Trump criticism dominates Chuck Grassley town meeting in rural Iowa

Jason Noble
The Des Moines Register

LOGAN, Ia. — U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley faced relentless questioning about President Donald Trump’s fitness for office and his own handling of the investigation into Russian election meddling at a rural town meeting here Friday morning.

Amid a smattering of questions about trucking regulations, homeopathic medicine and pension security, a steady stream of attendees pressed Grassley to defend his handling of the ongoing Russia investigation and to offer his views on Trump’s conduct on the job.

“Are you not personally concerned about his fitness to serve? If not, why not? Because I’m very concerned,” Mary Mikels, a retired 67-year-old from nearby Portsmouth, asked Grassley.

Grassley deflected that question, saying he wasn’t qualified to make a psychiatric assessment, but Mikels persisted.

Sen. Chuck Grassley R-Iowa holds a town meeting in Logan Iowa Friday, Jan. 12, 2018.

“He gets on Twitter and says the last thing that Fox News told him to say,” she said. “That’s not presidential. It’s concerning. Are you personally concerned?”

“I have a job to do,” Grassley replied. “I’m not president of the United States. I’m a check on the president of the United States. That’s my constitutional responsibility. I’m going to do what I can under our constitution to make sure that nothing bad happens to our country.”

The event, Grassley’s first public town meeting on his annual tour of all 99 Iowa counties, drew about 50 people to the community center in the town of about 1,500, the Harrison County seat.

It was a striking scene, not least because of where it was playing out: in a rural western Iowa county where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two-to-one and where Trump carried 65 percent of the vote in 2016.

And in contrast to the crowds that packed into lawmakers’ town meetings last year, the anti-Trump contingent was not obviously organized. There were no young clipboard-carrying organizers from political groups, and none of the attendees carried the red-and-green agree-disagree signs made famous by the liberal Indivisible movement. They appeared, by and large, to be from Logan and the small communities immediately surrounding.

Sheila Ryan, a 72-year-old nurse from Underwood, challenged Grassley for “sliding” on the Russia investigation. Grassley, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is overseeing one of several congressional inquiries into how Russia meddled in the 2016 election and whether there was collusion between Russian interests and the Trump campaign.

“I think you’re protecting the president and protecting his game about shifting the attention away from Russia,” Ryan said, noting Grassley’s call for a criminal investigation into a private investigator who compiled a now-famous dossier on Trump.

Grassley replied with a narrow explanation of his rationale for referring investigator Christopher Steele to the FBI.

The conversation wasn’t one-sided, however.

Heather Nejedly of Pisgah caught Grassley’s attention, stood and said: “I just love our wonderful President Trump,” drawing a chorus of mocking laughter mixed with sincere applause.

“I just think we’ve all got to come together,” Nejedly said, turning to Mikels and others. “You know, I don’t know you, I don’t know you, but don’t hate so much. We’ve got to come together and stop hating so much.”

“We’re not hating. It’s not that we hate Trump,” replied Pat Crosley, 67, a home-school teacher from Kimballton who brought her two children to the meeting as a field trip. “We are recognizing behavior that’s not normal. We’re not psychiatrists, but we can see abnormal behavior when we see it.”

Grassley largely remained above the fray, answering specific questions as they were asked of him but declining to engage in the more open-ended critiques of his conduct or the president’s behavior.

The senator will hold a second public meeting Saturday morning in Sac City. Iowa’s junior senator, Joni Ernst, is also kicking off her statewide tour this weekend with events Sunday in Red Oak and Monday in Boone.

Response to vulgar remark

Also on Friday, Grassley responded to comments made by Trump on Thursday in which he questioned why the United States allows immigration from "shithole countries." He was referring to Haiti, El Salvador and places in Africa.

“I think it detracts from the very important issue we’ve got to get solved by March 5,” Grassley said, referencing the deadline by which Congress must act to preserve protections for immigrants who were brought to the country as minors. “I think, generally speaking, that you’re better to keep to the issues, don’t do anything to detract from the issues and, bottom line, all people ought to be treated with respect.”