CLEMSON -- Sen. Lindsey Graham endured more than an hour of jeers and boos — punctuated by occasional applause — as he discussed President Donald Trump, the Russians, health care, education and other hot-button issues in a raucous town hall meeting at Clemson’s Brooks Center Saturday morning.
The capacity audience erupted into a chorus of boos early in the meeting, almost drowning out Graham when the Republican senator expressed support for Trump.
“I’m going to try to help our President Donald Trump be as successful as possible because, No. 1, I agree with him mostly and I’d like to get this country moving again,” Graham said, as many in the audience shouted him down. “I want to repeal and replace Obamacare.”
Graham shot back “Be quiet!” to the audience at one point and, at another, threatened to have one audience member on the front row removed.
In a meeting not unlike those experienced by many Republican members of Congress in recent weeks, booing continued as Graham listed several of his priorities, including cutting taxes, boosting military spending, building the Keystone Pipeline and supporting Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
“I’m a conservative, damn proud of it, and I’m going to help Trump where I can,” Graham said.
Graham addressed more than a dozen questions submitted in writing by the audience before the town hall meeting.
Graham was loudly jeered when he discussed his support for Trump’s choice for U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a school-choice activist who won her nomination by a 1-vote margin after Vice President Mike Pence, in a rare move, cast the deciding ballot in favor of DeVos.
DeVos was widely criticized for having never attended public schools. She also did not send her children to public schools.
“I thought she was qualified,” Graham said.
Graham said that he had voted for Obama’s Cabinet picks and Trump deserved the same support for his Cabinet choices.
“Elections have consequences,” Graham said.
Graham said that DeVos would inspire change.
"Public education is never going to get better until it's shaken up," he said.
Shouting over boos, Graham said, "I believe in charter schools. I believe in school choice."
Graham was drowned out as he said, "Everyone who is booing went to a good school. You have no idea what it's like..."
Asked several times if he believed that Trump should release his tax returns, Graham said that he believed that the president should disclose his returns but that he, Graham, would not vote to subpoena those returns.
But the audience rewarded Graham with applause when he promised to investigate alleged Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election.
“I believe with all my heart and soul that the Russians did interfere in our elections,” Graham said. “That to me needs to be punished.”
Graham said he would participate in hearings by the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism later this month on alleged Russian involvement in the U.S. election.
“We’re going to explain what the Russians do to try to break the backbone of democracies, including ours,” Graham said to cheers from the audience of about 950. “As to Trump-Russian campaign ties, I have no evidence personally, but I will insist that the FBI be given a full opportunity to investigate this without political interference.”
Graham said he has introduced legislation to punish the Russians for “interfering in our elections. I just got back from France and Germany, and Russia is all over their elections. What they’re trying to do is break the backbone of democracy. Vladimir Putin is a thug and people who object to him, they don’t come to town halls, they get shot.”
Graham also won approval from the audience for his criticism of Trump’s plan to cut the State Department by 30 percent. The department, Graham said, is vital for the success in the war against terrorism.
“You’ll never win this war by killing terrorists,” Graham said. “To the Republicans in the room, if you want to destroy radical Islam, you better invest in the lives of others over there. The terrorists are offering a glorious death. We have to offer a hopeful life. A small schoolhouse in a remote region of Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria will do more damage if it would educate a young girl than any bomb you would drop there.”
The State Department can help build those schools and offer programs to train police officers and military to contain terrorism, Graham said.
Several questioners asked about the future of health care, and applause erupted when Graham asked, “How many of you want single-payer health care coverage?”
Single-payer health care is the system used by many other industrialized countries where universal health care is the norm.
“Well, don’t vote for me because I think that’s a lousy idea,” Graham responded.
"If you want to destroy health care, go to the socialized medicine model -- over my dead body," Graham said, to a round of boos.
One questioner asked how ordinary Americans could have access to the same health-care benefits Graham and other federal officials enjoy.
“You need to join the Air Force,” responded Graham, an Air Force veteran.
But Graham also criticized Republicans for failing, so far, to offer a clear alternative to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
"Can I tell you a little secret? I don't even know what the GOP plan is," Graham said.
Graham promised that he would push for making GOP health-care discussions open and transparent.
At one point, someone in the audience asked everyone from South Carolina to stand, in response to allegations that some were from out of state. Almost everyone in the room stood up.
Eliciting cheers, Graham said that he believed in man-made climate change and that he wanted to reduce carbon emissions "without destroying the economy."
A round of boos followed as Graham said, "I want to build the (Keystone) pipeline."
Graham said he would "rather buy oil from Canada rather than from a bunch of people overseas who would kill us all if they could."
Graham acknowledged that blacks feel targeted by police, but also expressed support for the police.
“(African-America Sen.) Tim Scott has said he has been stopped eight or 10 times by the Capitol Hill Police,” Graham said. “I’ve been there 20 years and I’ve never been stopped by the Capitol Hill police. We need to be sensitive to the fact that communities feel under siege by the cops and we need to be sensitive to the idea that cops feel under siege and find some orderly process to enforce the law.”
Graham said the nation needs a bipartisan plan to save Social Security and Medicare. To save Social Security, wealthier people may have to sacrifice more of their benefits while younger people will have to work longer before retirement, he said.
"You want to save America, young people have to work a little longer and people with my income will have to give up some," Graham said.
Graham also criticized the United Nations for repeated resolutions against Israel.
Audience member Virginia Carner of Clemson said she came away from the town meeting with a mixed impression.
“I liked some of his answers because I agree that we need to push back on the Russians and I also agree that it’s very important not to defund our State Department,” Carner said.
But Carner criticized Graham for supporting DeVos, a billionaire businesswoman, for education secretary.
“The problem in schools is poverty and she (DeVos) doesn’t have a clue about that,” Carner said. “I totally disagree also with Graham’s support of Trump.”
Carner and Catherine Watt, another member of the audience, criticized the format of the town hall meeting, saying too many questions were repetitious.
Watt also criticized Graham’s support for school choice.
“There is no place where school choice has been implemented where it has been a success for poor, rural schools,” Watt said.
Greenville resident Seth Harrison had high praise for Graham’s performance.
“Lindsey handled himself beautifully,” Harrison said. “He did an excellent job. He shot straight from the hip.”