Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, one of President Donald Trump's earliest supporters, has grown adept at defending the president.
As head of the campaign arm for House Republicans, Emmer is leading the bid to win back a majority — a push that's closely linked to Trump's political fortunes. For Emmer and his two fellow Minnesota Republicans in Congress, that's meant standing by Trump as evidence grows that he sought foreign government investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Last week, a group of Emmer's Sixth District constituents packed Blaine's City Council chambers where they pressed Emmer on Trump, Ukraine and foreign election interference. It was a window into the fraught politics of the impeachment battle, which is flaring anew this week as Congress returns to Washington from a two-week break.
The meeting produced more questions than answers. Emmer, who two days later rode with Trump on Air Force One from Washington to Minnesota for the president's re-election rally, hewed to an emerging GOP strategy of playing offense against Trump's opponents. That meant not directly answering whether it was proper for Trump to urge the new Ukrainian president and the government of China to investigate links between Biden, a Democratic presidential front-runner, and his son Hunter Biden's international business interests.
"Is it OK for the president to reach out to China and Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political rival?" asked Kevin Petroske, a chef from Blaine.
Emmer responded by bringing up Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian energy company while his father was in the Obama White House.
"What's wrong is when you've got somebody who's related to the vice president who's garnering $50,000 ..." Emmer said, as the crowd began to shout over him.
"He deflected," Petroske said later.
That pattern repeated over a contentious hourlong meeting, one of a half-dozen congressional town hall meetings taking place around Minnesota on a two-week congressional recess that has brought Washington lawmakers in contact with voters for the first time since the impeachment inquiry began.
Emmer's town hall, in a pro-Trump district stretching from the northern Twin Cities suburbs to St. Cloud, demonstrated that even well-entrenched Minnesota Republicans are not immune from the fallout of the impeachment fight that is dividing the nation. It took place two days ahead of a new Fox News poll showing that a narrow majority of registered voters around the nation — 51% — favor impeachment and removal from office.
The largely pro-impeachment group gathered at Emmer's town hall was not necessarily representative of a district that previously sent conservative stalwart Michele Bachmann to Washington. But Brandon Taitt, a leader of the North Metro chapter of the anti-Trump group Indivisible, said he encouraged members to come to the meeting to speak up about impeachment.
Emmer was forced to parry numerous jabs over his support for Trump. At times, he forcefully rebutted his questioners. At other moments, he stayed silent. And when it came to impeachment, Emmer did not give an inch.
"We were told there was a quid pro quo. There was no quid pro quo," Emmer told the crowd, drawing boos and shouts.
But for now, Republicans in safe districts like Emmer's see little reason to give in on impeachment, and in fact see it as a potential rallying cry for the Trump faithful who elected them.
Emmer won re-election by 22 points last year, and 33 points in 2016. That same year, Trump carried the district by 25 points. National Democrats have not made a priority of ousting Emmer, a former state representative who succeeded Bachmann in Congress.
House Republicans have been Trump's closest allies on Capitol Hill, and few have offered any criticism of the president's interactions with the government of Ukraine, which has been seeking U.S. military aid to hold off Russian-backed separatists. Like Emmer, Minnesota's two other Republicans in Congress, Reps. Pete Stauber and Jim Hagedorn, have criticized the impeachment probe as a partisan exercise, and issued no public criticism of Trump's behavior.
Nevertheless, town halls like the one in Blaine have challenged Trump's defenders with an intensity matched by few of the president's earlier controversies.
"The reason I'm here tonight is that I'm worried about our democracy surviving," said Dave Stinson, a financial analyst from Andover who showed up at the Blaine meeting. He asked Emmer how anyone who read Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, as Emmer said he did, could say it's time to move on.
"Thirty-two million dollars, two years, a huge team doing the investigation. And they come up with no collusion and no obstruction," Emmer said.
"Respectfully, that's a lie," Stinson shot back.
Mueller said in congressional testimony that his investigation did not issue a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice.
Emmer didn't overtly defend Trump's behavior in the probe of his campaign's dealings with Russia, although he did criticize Mueller for "investigating the entire Trump family."
But he saved his harshest words for the mechanics of the Democrats' impeachment process, echoing the arguments of a White House letter to Democratic leaders earlier on Tuesday.
Emmer said that the House Judiciary Committee should be conducting the impeachment inquiry rather than the Intelligence Committee because that would provide a more open process. He said Democrats should hold a vote to explicitly authorize the impeachment process and that Republicans should have equal subpoena powers.
And, he added, impeachment is a distraction from more important work before Congress, an argument Republicans have used to attack moderate Democrats like Minnesota U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips. Both only recently came out in favor of the impeachment inquiry into the Ukraine matter.
As things stand, Emmer said he supports the administration's decision not to cooperate with the House inquiry.
"My colleagues on the other side of the aisle have become so focused on one thing, and that's undoing the election of 2016," Emmer said. "Americans deserve to vote on this president and this administration next November."
While that argument did not go over well with many in the crowd, Abdul-Rahman Magba-Kamara, an insurance agent from Hugo, said he appreciated Emmer's willingness to face tough questions. He said he felt that Emmer's critics should have been more respectful "and not shouted over him."
A Republican, Magba-Kamara said he wants to know all the facts before making a judgment on Trump's impeachment. "Democrats aren't making this easy for the rest of us because either you're with them or you're the enemy, and that just makes me defensive and pushes me closer to my side," he said.
Adam Kish-Bailey, an electrician from Blaine, didn't come with a question for Emmer — he came with a message. "While I haven't always agreed with what you've done in Congress, I thought you were a person of principle," said Kish-Bailey, citing the way Emmer "stood up for" Somali residents of St. Cloud. "But I don't think that anymore. I think you're blindly following a guy who's tearing this country apart."
Emmer did not respond.