‘You can’t impeach a president because you don’t like him’: Utah’s Rep. Chris Stewart hosts rowdy town hall in West Valley City

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, takes questions from the audience during his town hall meeting at the West Valley City Hall in West Valley City Wednesday May 2, 2018.

West Valley City • When he said he supported the National Rifle Association, they booed.

“You don’t represent the NRA,” one man shouted. “You represent the people in this room.”

When he said he favored the Republican tax bill passed last year, they grumbled.

“My taxes have gone up,” said one woman.

“Mine, too,” added another.

But when Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said he would defend President Donald Trump against potential impeachment charges, they roared the loudest.

They called the president a liar and a fool. They said the congressman was blind not to see it. They questioned the integrity of both men. And they hooted and jeered when their representative tried to explain.

“You can’t impeach a president because you don’t like him — and that’s what some of you would do,” Stewart said Wednesday. That was about all he mustered in response to the first question of the night at his town hall.

Though the audience was much smaller than it was at the rowdy event he held last year in Salt Lake City, months after Trump took office, it was perhaps just as strong-willed and unyielding. About 40 people filled the seats of the auditorium of West Valley City Hall, which sits at the northern end of the sprawling 2nd Congressional District but at the heart of left-leaning Salt Lake County, where the conservative congressman got 35 percent of the vote in his most recent election. (He collected up to 90 percent in more-rural areas in southern and central portions of the state.)

It left Stewart sometimes overpowered, more times frustrated.

Throughout the 55 minutes, he repeated, “Give me a minute” and, “I will answer the question” and, “Just hang on.” At one point, he threatened to leave.

“Most of you think that I’ve lost my mind, and I appreciate that,” Stewart said with a laugh.

“No, we want you to regain your mind,” one woman responded.

The congressman got through about 10 questions. Five were about Trump. That topic gave him the sharpest pushback.

Jahn Curran, 55, from Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood, sat at the edge of the center aisle and pressed Stewart on impeaching the president for alleged perjury.

“You guys impeached [Democratic President Bill] Clinton on less,” he said, also namedropping Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who allegedly had an affair with Trump. The two went back and forth for a few minutes.

“Do you think we should impeach every president who lies?” Stewart asked.

“Are you going to answer the question?”

“I think probably every president has lied, and I don’t think we can set that as the threshold.”

“I’m afraid he’s going to get us in a nuclear war with North Korea.”

“He’s actually doing incredible things, positive things, with North Korea,” the congressman said, attempting to end the debate. It was a refrain he came back to several times during the evening, referring to “some of the policies” of the president that he agrees with: veterans aid, foreign relations and cuts to regulations.

“I think it’s nuts to say that we’re not closer now to peace” under Trump, Stewart said. Later, he argued with a constituent who suggested that the lawmaker puts the president on a pedestal. “You can’t say that. … I have not defended …” he retorted before being cut off.

The discussions indicated that the anger and disappointment over Trump’s election is still fresh, continuing to guide many conversations and confrontations for the nation’s members of Congress, as they have for the past year and a half.

The congressman fielded one question on his work with the House Intelligence Committee. Samantha Finch of Salt Lake City wanted to know why the panel’s lawmakers closed their investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

“We had 18 months of hearings. We interviewed hundreds of witnesses. We had 330,000 pages of documents that we looked at,” Stewart responded, concluding that they found no evidence of collusion between the foreign country and Trump’s campaign.

He said he supports special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, though, and wants him to finish.

Finch’s house is two blocks from Stewart’s district and a half-mile from freshman Rep. John Curtis’. She is represented, though, by Rep. Mia Love. Utah is gerrymandered, she believes, and “my congresswoman doesn’t hold town halls.”

“As far as I’m concerned, Stewart is my representative, too,” Finch added. But she didn’t like his response to her question. “Once he says there’s no collusion, that’s the end of that.”

This is the second town hall the congressman has conducted this year; he held four in 2017. Curtis is the only other member of the state’s six-person, all-Republican delegation to hold a forum in person and not online since January.

Stewart’s gathering Wednesday comes about a year after one hosted by then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz that garnered national attention. At Chaffetz’s event — in which 1,000 people were allowed inside and 1,500 stood outside, barred from entering because of fire code — the crowd demanded that the lawmaker “explain yourself.”

Afterward, then-Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans said the town hall was “violent” and unsafe; he warned representatives to skip live forums so they could avoid harassment — though police and Chaffetz did not make the same assessment.

“I think it’s more important than ever to show up,” said Rebecca Kramer, a member of the “resistance” group Utah Indivisible, on Wednesday night. She handed out red “disagree” and green “agree” signs, leftovers from past town halls.

For Stewart, who handily nabbed the Republican nomination last month in his midterm race, a few topics were less heated. The audience asked him about guns, and he explained his support for banning “bump stock” devices like the ones used in last year’s Las Vegas massacre to essentially turn semi-automatic rifles into machine guns. He talked briefly about immigration, too, gaining a bit of consensus from the room on securing the nation’s borders.

He left with a “Good to be with you,” but several folks pinned him at the front of the room and asked more questions about health care and public lands. Stewart shook hands and smiled and hugged.

One man noted: “That got more emotional than I anticipated.”