In Iowa, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley told reporters on Tuesday that “it’s all legitimate,” as he too faced questioning at town halls over the fate of the healthcare law. “If Hillary Clinton had been elected president, there’d be people from the conservative end of the spectrum [who would] probably be doing the same thing.”
Those acknowledgements might not be enough to allay the fears of people worried that they might lose health coverage if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. But they mark a contrast with the way the White House has characterized the protest and agitation taking place, and also appear to be a departure from how some Republican lawmakers talked about the activism at town halls when they first started generating national headlines earlier this month.
After video footage of an agitated crowd in Utah chanting “Do your job!” at House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz went viral, the GOP congressman went on the defensive. Suggesting that people at his town hall were not acting in good faith, Chaffetz said that what happened was “bullying and an attempt at intimidation.” The Deseret News reported that Chaffetz claimed that the protestors “included people brought in from other states to disrupt the meeting.”
The White House has also attempted to downplay the crowds. During a press conference last week, President Trump seemed to dismiss protesters by arguing that they aren’t residents of the lawmakers’ districts. “They fill up our rallies with people that you wonder how they get there, but they’re not the Republican people that our representatives are representing,” he said. On Tuesday, he tweeted: “The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numbers cases, planned out by liberal activists.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged during a press briefing earlier this week that “some people are clearly upset,” but similarly suggested the activism may not accurately reflect the sentiment of the lawmakers’ constituents. “There is a bit of professional protestor, manufactured base in there,” he said. “It is a loud, small group of people, disrupting something in many cases for media attention.”
In states across the country, liberal activists are taking a page out of the Tea Party playbook to help organize turnout at town hall events. Some of those activists are following guidelines that draw inspiration from Tea Party tactics as a way to put pressure on members of Congress and generate headlines, explicitly recommending that activists “reach out to media, during and after the town hall.” Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean the people voicing concern at town halls are exclusively liberal activists. CNN’s Eric Bradner and MJ Lee, meanwhile, have reported that there’s “no evidence” of paid protesters.