The town halls trying to tackle Trump's agenda

By Rajini Vaidyanathan
BBC News, Iowa

Media caption,
US "at boiling point": Town halls target Trump's agenda

Republican politicians are returning to their home districts to a barrage of criticism, as many constituents demand to know how they'll hold President Trump to account.

There's never a good time to talk politics, but democracy starts early in the state of Iowa.

By 7:30 am, as the morning fog was still lifting and the sun was starting to appear, the meeting room in the Iowa Falls Fire department was already at full capacity.

A few hundred people had travelled from across the state to attend a town hall meeting, filling every chair and corner, and spilling into the hallway.

Town halls are traditionally a forum for constituents to discuss their concerns with elected officials, face to face.

But in the Trump era, they've taken on a new purpose - with many aggrieved voters seeing them as a way to put pressure on President Trump, by ensuring their members of Congress hold him to account.

Republican officials across the country have found themselves on the receiving end of questions and demands from voters.

Media caption,
Angry protesters harangue Republicans over Trump

Many, but not all, of those attending are Democrats, some from progressive groups who are organising around these events to ensure people show up.

But others are simply frustrated residents, who want their voices heard. All are represented by Senator Chuck Grassley.

The vast majority of the crowd at the fire station was older, in their fifties or above. Some of them came with handwritten protest signs, others clutched pieces of paper with their questions written on them.

"I'm new at this," a woman named Ingrid told me. She said Trump's victory made her angry.

"I felt I had to come. I'm hoping our voices get larger and that we can make sure Republicans don't just vote along party lines and listen to their constituents."

And listen is exactly what Senator Grassley did, even if some felt he didn't quite answer all of their concerns.

As the seven-term senator entered the room, he began by asking the group which topics they'd like to cover.

As hands flew in the air, and people jostled for his attention, a range of topics were raised - everything from Russia to guns, healthcare to education.

Image source, Getty Images

Senator Grassley wrote the questions down in a small notebook, promising to answer them in the order they were asked.

A large majority of questions were about President Obama's healthcare law - the Affordable Care Act.

The questions on this were impassioned, as people talked of their personal experiences of Obamacare, and their fears they could lose coverage under a Trump presidency.

One elderly man attended on behalf of a friend whose son was seriously ill. He told the senator of how "his parents will probably have to face bankruptcy just as they face retirement".

Other testimonies reflected the extent people here rely on government subsidised health insurance.

"I'm on Obamacare, if it wasn't for Obamacare we wouldn't be able to afford insurance," said Chris Petersen, an insulin dependent diabetic who runs a farm more than an hour away.

"I got a present for you," he told the senator, as he held up a box of Tums, a medicine used to relieve heartburn, "you're going to need them in the next few years."

When a bespectacled man in a grey sweater asked a question about the national debt, things got testy.

As Senator Grassley answered referencing President Trump's taxation plans people began to heckle.

"Raise Trump's taxes," yelled a man at the back of the room.

"Everything is going to a pittance," shouted a woman.

As she did the questioner got angry.

"I asked him, not you, so shut your hole," he said, as he jabbed his finger in her direction.

At other times the mood in the room was calmer.

When Zalmay Naizy, an Afghan who'd been an interpreter for the US army, asked a question, the room fell near silent.

"I'm a Muslim in this country, who's going to save me here?

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Senator Grassley is one of many Republicans facing angry questions at town hall meetings

"I've been shot two times, I've been roadside bombed once, nobody cares about me. But I was with the US."

The room erupted in cheers, and while the senator didn't address his question right away, choosing to move onto another question about trade deals, he returned to it later, promising to help Zalmay, as he stood by his side.

This town hall was held in a county which voted for Donald Trump by a large margin.

Senator Grassley prides himself on holding meetings in every county in the state every year through his "99 county" pledge, but not all are town halls. He's faced criticism for holding most of those in solidly Republican areas.

The event at the fire station was one of two on the same day. Later, in the basement of the Hancock County Sheriff's jail, another crowd gathered.

Once again many were waiting outside as the room was at capacity. The mood was tense.

"I want impeachment," shouted one man from the back.

"Why are you against government healthcare, but take it yourself?" asked another.

Obamacare dominated the agenda here too, with more personal stories.

There was the mother, a former Republican voter, who was concerned about losing healthcare for her son who has disabilities. The veteran worried about treatment of the military.

And Jamet, an immigrant from Chile, told the senator "we're already making this country great" and asked "How will you stand up for immigrants?"

"We need people to stand up for the ordinary working person," said Chris Petersen, the farmer with the Tums, who I'd met at the first town hall.

His sentiment is not that different to the views of Donald Trump supporters, who told me during the campaign time and time again, that politicians don't represent them.

Image caption,
Chris Petersen offered Grassley antacids

Some who voted for him were at Senator Grassley's town halls, in a show of solidarity. Jim Carson accused Democrats at the events of "trying to obstruct the good policies of Mr Trump."

When I asked Senator Grassley if the anger expressed at the town halls would mean he was more likely to confront the president over his agenda, he told me the focus for him was taking these concerns back to his colleagues on capitol hill.

"I don't think you should see it as challenging Trump I think you should see it as Congress doing its job and the president doing his job."

It was a popular grassroots movement that helped sow the seeds of a Trump presidency, now another is trying to challenge it.

For some voters, the only way to get to President Trump is by applying pressure on congress. Senators like Chuck Grassley have to balance their support for the Republican agenda, with the grievances of the voters who keep them in office.

Even a small number of people attending town halls can be enough to keep elected officials on edge.

These scenes we are seeing at these meetings across America are reminiscent of the early days of the Obama administration, when conservatives attended packed town halls to lobby their congressional representatives on healthcare, in what became known as the Tea Party movement.

"America is starting to boil," Chris Petersen told me as I met him afterwards at his farm.

As liberals try to exert pressure on their senators and representatives, it's clear that a new progressive movement is brewing.