House GOP leaders tell members to increase town hall security

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WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan and top House GOP leaders are urging rank-and-file members to increase security after several unruly town hall meetings, including one that involved a member needing a police escort.

Members were cautioned at a closed-door conference meeting on Tuesday to be aware of organized efforts to disrupt events at home and told them take steps to ensure their own safety and that of their aides. Protests over the plans to repeal Obamacare are expected to continue during a recess later this month, according to multiple Republicans who attended the session, so the message from the entire leadership team was to get prepared now.

“There a growing ugliness out there,” California Rep. Tom McClintock, whose meeting over the weekend in northern California drew large crowds and more police were called to the scene. “We were warned by both the Capitol police and the local police that there was local agitation.”

After hundreds of protestors screamed at McClintock and criticized President Donald Trump’s policies, several officers helped McClintock leave the event and avoid contact with the boisterous protestors.

After that episode and reports of other disturbances in other districts, House GOP conference chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, asked her colleague, Rep. Dave Reichert — a former sheriff — to give members some advice for handling potential protests both at events and at their district offices.

“As members’ offices are experiencing an influx of phone calls and foot traffic highly organized by the left, Sheriff Reichert shared some best practices about how offices can still be safe and effective in this current environment,” one Republican who attended the meeting told CNN.

Politico first reported on the security discussion at the GOP meeting.

Last month’s retreat in Philadelphia with House and Senate Republicans drew hundreds of protesters, mostly there to voice opposition to Trump, who was invited to address the members.

Several members told CNN that after a series of protests in cities across the country following the inauguration they were being advised to brief staff on how to deal with groups that may show up at their offices.

Virginia GOP Rep. Dave Brat blamed professional advocates from outside his district for interfering with his office’s work.

“My constituents are trying to get in on Social Security and all kinds of other issues and they can’t get in because when you get 30,000 hits by paid activists, from (George) Soros and indivisible and resistance, etc. I can sort it out. So it’s a real issue,” he said.

North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Walker suggested that the tone set by the new administration may also be fueling the intensity of the protests.

“Trump presents a certain demeanor that when he pushes something through, it’s not whether really whether you like it or not, this is how it is,” Walker said.

Ryan told reporters after the meeting that he respected free speech, but urged advocates to be orderly.

“We cherish the First Amendment and people who are concerned and anxious, we want them to know that we want to listen to their concerns and that — that peaceful protests are something we honor in this country. I just hope people keep it peaceful, respect private property, have no violence,” Ryan said.

The majority of House Republicans were not serving in the chamber in during the heated and intense debate over Obamacare in 2009 and 2010, a time when opponents of the Democratic proposal led rallies and flooded town hall meetings in districts across the country, often booing and heckling members of Congress.

“With so many members who were not here for the initial Obamacare battle, it’s important to just make sure members and their staff are mindful of the fact that outside groups may attempt to disrupt offices or events,” one House Republican told CNN.

Walker told CNN that 90% of those attending recent events in his district opposed policies being advanced by the GOP Congress, but he plans to continue scheduling meetings, but with additional security plans in place.

“Obviously you get to a place where it gets a little hostile, so there are certain security measures we are going to add to that we haven’t had in the past,” Walker said.

Members are identifying alternative exits for themselves and staffers to leave meetings in the event they get out of control. McClintock told CNN he planned to hold future town halls if he got clearance from law enforcement but said he would move them to larger venues.

Multiple House Republicans recognized that with the big focus on overhauling the health care system there are heightened concerns about people potentially losing coverage,

“They should have the right to say, ‘Hey, whatever you guys are doing, make sure that you’re not pulling the rug out from people,’ ” Walker said.