“Your last term! Your last term!” they chanted.
The senator fired back, telling the crowd that he does not and will not worry about losing his job in the 2020 election.
“Good! Good! Come on, bring it on! Bring it on!” Graham said. “If I win, fine. If I don’t, fine. But here’s what you’re going to get from me. You’re going to get somebody that tells you exactly what I believe. And to everybody in this room, it’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to be upset.”
Some GOP lawmakers have opted against holding town halls. President Trump has dismissed the “so-called angry crowds” as “liberal activists.”
Protests at town halls mirror the tea party rallies that blossomed after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Groups such as the Working Families Party, which has pledged to hold public events, including “Resist Trump Tuesdays,” and the Indivisible Guide, created by former Democratic congressional staffers to share protest tactics, have copied the tea party movement’s grass-roots strategy.
On Saturday, Graham spent close to an hour answering questions about health care, immigration changes and other issues. While he earned a few cheers and applause, he spent most of his time trying to talk over the choruses of boos.
As the crowd grew louder, so did Graham.
He talked about his views on health care: The Affordable Care Act will “collapse,” he said, and he’s not sure the Republicans’ ill-fated repeal-and-replace bill is any better. He also promised to not vote on a bill that would deny health care to someone with preexisting conditions.
He talked about the investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign: Congress should let the FBI do its job in investigating, he said.
“No politician should stand in the way … what happens, happens,” Graham added, earning light applause.
He addressed questions about Ivanka Trump’s new White House role, which would give the first daughter access to classified information.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m glad she’s there. I think she’s a pretty smart lady,” Graham said, attracting even more boos from the crowd.
At one point, a woman asked an impassioned question about President Trump’s tax returns, saying she believes those documents could provide some evidence that the president and his associates have colluded with the Russians and criticizing Graham for obstructing their release.
“I think that’s a bunch of garbage when it comes to me. I don’t think I’ve obstructed anything,” Graham responded, adding that he has openly criticized Russians for trying to interfere in the U.S. elections.
Perhaps some of the most heated exchanges were over two of Trump’s nominees: Judge Neil Gorsuch and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Graham strongly defended Gorsuch, saying that he will “enthusiastically” support Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and that filibustering him would be a “huge mistake” for Democrats.
“To everybody that boos Judge Gorsuch, you’re not persuading me at all. As a matter of fact, if you can’t understand this is a qualified nominee, then you’re not listening,” Graham said, refusing to let the boos drown him out.
The crowd grew even louder at the mention of DeVos.
When one attendee asked about DeVos’s qualifications and criticized Graham for voting to confirm the Michigan billionaire, the senator responded by not-so-subtly hinting at what he sees as the hypocrisy of fighting DeVos’s confirmation.
“Here’s the way it works, sir. The president of the United States gets to pick their Cabinet,” Graham told the attendee, then turned his attention back to the crowd. ” … All of you want Trump to be denied what comes with being president. Not all of you, some of you … When Obama wins, you want me to vote for all of his nominees because he deserves that. Now when Trump wins, you want me to say, ‘No.’”
Graham went on to praise DeVos and other members of Trump’s Cabinet. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “could not have been chosen better,” he said. He called Linda McMahon, administrator of the Small Business Administration, “a home run.”
Then, more boos. That prompted Graham to school the crowd about accepting election defeat.
“When you lose an election, you’ve got to accept the consequences of somebody else making decisions you wouldn’t like,” he said. “But you can’t understand that because you’re so upset, and let me tell you, I understand upset people. My judgment is that I would give the same deference that I gave President Obama.”
As Graham was finishing his sentence, many in the crowd stood up and raised a piece of red paper, signifying that they disagree with what the senator just said.
There were times, however, when Graham earned some cheers — such as when he said he does not believe in a “Muslim ban.” He said the xenophobic rhetoric that came out of the presidential election reinforced a false narrative that all Muslims are violent.
“In fact, most Muslims hate radical Islam more than you do because they’re the ones getting killed the most,” Graham told the crowd, many of whom raised a piece of green paper, which means they agree.
Toward the end, Graham tried to strike a more unifying tone.
“Let’s realize that the election didn’t go the way some of you wanted, and there’s another one coming,” he told the crowd. “I realize that I haven’t voted for a winning president in 12 years, but my obligations are the same to those who win the job, (and that’s) to try to help them when I can.”