U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks during a Denison town hall meeting Friday afternoon. About 40 people attended the event to listen to Ernst speak about President Trump’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, climate change and more. (Photos by Caitlin Yamada.)
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks during a Denison town hall meeting Friday afternoon. About 40 people attended the event to listen to Ernst speak about President Trump’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, climate change and more. (Photos by Caitlin Yamada.)

July 29, 2019

DENISON

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said in a Denison town hall Friday afternoon that President Donald Trump should never meet alone with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump should have another person in meetings with Putin “so that there is not some sort of whatever going on behind the scenes,” Ernst said in response to an audience question at the town hall, a midday event attended by about 40 people at Denison High School.

Ernst, who faces reelection in 2020 to the Senate, said this a long-held position.

“As far as President Trump meeting in private with President Putin, I’ve disagreed with that,” Ernst said. “I’ve publicly stated that many times over that any time he goes into a meeting with President Putin he should have somebody in there serving as a scribe.”

Later, in an email to the Carroll Times Herald, as reports of Ernst’s comments hit social media, the senator’s communications director, Brendan Conley, said Ernst believes such a policy should apply to any president.

In a related matter, Ernst did not answer an audience question at the town hall from a man who said he thinks Trump is violating the emoluments clause of Constitution, that the president is using his office to enrich himself and connected entities from foreigners at, for example, Trump hotels and other properties.

“Why don’t we get back to you on that,” Ernst said before moving on to next question.

Also at the forum, State Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail, told Ernst he’s reading three books on Civil War and sees similarities between today’s political climate and the lead-up to Civil War.

“Everyone hated Abraham Lincoln,” Segebart said.

Asked about Segebart’s comment by another audience member, Ernst said she interpreted Segebart’s observation as a analysis of two historical time periods, not a direct comparison of Lincoln and Trump.

In an interview following the town hall, Ernst said she would not endorse a candidate in Iowa’s 4th District Republican primary, where incumbent Congressman Steve King faces opposition. Ernst singled out one challenger, State Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, with whom she has interacted in the Iowa Senate, where she served before being elected as Iowa’s first female U.S. senator.

Ernst said King and Feenstra are equally qualified to serve in Congress.

“I do, I think there’s a lot of brilliance coming from both sides,” Ernst said.

Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor and retired Irwin businessman Bret Richards are also in the GOP primary for the 4th District. No Democrat has formally announced, although former Sioux City Explorers baseball player J.D. Scholten, who narrowly lost the 2018 general election to King, is mulling another bid. Scholten may also join the Senate race for Ernst’s seat.

In the Ernst town hall, which focused heavily on immigration, the Red Oak Republican said she advocates using biometrics — fingerprints and eye scans — to track immigrants on visas and screen employees working in interior United States to make sure they are here legally.

“You have to have cooperation from both (political) sides to get that done,” Ernst said. “So we are struggling with a number of those issues right now. We are not finding that level of want or desire.”

Ernst said she recently spent time at the border in McAllen, Texas, which is at the southern tip of the Lone Star State.

“I didn’t see what was reported to have been done in some of these other areas,” Ernst said. “My perspective is very, different. I think we have border agents that are working very, very hard to secure our nation, and they’re doing absolutely the best they can with what they’ve been given.”

Ernst said the McAllen region is one of the busiest for illegal border crossings.

The senator said she visited a temporary holding facility that is made of tents but has air-conditioning units attached.

Ernst said she talked to border agents and migrants — and the latter did not complain to her, Ernst said.

“They had access to water, they had access to food,” Ernst said. “They had sleeping mats. Granted, they were on the ground, but they were nicer mats.”

The big-picture solution is to secure the border and close asylum loopholes, Ernst said.

“And then maybe those families wouldn’t make that dangerous journey across Mexico,” Ernst said.

That said, Ernst said employee-starved businesses in Iowa would benefit from more legal immigration, and she wants to see that process sped up for doctors and engineers and other professionals as well as new arrivals in the trades.

Near the end of the town hall, Manning Democrat Peter Leo, a former Statehouse candidate, challenged Ernst on global warming. Leo pointed to reports from scientists that predict changes to weather patterns that could be challenging for Iowa farmers.

Ernst said solutions that force behavior, like the so-called Green New Deal, which, among other things, proposes to hit zero emissions for power demands in the United States in the next decade, are unrealistic and would crater the economy.

“How many of you are going to go to sell your car today and go buy an all-electric vehicle?” Ernst asked the audience, which booed.

She then added, in criticism of the Green New Deal, “Everybody shut down your businesses and go home.”

Ernst said incentivizing “good behavior” with development of wind-energy and solar projects makes the most practical sense.

Leo said after the event that he was disappointed in Ernst’s answer.

“I went into Sen. Ernst’s town hall hoping she’d take seriously the concerns I and many others have about protecting the farm economy from the effects of climate change,” Leo said. “Instead, she laughed us off and acted like a 20 percent decrease in Iowa’s average corn and soybean yields by 2050 due to rising temperatures is nothing to worry about. I can’t believe she’s so dismissive of the most dangerous threat to the future of rural America. Didn’t she ever study the Dust Bowl?”