GARNER, Iowa — When a voter here asked whether Sen. Charles E. Grassley supports a probe of President Trump’s tax returns, the Republican gave a qualified “yes.” In Virginia, asked about Russian interference in the presidential election, Rep. David Brat said an investigator should “follow the rule of law wherever it leads.” And in Arkansas, Sen. Tom Cotton told 1,400 people sardined into a high school auditorium that the Affordable Care Act “has helped Arkansans.”
This week’s congressional town halls have repeatedly found Republicans hedging their support for the new president’s agenda — and in many cases contradicting their past statements. Hostile questions put them on record criticizing some of the fights Trump has picked or pledging to protect policies such as the more popular elements of Obamacare. And voters got it all on tape, promising to keep hounding their lawmakers if they falter.
“There’s more of a consensus among Republicans now that you’ve got to be more cautious with what you’re going to do,” Grassley said after an event here, referring to efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. “That didn’t mean much to me in November and December. But it means a lot now.”
No Republican could say that the raucous town halls surprised them. Since December, a growing number of liberal organizations and activists have shared strategies for getting public answers from members of Congress. More than a thousand local groups have been founded to organize around the Indivisible Guide, an organizational how-to manual drafted by former Democratic staffers. And thousands of Trump detractors — whether inspired by organized social-media efforts or there of their own volition — have shown up at town halls in their districts.
At the town halls, some activists have followed Indivisible advice, spreading themselves around the rooms to avoid looking like a clique, holding up signs with simple messages such as “Disagree” and synchronizing their chants.
The efficiency of the protests has led some of their targets, including Trump, to question their legitimacy.
“The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
Coverage of the town halls in conservative media has largely focused on the role of liberal groups in organizing the protests, or the role of the Barack Obama-founded Organizing for America in promoting the Indivisible Guide.
“Obama told them to get in our faces,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners of his radio show on Wednesday. “Well, they’re in our faces now, and how’s it working out? People are starting to get tired of it.”
A number of Republicans have refused to hold town halls — and courted ridicule. In California, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, local Indivisible groups held “empty-chair town halls” where activists could meet — and note the absence of their legislators.
In Pennsylvania, activists propped up an empty suit to symbolize Sen. Patrick J. Toomey; in other states, following the guide, they posted dummy “Have You Seen Me?” ads. In New York, they derided Rep. Elise Stefanik for canceling town halls just a week after publishing a report, titled “Millennials & the GOP,” urging more members of Congress to hold them.
“It is unfortunate and counterproductive that a small number of activists believe the best way to address the very serious issues facing our country is to hijack and ambush community events for the sole purpose of political theater,” Stefanik wrote on Facebook.
It’s true that organization has boosted attendance at town halls.
“If you’ve got a personal connection to what this member of Congress is trying to do, you’ve got a great story to tell and a lot of legitimacy to ask that question,” Indivisible Guide co-
author Ezra Levin said Sunday night on a conference call that more than 30,000 people dialed in to hear. “It’s really important to be polite, but don’t be scared of being firm.”
One lawmaker, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), issued a statement this week blaming his decision not to hold a town hall in person on “the threat of violence at town hall meetings.” He pointed to a specific violent event to bolster his case, invoking the 2011 shooting that severely injured then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, and killed six others.
The former congresswoman responded Thursday, and she made clear that she does not agree with lawmakers shying away from meeting with members of the public. “To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage,” Giffords said in a statement. “Face your constituents. Hold town halls.”
Other Republicans who held public events this week have pushed back against Trump’s characterization of protests and his attack on the media as an “enemy” of Americans.
“No American is another American’s enemy,” Cotton said Wednesday night. He also said: “I don’t care if anybody here is paid or not. You’re all Arkansans.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) tweeted Tuesday, referring to the protesters: “They are our fellow Americans with legitimate concerns. We need to stop acting so fragile.”
Although the National Republican Congressional Committee warned of possible violence at town halls, this week’s events have been peaceful. The harshest treatment has been loud heckling at answers attendees have not liked, for instance when lawmakers struggled to defend the new secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, or to provide details on how the Affordable Care Act could be replaced.
In Iowa, Grassley was booed over his vote for DeVos, and he defended it only by saying that a president deserved to pick his Cabinet. In Louisiana, Sen. Bill Cassidy was laughed at for saying he had not stayed for the entire DeVos hearing.
Cassidy, a doctor, is the author of an ACA replacement bill that Republicans such as Grassley have tentatively endorsed. It would allow states to keep the structure of the ACA, including its Medicaid expansion, even if other states opted out.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, has derided that solution. “If you like your Obamacare, you can keep your Obamacare,” is how Meadows described it — a wry reference to an Obama pledge about individual plans that was belied when the ACA went into effect.
The Republicans who’ve emerged from town halls with fewer bruises had already promised to save major portions of the law. Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.), one of 23 Republicans whose districts voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump, told an audience Wednesday night that he would go for a replacement plan only if it saved popular parts of the ACA.
“I do not favor repeal without there being a replacement in place,” he said. Instead, he explained to a patient crowd that he wants to protect coverage for people with preexisting conditions, allow people under 26 to remain on their parents’ plans and ensure no lifetime caps on coverage. “I want to assure the public that the majority in each house of the present Congress, I believe, will make sure these provisions continue,” he said.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a staunch Trump supporter from a deep red district, told constituents Wednesday that “preexisting conditions and 26-year-olds were the two Republican provisions that made it into the bill” and would obviously be part of a replacement.
But in 2009, it was Democrats, not Republicans, who introduced those provisions of the ACA. The replacement framework from Republican leadership promises “continuous coverage” for people with preexisting conditions and also current health-care plans; only the Cassidy plan, co-sponsored by moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and derided by conservatives, goes further.
Republicans have also struggled to answer constituents who took advantage of the ACA provision that allowed states to expand Medicaid to some people over the poverty line. In Cotton’s state, where a Republican-run government has maintained a version of the expansion called “Arkansas Works,” more than 300,000 people are estimated to have received coverage since the ACA went into effect.
Those results, and the stakes of repeal, were less clear when Cotton won his seat. The ACA, he said during a town hall meeting in 2014, was “nothing but a churn operation designed to grow the power of the federal government.” That year, he defeated an incumbent Democrat by 17 points.
Kim Kavin in Branchburg, N.J., and Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, a quote from Rep. Leonard Lance on repealing the Affordable Care Act appeared in two places, potentially making it seem the statement was from Rep. Mark Meadows. Also, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey was misidentified as a member of the House. This version has been corrected.