Laughter isn’t something that’s usually heard at Sen. Joni Ernst’s town hall meetings, but Ernst’s attempt to portray Donald Trump as a widely respected world leader caused the audience to burst into laughter at the senator’s town hall in Red Oak on Sunday.
Red Oak, Ernst’s hometown, was the first stop on her 2018 tour of all Iowa’s 99 counties. The senator talked about her legislative priorities, but the audience also wanted answers about President Trump.
Barb Melson of Stanton asked Ernst about whether she would be “taking a stand or doing something about the damage that Trump is doing to our neighbors around the world with his white supremacy talk.”
Ernst initially tried to avoid the question with the standard sort of response she used when asked about Trump at her 2017 town halls: “I don’t respond a lot to what the president is saying — because, you know what? — if I’m going to talk, I’m going to talk about the things I’m working on, and the things that are important to Iowa.”
Answers like that in past have allowed Ernst to avoid giving a substantial answer, and move on to the next question. This time, however, Ernst decided to add a little something extra, telling the audience at the Red Oak YMCA that Trump is a respected world leader.
Ernst said, “He is standing up for a lot of the countries that where [sic] we have seen… um… “
An audience member took advantage of Ernst’s sentence petering out to ask, “Name a few, could you name a few?”
“Yeah, you bet,” Ernst replied. “Norway is one of them…”
And that’s when the audience burst into laughter.
During a meeting with congressional leaders on immigration on Thursday, President Trump cited Norway, whose prime minister he’d met the previous day, as the sort of country, he wanted immigrants from, as opposed to “shithole countries” in Africa and Latin America. In that meeting, Trump also said, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
Ernst tried to regain control of the conversation. “No, well, okay,” she said over the laughter. “How many of you think … You laugh but folks, who borders Norway? Russia.” (At the extreme northeast of the country, Norway has a 121 mile border with Russia. It also shares a 1,005 mile border with Sweden and a 452 mile border with Finland.)
No one laughed at the mention of Russia, despite the fact there are several investigations currently underway to determine the extent of Trump’s possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.
At her town hall meeting in Boone the following day, there were again plenty of questions about Trump. This time, Ernst stuck to her standard talking points on Trump.
“I don’t appreciate the rhetoric,” Ernst replied when asked about Trump. “What I can say is that I do support some of the policies that we’re working on.”
Asked by Jerry Bradley of Des Moines about Trump’s “shithole” comment, Ernst replied, “It’s really important that we’re recognizing that we have good allies out there. We have good friends in other nations and we need to work with those good partners. We need to treat them with dignity and respect.”
Ernst did not mention Norway this time.
The senator was then asked by another member of the audience if she thinks Trump is racist.
“Deep inside, no, I don’t think he’s a racist,” Ernst replied. “I think he’s brash and he says things that are on his mind, but I don’t truly believe that he’s a racist.”
This time the audience groaned in response.