A con­gress­man’s worry: Is ‘this Trump thing’ sus­tain­able?

An­swer be­gins to form as GOP’s James Comer tours Ky. district

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHICO HAR­LAN

ben­ton, ky. — The con­gress­man was home in Ken­tucky now, trav­el­ing through his district for the first time in a month and wor­ried that, for Repub­li­cans, the “wheels were fall­ing off.” Wash­ing­ton had been feel­ing like a city on fire. Ev­ery day brought a new cri­sis. Rus­sia. The FBI. The vote to re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act, which he had cast just be­fore leav­ing. “So much doom and gloom,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said. “It can play games with your mind.”

Like oth­ers in Congress, Comer would have a week at home on re­cess to re­con­nect with his con­stituency. Typ­i­cally, a re­cess is a time for town halls. But this time, most mem­bers were not hold­ing any. Comer’s plan was dif­fer­ent — to hold four over the next three days.

“The per­fect storm,” one aide told him, even as Comer’s Twit­ter feed showed video clips of a few other mem­bers fac­ing an­gry crowds and stum­bling to ex­plain them­selves.

“Ev­ery­body is duck­ing for cover right now,” he told her. “Ev­ery­body’s had the same ad­vice for me — can­cel them.”

But he wasn’t go­ing to. Comer was a fresh­man law­maker who had been sent to Wash­ing­ton with 73 per­cent of the vote, fig­ur­ing he knew ab­so­lutely what peo­ple wanted from him. Over the past few weeks, though, it was be­com­ing harder to tell. On so­cial me­dia af­ter the health­care vote, peo­ple warned him his ca­reer was “go­ing up in flames.” By the time he left Wash­ing­ton, where he slept on a mat­tress in his of­fice and watched CNN ev­ery night, he was start­ing to

“This Trump thing may not be sus­tain­able.”

That’s what he wanted to find out on this trip home: Was this Trump thing sus­tain­able or not? Was Trump still pop­u­lar here? Had he lost this part of Ken­tucky?

Comer’s con­gres­sional district is a horse­shoe across the south­ern part of the state, 61/2 hours by car end-to-end, that is 90 per­cent white and where nearly 1 in 5 peo­ple live in poverty, more than 1 in 6 are dis­abled, and 72 per­cent voted for Trump. Maybe it was a rookie mis­take, but Comer had pledged af­ter the elec­tion to hold a town hall in ev­ery one of his 35 coun­ties; to keep his word, he packed ev­ery re­cess with events — in­clud­ing the one he was driv­ing to now, in Ben­ton, Ky., when his cell­phone buzzed.

His district di­rec­tor, who was al­ready at the court­house, was on the line. “How bad is it?” Comer asked. He lis­tened for a mo­ment “Like 100?” he said. An­other pause. “Oh my God,” he said. “Is the sher­iff’s of­fice there?”

Ten min­utes later, he ar­rived at the town square. Pro­test­ers were out front with mock tomb­stones. One woman was prone on the grass, fake blood across her body.

Time for the first town hall. Comer sneaked in through a back door and headed up the stairs.

In­side, 120 peo­ple sat shoul­der to shoul­der, and 30 more leaned against the walls. Comer walked up to the lectern and thanked so many for be­ing en­gaged — one of the good things, he said, “about the en­vi­ron­ment we’re in now.”

He looked out at the crowd — peo­ple in T-shirts, cam­ou­flage and khakis, old county of­fi­cials, a few fa­mil­iar faces. He saw some­body hold­ing a note­book and fur­row­ing her brow. He saw two or three peo­ple train­ing their cell­phone cameras on him and won­dered whether some­thing was about to hap­pen that would end up on YouTube. A woman in the front row had a “Dis­agree” sign in her lap. She wasn’t hold­ing it up yet.

He cleared his throat and then started talk­ing about the most con­tro­ver­sial thing he had been in­volved with so far, his vote to re­peal the ACA. He said the ACA had deep­ened the prob­lems in Ken­tucky by open­ing up such wide ac­cess to Medicaid, the health-care pro­gram for low-in­come Amer­i­cans. He said so many had signed up across the state that nearly 1 in 3 were now cov­ered un­der that pro­gram — and re­ceiv­ing free cov­er­age. Some of those peo­ple, he said, des­per­ately needed that help. But many were feed­ing off the sys­tem.

“If you live here, you know some­body who looks like me, is on Medicaid, and is just not work­ing,” he said.

Some nod­ded. Oth­ers groaned, and Comer sensed an edge in the room. He asked for ques­tions.

A hand shot up. A ques­tion about Trump’s tax re­turns. What was Comer do­ing to pres­sure the pres­i­dent?

This one he’d an­swered be­fore. Trump wasn’t obliged to re­lease any­thing, Comer said, though it would be nice if he did.

An­other hand. “What about peo­ple be­tween 60 and 65?” a woman said, her tone sharp. “I’m hear­ing we’re go­ing to get slammed” by higher health-care costs.

Comer started off by say­ing costs would not rise but then backed off. “I don’t know the an­swer,” he said, “but I’m go­ing to try to find that out.”

An­other hand. A man named Randy Gray.

“I’d like to come up there,” he said.

“Yes sir, yes sir,” Comer said, a lit­tle un­cer­tainly.

Gray grabbed a can­vas bag from un­der his seat and put it on a ta­ble next to Comer.

“I just want to use this as a demon­stra­tion,” he said.

As Comer watched, he reached into the back, pulled out two vials, and placed them on the ta­ble. He said he had an im­mune dis­ease. He was “not quite the boy in the plas­tic bub­ble, but close.” Then he lifted his shirt to show Comer four nee­dles in his stom­ach.

Comer leaned in to take a closer look.

“Now these two bot­tles right here rep­re­sent $13,000 a week worth of my medicine,” Gray said.

Some peo­ple in the room be­gan whis­per­ing — “$13,000?” — as Gray kept talk­ing. “This is re­ally an emo­tional is­sue for me,” he said. He said he was ter­ri­fied be­cause Oba­macare had re- caps on life­time spend­ing lim­its for health care, and now Don­ald Trump’s health-care bill was threat­en­ing to bring those lim­its back. “I feel like I can’t sleep at night,” he said, be­cause those vials were the one thing that kept him alive, and ev­ery­thing he was read­ing about the bill only men­tioned “tax breaks for the rich.” Peo­ple clapped. Gray showed Comer the med­i­cal pump he used for in­jec­tions. “I know four peo­ple in west­ern Ken­tucky that have to use this pump,” he said. “And it’s a strug­gle.”

“I can imag­ine,” Comer said, be­fore cor­rect­ing him­self. “I can’t imag­ine.”

Gray took half a step to­ward Comer, squar­ing him up, and leaned in un­til they were al­most face-to-face.

“I want you to think about peo­ple like me,” Gray said. He jabbed his pump at Comer. “I didn’t ask for this. Be­lieve you me, I’d rather be like you and be per­fectly healthy.”

“Thank you,” Comer said softly as Gray sat back down, and 45 min­utes later, af­ter more an­gry ques­tions, af­ter see­ing the “Dis­agree” sign raised again and again, af­ter hear­ing from a woman who said the new health-care bill “will prob­a­bly be the death of me,” Comer was down in the lobby of the court­house as the build­ing emp­tied out. A few friends, who had watched on a live feed, texted him to say he had done a good job. An aide said the crowd had been stacked with Democrats try­ing to mo­bi­lize.

“Do you feel okay about it?” one aide asked him. “I do,” Comer said. But two hours later, on a near-empty high­way just be­fore mid­night, Comer couldn’t get out of his head the ter­ri­fied man with the vials.

“When that guy lifted up his shirt,” Comer said, “the first thing I thought of is how lucky I am that my kids were born healthy.”

One town hall down, three to go.

Next day, back on the road, Comer was look­ing out the car win­dow at fac­to­ries and chicken farms in a re­gion that had given him its over­whelm­ing sup­port. His elec­think, tion had been an un­likely thing. He was a farmer from a Repub­li­can fam­ily who made it to the state leg­is­la­ture by age 28. He was the di­rec­tor of a com­mu­nity bank. He briefly owned a few Quiznos restau­rant fran­chises. He be­came Ken­tucky’s agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner at 39. At 42, he lost a nar­row and nasty 2015 pri­mary race for gov­er­nor, af­ter which he fig­ured he’d go back to the fam­ily plot and “dig ditches for a while.”

But then an 11-term con­gress­man from Ken­tucky’s 1st District said he was re­tir­ing, and Comer de­cided he was ready for one more race, and back he went along the same roads, vis­it­ing ham fes­ti­vals and gun shops, his cam­paign ads say­ing he would “teach Wash­ing­ton in­sid­ers a thing or two about our Ken­tucky val­ues.”

“Look at that,” Comer said now. Two yard signs stuck to­gether, left over from the cam­paign. “Trump’s is right on top of mine.”

The sec­ond town hall was in a county where Trump had won 85 per­cent of the vote. This time, there were no pro­test­ers, and Comer went in through the front door of the court­house. He was cheered when he walked up to the lectern, and when he said, like Trump, that he wanted to make Amer­ica great again, he saw 75 peo­ple lean­ing in, lis­ten­ing, not ready to pounce.

So he told his fa­vorite Trump story. Two months ear­lier, he had flown on Air Force One with the pres­i­dent on the way to a rally in Louisville, and hours later he was re­turn­ing to Wash­ing­ton in the same plane — only this time, with an in­vi­ta­tion to join Trump in his pri­vate of­fice. “Yes sir,” Comer said he told the pres­i­dent, and there he sat for 11/2 hours, across from Trump and right next to Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.), as Trump talked about his plane and his elec­tion vic­tory and his health-care plans. The plane landed at Joint Base An­drews, and Trump had an­other in­vi­ta­tion for Comer: Did he want to take the Marine One he­li­copter back to the White House? Did he want to see the Oval Of­fice?

“Yes sir,” Comer said again, re-cre­at­ing his wide-eyed look for the crowd, and nearly ev­ery­moved body laughed.

This time, the ques­tions were dif­fer­ent. A few peo­ple men­tioned prob­lems with high in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums and asked him to help. No­body brought up Trump’s tax re­turns, no­body talked about Trump’s fir­ing of the FBI di­rec­tor, no­body talked about Trump’s re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia, and in the hour-long town hall, only three or four peo­ple seemed up­set. One of those peo­ple, in the sec­ond row, raised her hand.

She said Trump’s be­hav­ior was “trea­sonous,” adding, “I per­son­ally don’t have much con­fi­dence in some­body that spent two hours with Trump and was all goo­gly-eyed.”

“Well, he won this district by 55 points,” Comer said to her, and a lot of peo­ple in the room clapped, and some peo­ple cheered, and after­ward, as the room emp­tied, two peo­ple walked up and handed him chocolate and but­ter­scotch pies.

On the third day, the first of the two town halls was a morn­ing event, just 30 in the crowd, and the ques­tions couldn’t have been gen­tler. One of the peo­ple who stood up talked about Ken­tucky the same way Comer of­ten did, call­ing the place where he lived a “check county,” mean­ing that too many peo­ple were de­pen­dent on gov­ern­ment hand­outs. An­other per­son asked Comer about what Wash­ing­ton was re­ally like, and Comer an­swered by say­ing it was a place filled with “com­peti­tors” and “egos.” There was barely a men­tion of Trump.

“That was the friendli­est town hall in the world,” Comer said as he walked out, and now he was in the car with his district di­rec­tor, say­ing of Trump, “He’s still so pop­u­lar.”

It was rain­ing, and he was head­ing west through some of the most ru­ral parts of his district.

“I saw some poll, nine out of 10 peo­ple who voted for Trump still would,” he said. “I think that’s true here. That’s my as­sess­ment of the at­ti­tudes.”

He looked out the win­dow and started talk­ing about the dif­fer­ences be­tween be­ing a politi­cian in Ken­tucky and in Wash­ing­ton, of ci­vil­i­ties and in­ci­vil­i­ties. “We used to ride to­gether, go to O’Charley’s, go to LongHorn,” he said of the Democrats with whom he served in Frank­fort, the state cap­i­tal. “That never hap­pens in D.C.”

He rolled up to the last town hall, in Cal­houn, pop­u­la­tion 763. He shook hands with some po­lice of­fi­cers and the county ex­ec­u­tive, and soon he was stand­ing in front of 75 peo­ple. “Trump won this district by 55 points,” he was say­ing, when a woman in­ter­rupted to say, “That’s very sad.”

“Fifty-five points,” he said again, turn­ing to a part of the room where a few peo­ple were sit­ting with hand-let­tered signs.

“One-and-done,” one of them said.

“There are 435 con­gres­sional dis­tricts in Amer­ica,” Comer said. “This was his fourth-best.” “In­sane.” “And one rea­son peo­ple sup­port the pres­i­dent, in my opin­ion —” “Fear.” “No, it’s that he’s not a politi­cian,” Comer said. “He’s not po­lit­i­cally cor­rect. He doesn’t speak in sound bites. And that’s what the Amer­i­can peo­ple want. I think we need to give him a chance. It’s been 110 days.”

There was some shout­ing. A baby started cry­ing. More crosstalk. Comer couldn’t get a word in. One man in­ter­rupted and said Trump’s poli­cies, such as dereg­u­la­tion, were sav­ing the coun­try. An­other said Oba­macare had been a dis­as­ter.

“I’m go­ing to take two more” ques­tions, Comer fi­nally said, still com­pet­ing with some yelling, and one man in the rear of the room stood up.

“I’d like for y’all to keep up the good work,” he be­gan. “I don’t think any­body would ex­pect you to turn it all around in five months — or the pres­i­dent in 100 days. Es­pe­cially when it’s been go­ing down­hill for eight years.” “Amen,” one per­son said. “That’s right,” said an­other. The room broke into ap­plause.

And Comer had his an­swer: Four town halls. A few an­gry peo­ple. Two pies. A lot of ap­plause. Was the Trump thing sus­tain­able? Here, it was. “Thank you,” he said as the last of the town halls con­cluded, and then it was back to Wash­ing­ton, back to the mat­tress on the floor, back to the doom and gloom and what­ever would come next. And as soon as he could, back home to Ken­tucky again.

MICHAEL NO­BLE JR. FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) calms an ar­gu­ment be­tween town hall at­ten­dees May 12 in Cal­houn, Ky. De­spite the hos­til­ity some of his House col­leagues faced at their town halls, he opted to press ahead.

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL NO­BLE JR. FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) leaves the McLean County Court­house in Cal­houn af­ter a town hall. MID­DLE: Law of­fi­cers stand by as Comer speaks at a meet­ing in Ed­mon­ton, Ky. ABOVE: Comer pauses to be pho­tographed af­ter his meet­ing at the McLean County Court­house.

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