Protesters lining up at Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey’s offices have for weeks begged him to hold a public town hall to answer questions about President Donald Trump, immigration, healthcare and a litany of other issues.
And after weeks of jamming up his phone lines, fax machines and social media channels, constituents got their wish today.
The Republican senator who recently won re-election and has been facing unprecedented opposition since Trump’s inauguration held a “tele-town hall” today with constituents (presumably to avoid a Rep. Jason Chaffetz-level town hall meltdown).
Here are five takeaways from the call:
1. There was very little notice — but that didn’t seem to matter.
Despite Toomey’s office providing just an hour’s worth of notice that the town hall was happening, some 15,000 people listened in on the phone and online, Toomey said at the end of the 40-minute call. Toomey started with an opening statement and took 11 questions. And they mostly weren’t softballs!
2. He did actually take some tough questions.
Prior to the start of the call, Toomey opponents wondered on social media whether or not questions would be pre-screened or planted so the senator could avoid uncomfortable inquiries. While some of the questions and comments Toomey took were from decidedly friendly constituents, most of them were not.
The first question he took — after briefly addressing the cabinet nomination process and Trump’s “flawed” travel ban executive order roll-out — was: Why aren’t you answering your phones? (More on that later.)
Toomey took two questions about the resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn and concerns about Russia, two questions about the process of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and two comments — one positive and one negative — about the controversial confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“[DeVos] has spent decades of her life actively engaged in supporting a cause that I feel strongly about,” Toomey said, “and that is the cause of giving parents a choice in the education of their kids.”
He even took one comment from a caller criticizing the town hall itself, calling it a “cop-out.” Toomey said he’s in Washington five days a week, making it difficult to hold in-person town hall events in Pennsylvania. He also responded to a caller who asked: “Why do you insist on calling your constituents protesters?”
“Look, it’s a free country,” he said. “If they’re peaceful, they have every right to protest.”
3. Toomey’s ‘disappointed’ Trump hasn’t been more critical of Putin.
The GOP senator also addressed one caller who said she was concerned about Russia “flexing its muscles,” to which Toomey said he’s “disappointed that Trump hasn’t been more openly critical of Vladimir Putin.” However, he said he has confidence Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “fully understand” the nature of the threat.
4. Nothing’s changed on his sanctuary cities stance.
One caller identified as “Linda” from Montgomery County asked Toomey specifically about Philadelphia’s status as a sanctuary city — a policy Toomey’s aggressively taken on over the last two years. The caller said she’s from Pottstown, which has “been getting a lot of the not-so-nice population of the city moving out into our town,” and she wanted to know what Toomey will do to tamp down on sanctuary cities.
He praised Trump’s sanctuary cities executive order and touted his own legislation that would strip Philadelphia and cities like it of certain federal funding streams for failing to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
Pittsburgh hasn’t declared itself a sanctuary city, but it’s considered one in a bill under consideration in the Pa. legislature. That legislation, which passed the Pa. Senate 37-12, would withhold state funding from municipalities that fail to comply with federal detention orders. Pittsburgh stands to lose more than $9 million a year, according to an Appropriations Committee analysis.
5. He still says it’s people from outside Pa. tying up his phones.
Toomey opened the call by repeating that his phone lines have been tied up for weeks and saying “organized, orchestrated efforts to block my phone systems” have saturated his phone lines and made it difficult to take calls from Pennsylvanians and constituents. He recommended that anyone with a question or comment for Toomey’s office can do so through the “web portal” at toomey.senate.gov.
The Incline’s reporter/curator Sarah Anne Hughes contributed.