SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz said the raucous reception he received at Thursday evening's town hall meeting was "bullying and an attempt at intimidation" from a crowd opposed to President Donald Trump's election.
"You could see it online a couple days before, a concerted effort in part to just cause chaos," the Utah Republican said Friday. "Democrats are in disbelief that they have nothing but flailing and screaming to deal with this."
The relentless jeering at his and other recent congressional town halls around the country recall the tea party's reaction to President Barack Obama and Democrats, and comes as protests continue over Trump's policies.
Those protests include the women's marches held around the world that drew thousands of demonstrators to the Utah Capitol on the opening day of the 2017 Legislature last month.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, sees the parallels with the tea party movement, but he said it's too soon to say what impact the unrest coming from the left will have at the ballot box.
"I think there is a sense of unease and frustration about the Trump administration, and that concern is coming out in a variety of different ways, including in big demonstrations in major cities. But it's also touching us here in Utah," he said.
That such strong anti-Trump sentiment is coming from one of the most Republican states in the country is surprising, said Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor and an active member of the GOP.
"The fact that it's happening in Utah as well as a lot of places signals there are a lot of people on the left who are still angry and energized," Hagle said. "They're saying they want to be heard."
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said politicians need to pay attention.
"I think for a while this is going to be the new norm, people inserting themselves in the process and demanding some accountability from elected officials," Perry said.
He, too, said it's unclear what that means for candidates in GOP-dominated Utah, where the tea party was able to unseat longtime Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican, in 2010.
"I would not say there's reasons for Republicans right now to be concerned," Perry said. "But there are reasons for them to continue to listen."
Chaffetz said the crowd that filled the auditorium at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights and spilled over into a protest outside included people brought in from other states to disrupt the meeting.
"Absolutely. I know there were," he said, suggesting it was "more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate" than a reflection of the feelings of his 3rd District constituents.
Asked who would foot the bill to fill the audience with outside agitators, Chaffetz said, "do some reporting" and described how one participant made it a point to say he was not being paid by a national Democratic organization.
But Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights, said she believed most of the estimated 1,000 attendees inside the high school auditorium — and at least that many who protested outside — were Chaffetz's constituents.
"I've heard some of my colleagues (at the Utah Legislature) say here today that they had shipped in liberals to give him a bad time," Poulson said. "I serve that area and I listen to their frustrations."
She said when she invited her own constituents to attend a legislative gathering held in Holladay on Thursday night, many in the politically moderate area said they were going to Chaffetz's town hall meeting instead.
"I had so many get back to me and say, 'We've been so upset by what Rep. Chaffetz is doing. We want him to investigate equally, with as much zeal as he did in the past, with this current administration,'" Poulson said.
And although Poulson said she doesn't approve of what she termed "some of the disrespect" shown to Chaffetz at the town hall meeting, she does "recognize that a lot of people are upset and angry."
Don Peay of Utahns for Trump, who has close ties to the Trump family, said he walked out of the meeting that was punctuated by chants including "do your job" "you work for us" and "vote him out."
"It was an angry mob of anarchists. It wasn't just Trump. They hated everything," Peay said. "The behavior at the meeting was a hundred times worse than anything ever out of Trump's mouth."
Some who attended the rally have taken issue with that characterization. Trump's critics and some supporters have lashed out at him over his crude comments about women, his mocking of a handicapped reporter, his temperament, among other issues. At one point during the campaign, Chaffetz said he couldn't look his wife and daughter in the eye and vote for Trump after his crude comments from a 2005 videotape were released. Chaffetz ultimately voted for Trump.
Another longtime Trump supporter, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said "some of the discontent is just a result of disappointment in the election."
But Okerlund said there's an edge to how that's being expressed.
"This is taking it to a new level. All of the demonstrations and some of the vehemence that we have not seen before," he said. "We're just seeing this continued escalation of discontent by the side that isn't in charge."
Much of the focus of the town hall was on whether Chaffetz, as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, would hold the president accountable.
Chaffetz said that was "ironic" since earlier Thursday he had called for "disciplinary action" against a White House counselor who apparently violated federal ethics rules by urging people to buy Ivanka Trump merchandise in a TV interview.
"I’ll never satisfy their desire to bring down Donald Trump. I’ll never satisfy that. It will never be good enough," he said, noting that the president is exempt from conflict of interest laws and his business interests have long been widely known.
"People are asking me to use the power of Congress to do a full-on fishing expedition to investigate him personally on things that are not required by law. I think my doing that would be an abuse of power," Chaffetz said.
The congressman said while it's "important that people have an opportunity to voice their concerns, I think they should be somewhat embarrassed by how a lot of people handled themselves."
Chaffetz said he was trying to provide that opportunity by holding the town hall meeting.
"And I did hear them, but it was hard to hear through all the shouting and yelling," including, he claimed, during the Pledge of Allegiance.
"That’s who these people are," he said. "We’re better than that. That’s not what the average Utahn is like."195 comments on this story
A video of much of the Pledge of Allegiance posted on Facebook appears to show some members of the audience shouting at the end of the pledge, mostly emphasizing the last few words "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all" and then cheering afterward.
Chaffetz said he will continue to make himself available to voters but may now avoid providing a venue "for these radicals to further intimidate."
On Friday, he addressed the Utah State Board of Education, joking about his warm welcome.
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez