress in 2008, he previously served in the state Senate and Assembly, beginning in 1991.