Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, was heckled and jeered at a town hall meeting in his district on Wednesday night for initially refusing to provide microphones to constituents and then dodging several questions about his support for Donald Trump, the electoral college winner now serving as president despite losing the national popular vote.
Among the most contentious topics Cotton tried to avoid talking about was the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s protection for pre-existing conditions. When a woman who said that she would be denied coverage without that provision of the insurance law asked Cotton if he would commit to a workable replacement for Obamacare, the senator thanked her and asked for “a couple of more comments or questions about health care.”
Cotton’s attempt to move on from that emotional question was immediately interrupted by chants of “Do your job!”
The senator, who told the leaders of Iran in a 2015 letter that he could well serve for “perhaps decades,” even failed to give a straight answer to a seven-year-old boy who asked how he could support Trump’s plans to defund children’s programming on PBS — making good on a threat famously made by Mitt Romney in 2012 — just to pay for an unnecessary wall along the border with Mexico.
Cotton was praised, though, by some observers for how he handled a remark by one of his constituents, a woman who prefaced her question by referring to a conspiracy theory embraced by some Republicans to dismiss the anger at their town halls. “I’m Mary Story from Fayetteville,” the woman said, “and I am not a paid protester.”
“In response,” Cristiano Lima of Politico wrote, “Cotton, alone on stage, strove to strike a chord of unity.”
“I don’t really care if anybody here is paid or not,” Cotton said. “You’re all Arkansans and I’m glad to hear from you.”
But as the Washington Post digital opinions editor, James Downie, pointed out, Cotton’s formulation, for all its superficial politeness, was, in fact, an endorsement of the unsubstantiated myth, embraced by several Republican lawmakers, that the disgruntled Americans expressing their dismay at town halls in recent weeks must be part of an underhanded plot.
Trump himself, and his spokesman, Sean Spicer, have been the leading proponents of the effort to dismiss the concerns of unhappy citizens as being somehow illegitimate.
The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2017
One Texas Congressman, Louie Gohmert, claimed this week that he could not appear at town hall meetings because “there are groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety.” Gohmert even compared protesters upset at their health insurance being taken away to the deranged gunman who shot Gabrielle Giffords in the head in 2011, severely injuring the former Democratic Congresswoman, and killing six others, during a meeting with constituents in Arizona.
“Threats are nothing new to me,” Gohmert wrote. “However, the House Sergeant at Arms advised us after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot at a public appearance, that civilian attendees at Congressional public events stand the most chance of being harmed or killed — just as happened there.”
The meme was spread so far, despite a complete lack of evidence, that crowds have come prepared to rebut it.
When Representative Jason Chaffetz was pressed for evidence of his claim that people who attended one of his recent events were part of “a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” him, he told a reporter for The Deseret News to find it for herself.
Asked who would foot the bill to fill the audience with outside agitators, Chaffetz said, “do some reporting” and described how one participant made it a point to say he was not being paid by a national Democratic organization.
Reporters have indeed looked for but found no such evidence. However, Lisa Riley Roche of The Deseret News, did find evidence that Chaffetz had lied about protesters at his event jeering the Pledge of Allegiance. Video of the event posted on Facebook by one witness shows clearly that members of the crowd simply cheered when they got to the word “indivisible,” which is the name of a guide put together by former congressional staffers to explain how unhappy citizens can make their presence felt at town halls and “resist the Trump agenda.”