St. George • President Donald Trump is wrong on tariffs, was wrong on family separations, and sometimes tweets things that are “indefensible,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Monday during a debate at Dixie State University.
But the strength of the economy under Trump and GOP majorities, Stewart said, is undeniable.
“Because of that tax reform we have the strongest economy we’ve had since I’ve been alive,” Stewart said.
Shireen Ghorbani, a Democratic candidate challenging Stewart for his congressional seat, said the Republican tax reforms largely benefit corporations and the wealthy, while ordinary Americans continue to struggle.
And as for Trump, Ghorbani cited the president’s inability to lead the nation with a level head and promote American values abroad when asked to describe the greatest threat to U.S. national security.
“I’m concerned the person in our White House is not leading with the clarity of our American values in the way that we deserve,” she said.
The two candidates stood apart on several issues during the debate, which remained civil despite occasional outbursts from the audience. Attendees — particularly those supportive of Ghorbani’s responses — were repeatedly asked to quiet down by the moderator, Deseret News editor Doug Wilks, and one man was arrested after taking the microphone from Stewart during the congressman’s closing comments.
“Vaccines cause autism,” the man said, while security personnel rushed to escort him offstage. “Autism is caused by vaccines.”
Wilks began the debate on natural resources and the environment, including questions on the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline and air quality.
Stewart said he “absolutely” supports the pipeline, and that the rural communities that stand to benefit from it would “die” without it as a water source.
“You have to have a reliable source of water,” Stewart said. “If we don’t claim that water out of Lake Powell, California will.”
Ghorbani said she was not yet prepared to support the project. More information is needed on the true cost of the project, she said, combined with a larger conversation on conservation efforts in the area.
On air quality, Ghorbani was critical of the Environment Protection Agency under Trump for relaxing vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards, adding that she chose to purchase an electric vehicle to take personal responsibility on carbon emissions.
Ghorbani said that health care was the main issue that motivated her run for office. She said Congress is “bought and sold by pharmaceutical companies” and criticized Republican lawmakers for their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, without offering a substitute policy.
There are some policy proposals that would improve medicine, she said, like hospital price transparency and the negotiation of drug prices at the federal level. But more important, she said, is the need for a comprehensive overhaul and paradigm shift in the way the United States approaches medical treatment.
“Mr. Stewart’s record is voting against your access to affordable health care,” Ghorbani said. “I would like to see a true revolution around how we think about providing health care in this country. And I don’t see leadership on that issue from you or from your party.”
Stewart said that he and Ghorbani have the same goal for health care, to expand options to patients and drive down insurance costs. He said there have been positive steps on price negotiation and medicare administration that are “in the weeds” and that don’t draw attention.
But Obamacare, he said, was built on lies and forced upon the country.
“Obamacare isn’t affordable,” Stewart said. “That’s the whole point.”
Part of the reason the national debt and budget deficit are currently so large, Ghorbani said, are the recent tax cuts enacted by GOP lawmakers.
The nation is also overspending, she said, creating an ever-expanding debt.
“Corporate tax cuts would be a really nice place to start,” she said. “The excesses that we’re spending on military contractors and endless war should absolutely be on the table.”
Stewart said the national debt can’t be fixed without looking at entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He said it’s “nonsense” that entitlements are thought of as an untouchable third-rail of U.S. politics, adding that raising the retirement age or adding means testing to Social Security would keep the program from going bankrupt.
“I think the American people want us to fix these problems.”
Ghorbani said it needs to be made clear that Social Security and Medicare are earned benefits that people pay into during their entire working lives. And it’s an “unacceptable vision of the future,” she said, to expect citizens to work into their 70s before receiving benefits.
“For many American families, it is the only sense of security that they have,” she said.
Both candidates were critical of Trump’s handling of trade tariffs, which have led to retaliatory efforts felt particularly by American farmers. Stewart said it was “a silly answer” for Trump to propose a $12 billion bailout for farmers to mitigate the tariffs, as those individuals are not looking for a handout.
“These farmers don’t want to go through some government program,” Stewart said. “They want to be able to sell their goods on the market.”
But while the tariffs were the wrong approach, Stewart said he respects what Trump is trying to do. U.S. trade partners protect their own interests and need to be firmly dealt with, Stewart said, particularly China, which the congressman described as the primary threat to U.S. national security.
“China is nothing but criminal,” he said.
Ghorbani said it is important for the U.S. to maintain its global alliances. The president has provoked allies, she said, to the point that America is no longer seen as a world leader, and the United States president is unwelcome in London.
“We cannot continue in an ongoing effort of global domination through warfare,” she said. “We have to have strong diplomatic ties.”
Near the end of the debate, Wilks asked Stewart if he believed Russia interfered with the 2016 election with the intention of aiding Trump. Stewart responded that he has “gone back and forth” on the issue — and questioned the speed with which the CIA concluded that Russia wanted Trump in the White House — but did not answer with his personal position.
Asked for clarification after the debate, Stewart said, “We just don’t know," but that he understands why some people look at the evidence and conclude that Trump’s election was Russia’s preferred outcome.
“Looking at the evidence, I could also make the argument they didn’t really care,” Stewart said. “They just wanted to sow discord.”
Ghorbani said she is troubled by Trump’s conduct in the White House. But she supports the office of the president, she said, and wants anyone in that office to be successful for the benefit of the nation.
“I feel that our president works to expose those small things that we disagree on and exacerbate division,” she said.
According to a new poll, Ghorbani trails Stewart by 11 points — having made strides after trailing him by 24 points earlier this summer.
The debate was organized by the Utah Debate Commission, which will host a series of debates in the lead-up to November’s election.
Dixie State University Police Chief Blair Barfuss did not provide the identify of the man arrested after intruding onstage. Barfuss said the man was booked on suspicion of disorderly conduct and interrupting a political event, both potential class B misdemeanors.
Barfuss also said the man has a history of disruptive demonstrations.
“We found out after the fact that he had done this at other political events,” Barfuss said.