In her first town hall of the year, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst faced about a dozen questions from constituents, including why she did not vote to remove President Donald Trump from office, how she was working to lower the cost of prescription drugs and about her campaign’s ties to a “dark money” group.
Saturday afternoon in Lucas County, Ernst attempted to justify her disdain for the impeachment inquiry by comparing Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to a conversation President Barack Obama had with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2012.
“I compare it to what happened with President Barack Obama, and how many of you remember the hot mic moment where President Obama was caught negotiating with the president of Russia, [Vladimir] Putin’s predecessor, and he said directly to him, ‘if you allow me space in my election’ — and these are his words, we can go back and Google it — ‘If you allow me space in my election, I will have more flexibility following that election,'” Ernst said, at Carpenters Hall in Chariton.
“What they were referring to is the missile defense system in Europe, which would defend our allies from the Russians,” she continued. “So, what President Obama did actually was talking about interfering from the Russians with the political process in the United States, by allowing him ‘space’ to be reelected and then putting our troops in Europe at risk from Russian missiles by not bolstering those missile defense systems.
“That to me is far beyond what President Trump did,” Ernst said, “and yet President Obama was not brought up on impeachment charges.”
Ernst is not the first Republican to bring up Obama’s conversation with Medvedev as a way to try and deflect from President Trump asking the Ukrainian government to investigate a potential political rival, Joe Biden, and his son.
Last November, Politifact fact-checked a statement made by Ohio Congressman Brad Wenstrup, accusing Obama of withholding military assistance from Ukraine so it would be easier for the Russians to attack an American ally.
Politifact’s analysis found that Wenstrup’s theory “didn’t make much sense” because Russia hadn’t yet invaded Ukraine, and at the time of the 2012 meeting, there was no indication Russia and Ukraine were headed toward war.
A transcript from ABC News relayed Obama saying, “On all of these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space.”
Obama added: “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
Ernst also dismissed the idea that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother were unfairly ousted from the National Security Council because of testimony Lt. Col. Vindman provided — after being subpoenaed by the House — during Trump’s impeachment trial.
“They served at the pleasure of the president, all of them do,” Ernst said. “The president will decide who will serve as his appointees. All of those are appointed positions. So, Col. Vindman is still serving in the United States Army, folks. He has not been relieved of any sort of command. He was removed from one position, and the president has every right to do that, every right.”
Ernst also fielded a question about how Congress would address the high cost of prescription drugs. She was thanked by the constituent for supporting fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act.”
One of the central tenants of Grassley’s bill limits the ability of Medicare’s prescription drug benefit program to increase prices beyond the rate of inflation. If drug companies increase prices at a pace greater than the inflation rate, they would face a penalty. The bill also caps seniors’ annual out-of-pocket drug costs at $3,100.
So-called “price caps” are a cost-reduction strategy that Ernst and other Republicans don’t fully support.
“I think we have a good shot, obviously, with the Grassley-Wyden bill,” Ernst said. “There’s still some issues that I will have in the bill as well, but I think it is such a great step forward. We have several different bills that hopefully we can package with the Grassley-Wyden bill that will help it get through the Senate.”
The final question of the hour-long forum was about Iowa Values, a political nonprofit that, according to an Associated Press investigation, has worked with Ernst’s campaign to aid her reelection.
Watchdog groups have requested the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service investigate whether Iowa Values and Ernst’s campaign have illegally coordinated.
“That is an outside organization,” Ernst said. “So, um, it is an outside organization. But you would have to talk to my campaign folks, and I can direct you to them. Because this is an official event, I’m not going to talk about campaign activities. But we’re certainly happy to answer that if you talk to the campaign. What I can say in a forum like this, is that my campaign follows the law. We follow the law.”
By Elizabeth Meyer