U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse D-RI spoke to a crowd of constituents Sunday night at Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, fielding the political concerns of Rhode Island’s largely democratic base and providing a field map for future resistance against President Donald Trump. Though Whitehouse originally organized the event as a community dinner, attendees shirked the meal for intense conversation with their elected representative.
While the notion of a community dinner may traditionally elicit ideas of unity, the night’s start was rocky, underlying the divisiveness that has become so normalized in the aftermath of the contentious 2016 election. After some were excluded from the at-capacity auditorium, chants of “Take it outside” were interwoven with the dull thuds of fists railing against the room’s closed doors.
While people could RSVP on Whitehouse’s government website, an unofficial public Facebook event for the dinner entitled “Sen. Whitehouse, we expect better!” attracted nearly 1,200 interested individuals and centered on Whitehouse’s vote to approve Mike Pompeo as director of the C.I.A. Pompeo has been criticized in the past for his statements condoning torture as an interrogation tactic.
“On that vote, you deserve an explanation,” Whitehouse said. “I concede here I may have been wrong.” Whitehouse explained that he confirmed Pompeo to create a “cordon of maturity” around the Oval Office — a group of intelligent, moral officials to counter Trump on particularly odious decisions.
After being prompted by several audience members, Whitehouse went through the list of Trump nominees he expects to deny, including Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and Rep. Tom Price R-GA as Secretary of Health and Human Services. But much to the chagrin of several particularly vocal attendees, he could not commit to obstructing Trump or his nominees at every given opportunity.
However, Whitehouse went further than some of his Democratic colleagues in speaking openly about the potential for impeachment proceedings against the president. Pushing the protesters to show up to the polls for the 2018 midterm elections, Whitehouse emphasized the importance of putting more Democrats in the House of Representatives so they can begin impeachment proceedings “if they so wish.”
Whitehouse’s mention of impeachment, while only a little over a week into Trump’s term, echoed the feelings of fear and concern voiced by many who attended the event.
“I’m a Muslim. I’m one of those 1.7 billion people he’s so scared of,” a woman from the crowd called out. “This isn’t about terrorism; this is about my daughter.”
Providence resident Amy Small told The Herald that Trump’s executive order limiting travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries was especially worrying. “This country is founded on freedom of religion and the First Amendment,” Small said. “This decision goes against our foundation as a nation of immigrants.”
Hilmy Bakri, president of the Islamic School of Rhode Island, echoed Small’s sentiments in his introduction of Whitehouse. The ban foments distrust of the Muslim-American community, Bakri said. “Even though it affects my community directly, we should all be concerned.”
Whitehouse responded to questions for nearly two hours, eventually moving the gathering outside so that all attendees could participate. While the event had started more contentiously, many reported by the night’s end that they felt somewhat heartened by Whitehouse’s presence and determined plan for resistance.
“Just listening to him come out and answer questions gave me some peace of mind that this isn’t the end of the world,” said Barrington resident Gary Birkowitz.
Part of that assurance likely came from Whitehouse’s mention of the “considerable distaste,” he has seen from many congressional Republicans in response to Trump’s first actions. “I’m seeing a real patriotic concern among Republicans about what he means for our country, not only their party,” Whitehouse said.
“If the bad decisions continue it won’t just be an issue on our side. His side will start to erode around him,” he said. “The Ides of March are coming.”