NewsOK: At Oklahoma town halls, Tom Cole defends Trump and Congress
NewsOK - Justin Wingerter
PAULS VALLEY — U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, the eight-term congressman and veteran politico, is a bellwether among House Republicans — a weather vane by which to gauge the direction they're headed.
Last August, that weather vane spun as if caught in a Panhandle tornado. President Donald Trump's verbal bouts with congressional Republicans had left the politically sure-footed Cole uneasy and unsure. He called Trump “unpredictable” at an Ada town hall, comparing him to a novice boxer fighting for the heavyweight title and a poker player who caught an inside straight on Election Day; an almost accidental president.
Since then, the weather vane has steadied and Cole, a steadfast defender of the ever-unpopular Congress, has also taken to defending the president on most occasions. During two town halls last week, in Pauls Valley and near his hometown of Moore, Cole was noticeably more complimentary of Trump than he was just seven months ago.
“I have to remember where I'm from,” he told a couple dozen people at a recreation center in Pauls Valley. “It's a pretty conservative area here. Most of Oklahoma is and Donald Trump got 66 percent of the vote in this congressional district and he'd win it again today. So, I respect that and try to work with the president. I try to work with any president.”
Not the Great Wall
Not only is Cole's district — a 13-county bloc in south-central Oklahoma — conservative, but attendees at his midday town halls are even more so. Older constituents, namely retirees, fill most of the seats. Support of Trump is strong, especially in the small towns that dot the district.
“You have a man who is over the House of Representatives who is really not for Trump,” a supporter of the president told Cole in Pauls Valley, a reference to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “I just don't think the guy needs to be there.”
Cole, who as a member of House leadership is a close colleague of Ryan, politely disagreed. The speaker “has actually been very supportive of the president” on border security, Cole said. “What (Trump)'s asked for, he's got. He needs to ask for more and I think he's got Republican support in the House for that. I don't think he probably has the votes in the Senate for that right now.”
In August, as Congress appeared on the brink of repealing the Affordable Care Act, impassioned health care questions dominated congressional town halls. At Cole's meetings last week, immigration drew more inquiries than any other issue. As Trump's biggest backers demanded to know when Congress will build a massive wall along the southern border — as the president vowed to do while campaigning — Cole attempted to shift the conversation to a more comprehensive approach.
“It's a lot more than just a wall,” he said Tuesday. “You have to have sort of a layered defense and you've got to have internal enforcement of existing laws and we don't have that to the degree we need it right now.”
“It's not a wall in the sense that it's a wall from sea to shining sea, like the Great Wall of China,” he said in south Oklahoma City on Thursday. “What it is, is a collection of physical barriers and everything from electronics to drones to more people on the border to more holding space.”
While staying north of 50 percent in Oklahoma, the president's national approval rating has dipped and dived through the 30s and 40s during his first 14 months in office, harmed at times by an ongoing investigation into his campaign's alleged ties to Russia.
Cole was asked about the Russia investigation only once during two, roughly 90-minute town halls last week. He repeatedly defended Trump's treatment of the longtime foe.
“This is one area where I think sometimes people don't give the president — and don't give the administration — credit it deserves," he said in Pauls Valley. "This administration actually is the first administration to send lethal aid — that is, the ability to kill Russians — to Ukraine. Obama never did, this one did.”
“He's had success in that," Cole added a short time later, "and the American military buildup that's underway now, that's the ultimate message to Russia. So, I actually think he's been much tougher on the Russians than the last administration was.”
Trump frustrated many in Congress, including some Republicans, when he declined in January to implement sanctions against Russia that had been passed by Congress.
The president has said he is seeking warmer relations with Russia for the benefit of both countries. Democrats and other critics allege he has gone easy on the former superpower because it interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf. Cole said Trump deserves credit for taking punitive actions, such as expelling suspected Russian intelligence agents.
“A lot of folks in the national media will be critical of President Trump for not being tough enough on the Russians," he said in Pauls Valley. "Well, he just expelled 66 Russian diplomats and there was this whole thing, ‘Well, he should have done it in-person.' Every now and then, give the guy credit for what he did.”
The president also has been criticized for the federal government's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where storms and the power outages that followed may have killed more than 1,000 people. Federal records show far more supplies were sent to Houston than the storm-battered island, Politico reports.
Cole, unprompted, defended the federal government's response in Puerto Rico on Tuesday. The congressman said he recently traveled to the island, where some people remain without electricity more than six months after the storm made landfall.
“It's been amazing to me, honestly, that we did not have a humanitarian disaster with this in Puerto Rico," Cole said. He added, "Actually, the government did, frankly, about as good a job as you could, given the situation."
Because he stays until every question is answered, the congressman's meetings can be marathon sessions. Last summer, a town hall at the University of Oklahoma lasted more than six hours and ended after midnight.
Last week's meetings were shorter and quieter, however, due in part to their noon start time. He told constituents in Pauls Valley, “You guys are a lot easier than most town hall crowds these days.”