Rep. Jason Chaffetz tried to respond to questions, but many of his answers went unheard. The din of the hostile and harassing audience that filled the 1,000 seats of a high school auditorium Thursday night drowned him out.
“Explain yourself,” they roared over him.
When the congressman did get a chance to speak, the crowd often didn’t like what he had to say. And he knew it.
The town-hall meeting was 75 minutes of tense exchanges between Chaffetz and residents from across the state. They were frustrated by the Utah Republican’s refusal to investigate President Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest. They doggedly pursued him for his initiatives to transfer or sell public lands. They questioned his position on immigration and refugees.
And that was only half of the largely liberal crowd.
About 1,500 people stood outside Brighton High School, too far back to make the cut, their signs reading, “Do your job” and “America is better than this.”
“We can’t allow anyone else in. It’s fire code,” said Cottonwood Heights police Lt. Dan Bartlett, his megaphone announcements inciting more anger.
One man shouted: “If there’s somebody in there from another district, kick them out.” Several tried to rush the doors, but a line of officers pushed back. Abigail Hawkins, from Cedar Hills, got to the school at 6:15 p.m. and lamented that “they knew … and yet they didn’t move it to a bigger venue.”
“This feels very limited and exclusive,” she said, joining a chant of “Bring him out.”
In the auditorium, at least 20 seats were empty. A fire marshal opened the event by noting that those would not be filled “because of the situation outside.” Chaffetz heard the announcement and paced across the bare stage, acknowledging the lack of space and holding the microphone at his side when the noise got to be too much.
“If you want me to answer the question, give me more than five seconds to do it,” he said, urging attendees to quiet down.
The congressman addressed 13 questions, three focused on public lands and four on investigating Trump. The other subjects jumped from Planned Parenthood to air quality to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Noor Ul-Hasan, a Democratic activist, said, “If you want to continue to look into Hillary Clinton, I don’t care. But why aren’t you checking out your own president?”
Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he’s looking into comments made by Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, who plugged Ivanka Trump’s fashion line in a national television interview.
“There’s no case to be made that we went soft on the White House,” Chaffetz said as police nervously patrolled the perimeter of the room. “In terms of doing my job, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“I’m trying to be as representative as I can.” — Chaffetz
Melissa Batka Thomas, from Salt Lake City, steadied her shaking hands as she read a quote from Chaffetz in which he called on presidential candidates to release their tax returns and “show everything.”
“I’m asking you to explain what your timeline is to uphold your word or why there is a reluctance to do so,” she said.
The congressman said, as he has before, that the president is “exempt” from conflict of interest laws. “Until there is evidence that [Trump] has somehow overused that to ingratiate his family …” Chaffetz said before boos cut him off.
He also stood by his vote for Trump, though he had at one point during the campaign suggested that he wouldn’t cast his ballot that way.
“By far, Donald Trump was the better choice,” he said with a smirk, knowing it would upset the crowd. “There was no possible way I was ever going to vote for Hillary Clinton.”
One Trump supporter — the only to ask a question — applauded Chaffetz and talked about moving forward. There was little chance to respond before the rumbling resumed.
Bill Willett, 57, from South Salt Lake, arrived at the town-hall meeting at 2 p.m., though doors didn’t open until 6 p.m. He first said his name was “Barely Noticeable” because he feels looked over by Congress. Willett urged Chaffetz to be “the first banging on the White House doors” to investigate the president.
While discussing public-land use and his opposition to Bears Ears National Monument, Chaffetz was greeted by the strongest pushback of the night.
“I hope you do appreciate that not every person has the same viewpoint on the use of public lands,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is find a balanced approach.”
The topic came up again, giving him a chance to speak about his bill to strip Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service employees of their law enforcement powers, an idea that elicited protest from the audience.
“I’m trying to be as representative as I can,” he said.
Charlie Luke, a Democratic member of the Salt Lake City Council, wrote on Facebook that the harassment Chaffetz faced “ensured his reelection for as long as he chooses to run.”
“It will embolden his majority Republican district,” he wrote. “We need to resist, but let’s be smart in the way we do it.”
Chaffetz exited the stage to the right, disappearing behind a wall of blue curtains. The disgruntled residents filed out of the auditorium in the opposite direction. As they parted ways, nobody, it seemed, had a change of perspective after the meeting.
“He said what he wanted to say,” one man told a friend, “and that was it.”