At Rowdy Congressional Town Halls, Trump’s Military Moves Fly Way Under The Radar

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Over Congress’ spring recess, the news of the U.S. military launching missiles at Syria, dropping a powerful bomb in Afghanistan and escalating hostilities with North Korea has dominated headlines and blanketed the airwaves. Yet inside the rowdy town halls held by members of Congress across the country over the last two weeks, discussion about foreign policy and military action has flown under the radar as constituents largely focused on health care, the federal budget, the Supreme Court, the President’s missing tax returns, and other domestic concerns.

This disconnect, citizen activists say, has several origins: from the abstract nature of foreign policy compared to the immediacy of topics like health care, to the speed of the recent military escalation, which has caught many off-guard.

Since President Donald Trump decided on April 6 to rain down missiles on a Syrian airbase without first seeking congressional approval, only a small handful of Democratic lawmakers and even fewer Republicans have criticized the strikes. The few that did speak out—including Connecticut’s Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal—told TPM the Trump administration violated the Constitution by going around Congress, and may have blundered into a sensitive situation “based off an emotional reaction.”

Syria has come up a few times at town halls over the past week and change, but most members of both parties have said the launch of nearly 60 missiles was the right move in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of banned chemical weapons on his civilian population.

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told a town hall on Monday in San Francisco that she supported the missile strikes on Syria, she was met with hissing, booing, and shouted interruptions. As constituents called out “How many more wars?” over her measured argument for why the strikes were both lawful and justified, she became visibly frustrated.

“Well, if you believe you know more than I do about it, that’s fine,” snapped Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “You go right ahead.”

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) also received a strong negative response when he told a town hall at the University of Pittsburgh this past weekend that he “believed President Trump’s strike on Assad’s military bases was an appropriate response to the horror of the chemical attack.” According to the University’s student newspaper, Casey’s constituents largely disagreed:

Many in the room were fed up with U.S. intervention in the Middle East and saw it as yet another one of the mistakes Americans made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus disagreed with Casey’s position. Several protesters went through the room holding signs and chanting “No more war.”

Most Republicans have also voiced support for the missile strikes when asked.

“Assad is a monster,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) told nearly 1,000 people at a town hall in North Medford on Friday. “He deserves what he gets.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) told his town hall that he was “very pleased” by the missile strikes.

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) told a town hall in Clay County last week that he supports the “surgical bombing” of chemical weapons sites in Syria, but doesn’t want to “commit to an actual war.”

A man shouts at Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as she speaks during a town hall meeting with constituents Monday, April 17, 2017, in San Francisco . (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
A man shouts at Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) as she speaks during a town hall meeting with constituents Monday, April 17, 2017, in San Francisco . (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This spring recess, many members of Congress have declined to attend town halls altogether, while some have tried to limit their face time with angry constituents by holding invite-only or telephone town halls where questions are screened in advance.

Lawmakers who decided to brave open, in-person town halls have been inundated by voters concerned about the GOP’s repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the topic has by far been the dominant theme of this recess. Republicans who backed the failed health care overhaul bill have been grilled, booed, and yelled at by district residents who packed their respective town halls.

“The issue touches people’s lives in a more direct way,” Sarah Dohl with the progressive organization Indivisible, which has mobilized thousands of people to attend hundreds of town halls this year, told TPM. “Their children may be on Medicaid. Or they are able to finally get coverage with pre-existing condition. People have been going to town halls and saying in no uncertain terms: ‘Without the ACA, I’d be dead.’ Those moments are so powerful.”

Dohl credits this sustained pressure for helping to tank the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill, and says it has been difficult to mobilize the same response on Syria.

The seven suggested topics for town hall questions in Indivisible’s “Recess Toolkit” includes just one on foreign policy: Urging citizens to ask their members of Congress to demand Trump obtain congressional approval for any new military strikes and open the country’s doors to more Syrian refugees.

While the topic has come up at many town halls, says Dohl, it is usually dispensed with in one question, compared to dozens of questions at each gathering on health care and domestic spending cuts.

“It’s easier for people to relate an issue like health care and have a story to tell. The same isn’t true of an issue like Syria,” she said. “We’ve also had more time to get mobilized on things like health care, starting in the last congressional recess in February. These foreign policy issues are still very new and people are still trying to understand them and figure out what to ask their member of Congress.

Lawmakers’ town hall answers (and non-answers) on the fate of the AHCA have been met with chants of “Save our health care!” and “Do your job!” The backlash to their foreign policy stances has been more muted, though local outlets reported that Yoho and other lawmakers were heckled for their responses on Syria as well. Constituents asking why Yoho had changed his mind since opposing President Obama’s request for the authority to strike Syria following a more lethal chemical weapons attack in 2013. Yoho’s answer, that there have been “five more years of slaughter,” did not please the gathered residents.

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) faces protesters at a town hall in his district. (AP Photo)

When asked at town halls for their position on the Syrian missile strikes, only a few members of Congress have stated their opposition to Trump’s actions.

“The President must be held to the letter of the Constitution, and I believe this attack on Syria exceeded his authorities as commander in chief,” Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) told a cheering town hall in Loomis, California last week. McClintock explained that there are only a few extreme circumstances under which a President can take military action under the Constitution’s War Powers provision, and “none of those requirements were present in the attack on Syria.”

Across the country, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) shared similar views at a town hall gathering. “You don’t just get to do whatever you want as President. You are limited by the Constitution,” he said. “If the President intends to escalate the conflict, then he does need to come back to Congress, request approval, and live with the results.”

Amash acknowledged how few members of Congress are opposing the President on this issue, and urged his district to hold their feet to the fire and make their concerns known. “I don’t think [Trump] is going to receive a lot of pushback,” he said. “Certainly my colleagues are not pushing back on this first set of strikes.”

The biggest protests over the holiday weekend focused on pressuring Trump to release his tax returns. While several cities have seen anti-war demonstrations over the past few weeks, they have been far smaller than the marches over the past few months to defend the Affordable Care Act, protest Trump’s short-lived travel ban and call for women’s equality.

Nevertheless, Indivisible and other groups say the opposition to a potential new war in the Middle East is just starting to ramp up.

“These are going to become bigger themes as Congress comes back to Washington,” Dohl predicted. “We need members of Congress to get loud about their disapproval of Trump’s actions and the need for a real plan going forward. We can’t just keep bombing Syria and Afghanistan and increasing tensions with North Korea.” 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.
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