BEDFORD, Va. — The House’s impeachment inquiry, which has engulfed Washington politics and dominated national news coverage, barely got a mention at a town hall here Wednesday night hosted by Republican Reps. Ben Cline and Denver Riggleman.
The topics on constituents’ minds included an array of policy topics, such as President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada, climate change, infrastructure and immigration.
Riggleman, of Virginia’s 5th District, and Cline, who represents the 6th District, held a joint town hall because they both represent parts of Bedford County in the western part of the state.
The one person who asked the freshmen congressmen about their positions on impeachment did so in the context of how it was impacting Congress’s ability to focus on other things.
“Do you support or oppose this impeachment process that has got this country bogged down?” the questioner, whom the moderator of the event identified as William Willis, asked. “Personally I feel like that’s one of the reasons y’all can’t get anything done in the Congress, because every time you turn around there’s some other foolishness coming up.”
Willis asked the congressman if there was anything they could do about that, and Riggleman answered simply, “No.”
“It seems like at this point that there are certain individuals — and I would say on the left right now — that are putting politics over policy,” he said.
Democrats launched their impeachment inquiry two weeks ago amid allegations raised by a whistleblower that Trump used his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival to benefit his 2020 reelection campaign.
Riggleman said after reading the transcript of the phone call — in which Trump asked Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate alleged corruption involving former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter — that he felt it does not meet the threshold for impeachment.
He also said Democrats were not being transparent in their inquiry and called for them to release the transcript of a deposition the investigating committees conducted last week with former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker.
“What’s happening, if they continue down this line, they’re not going to get anything done for the American people. And that’s ridiculous,” Riggleman added.
‘A lot of politics’
Cline also said he opposes the impeachment inquiry.
“What we’ve seen in Washington is a lot of politics and very few facts,” he said.
Cline said he worked for his predecessor, former Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, when the GOP-led House impeached former President Bill Clinton. The former prosecutor expressed frustration and said the White House and the minority have not been given the same rights they had during that process, such as subpoena power for the House minority.
As a member of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over impeachment, Cline is also annoyed that Democratic leaders have moved the inquiry to the Intelligence Committee, which has conducted most of its probe so far behind closed doors.
“We had been an impeachment inquiry for many months and now the decision has been made by one person to proceed in a manner that is highly partisan, lacking in any kind of due process,” he said.
Cline clarified to reporters after the town hall that while he believes the investigation the Judiciary Democrats started earlier this year into various allegations against the president was “impeachment under the guise of oversight,” the impeachment inquiry is not formalized without a full vote of the House.
During the town hall, Cline told his constituents they should be frustrated that Democrats have not voted to authorize the impeachment inquiry.
“I’m your representative. If I don’t get a vote on the House floor, your views aren’t heard. And that should upset you as much as it upsets me,” he said.
The crowd of roughly 80 people did not vocally react when the congressmen shared their views on impeachment, although it was clear from other questions there were a mix of Republicans and Democrats in the room.
Approached after the town hall for his reaction to the discussion his questioned prompted, Willis said he does not talk to the media.
Others who participated seemed generally pleased with the conversation, even if they didn’t agree with everything the congressmen said or feel there was enough time for a full discussion of the issues.
Terry Jarrett of Lynchburg said he was satisfied with the response Cline, his congressman, and Riggleman provided when he raised the topic of immigration and border security but that he wished there were time for a broader discussion. The lawmakers spoke about overhauling asylum laws and ensuring that immigrants who don’t enter the country through legal means can be returned to their home countries quickly.
As for impeachment, Jarrett said he was glad that wasn’t the focus of the town hall because he thinks the process is “a joke.” Trump has done nothing impeachable based on what the Constitution says, Jarrett argued.
Sarah Braaten, who lives in Bedford and is a constituent of Riggleman, asked for his position on a climate change bill that would impose a fee on importers of fuels like crude oil and natural gas based on the greenhouse gas content of the fuel.
Riggleman and Cline both said they support free market innovations to combat climate change and incentives to spur those innovations, but opposes taxes on carbon.
Another audience member followed up, saying that the bill in question is the only carbon tax proposal that allows for a free market response because fossil fuels have to pay for their own pollution.
Braaten said after the town hall that Riggleman’s answer to her question was “fine” but that the person in the audience who followed up was “perfect.“
“This carbon tax will not go into the government,” she said.
The town hall did remind Braaten how much of a libertarian Riggleman can be, and that she identifies with more of his views than she’d expect as a Democrat.
Braaten said that Riggleman and Cline made some fair points about impeachment.
“Even though I’m a Democrat, I’m not sure we’re doing the right thing,” she said, noting she believes Trump would like to be impeached in hopes that it will backfire on Democrats, like the Clinton impeachment did on Republicans.
“I may not oppose [impeachment], but I’m not in favor of it,“ Braaten added, saying she’d just like to vote Trump out of office.
Riggleman told CQ Roll Call after the town hall that he had been prepared to answer questions on impeachment, but wasn’t really surprised by the policy topics constituents seemed to care more about.
“This was interesting because I actually have sensed that impeachment isn’t as big of a topic in the 5th District as people think it is watching the national news. And I’m right,” he said. “And it’s not as big a topic in the 6th District either. I think the real thing when you have a rural district like I do and like Ben Cline does is that USMCA — you heard the infrastructure questions too … they’re smart questions. They want to know what we’re doing to help them.”
Cline was not surprised that impeachment barely came up at the town hall.
“I knew that, having had over a dozen town hall meetings across the district over the past eight months, that voters in this area are not as concerned about impeachment as they are concerned about infrastructure and drugs and crime and immigration and jobs and the economy and trade and farming,” he said. “All of the different issues that you heard about today, those are what we hear about on a regular basis … and those are the issues that we’re fighting for up in D.C.”