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Several Republican lawmakers have accused protesters at recent town hall-style meetings of being the tools of deep-pocketed benefactors pushing a liberal agenda.
They’re being paid to demonstrate, some GOP officials say, with some activists being shipped in from out of state to Republican-led congressional districts to kick up an artificial fuss.
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas was one Republican who leveled the charge in a Feb. 21 statement. Gohmert was refusing to hold any constituent meetings because of protests elsewhere.
"Unfortunately, at this time there are groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety," the statement read.
His statement noted former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords "was shot at a public appearance," prompting Giffords to release a statement excoriating members of Congress who "have abandoned their civic obligations" to "have some courage" and "hold town halls."
While Gohmert is not the only official to claim protesters are being paid, nothing has yet turned up to support those claims. The burden of proof still lies with the accusers, however, and Republicans haven’t been offering any evidence (and neither did Democrats when they made similar claims about the tea party a few years ago).
First thing about these town hall protests: Crowds have been pretty raucous and confrontational, but not violent.
Gohmert spokeswoman Kimberly Willingham did not provide evidence that protesters had been paid.
Also silent when we asked for proof was Jim DeMint, a former senator from South Carolina who now is president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. He told Greta Van Susteren on MSNBC on Feb. 22 that’s he’d been reading the Indivisible Guide, a handbook for grassroots protest compiled by several Democratic former congressional staffers.
DeMint tried to draw a contrast between Indivisible’s protesters and the tea party, saying Indivisible’s activists were "very well-financed, very well-organized" and were "being bused around to go to these different town halls to disrupt them."
That was news to the leaders of Indivisible, who have said they only tried to provide resources — how to found an activist group, how to reach members of Congress, how to hold meetings and form talking points, etc. — to groups unhappy with leaders in their districts.
"It’s easier to say all these protests are paid than to admit there are wide swaths of people in your district who disagree with how they are represented in Congress," Sarah Dohl, a spokeswoman for Indivisible told PolitiFact.
Dohl said there were only a handful of people behind Indivisible, which offers a website that has registered more than 5,300 different activist groups in order to help them organize. The group was conceived over Thanksgiving 2016, she said, actually drawing from some tea party principles (keeping groups relatively small and committed to local issues, for example). While they have received some donations, none of the board members draw a salary.
Most of the people Indivisible helps have not been politically active before, Dohl said, but President Donald Trump’s election had sparked them into action.
One such protester is Caitlynn Moses, a 23-year-old from Fayetteville, Ark. She told us she had never gotten involved in politics, but helped organize her group Ozark Indivisible to convince Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to hold a town hall meeting in Springdale on Feb. 22.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., faced a large crowd at a meeting in Springdale, Ark.
Cotton acknowledged the paid protester controversy at the meeting, which Moses said attracted more than 2,000 people.
"I don't care if anybody here is paid or not," Cotton said. "You're all Arkansans and I'm glad to hear from you."
Moses was glad Cotton was willing to come out, although she laughs at the idea that her group — or anyone other activist — is paid to attend forums.
"I would say the majority of us are losing money to do this," she said. "It's so important for us to stand up for what we believe that we are willing to sacrifice for it. The rumor that we're paid protestors is absolutely despicable. It's just something someone came up with so they could write us off."
The backlash against protests has roots in the current White House, which has questioned their legitimacy since before Trump took office.
Press secretary Sean Spicer said on Feb. 22 that he thought "some people are clearly upset, but there is a bit of professional protester manufactured base in there."
This after Spicer earlier this month on Fox News accused protesters opposing Trump’s executive order on immigration of being "a very paid, ‘AstroTurf’ type movement."
If that term sounds familiar, it’s because liberal pundits and politicians used it to describe the tea party in 2009.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said in April 2009 that "the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grassroots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects."
Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also used the term, saying of the tea party a few days later: "This initiative is funded by the high end; we call it AstroTurf, it's not really a grassroots movement. It's AstroTurf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class."
Trump addressed the protests last week, tweeting, "The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists."
That echoes a common fallback position for politicians who can’t prove that protesters are paid, University of California-Irvine sociology and political science professor David Meyer told us.
"It's a little interesting that some of the Republican targets, unable to substantiate the paid professionals charge, retreat to making the claim that the protesters are organized," said Meyer, who wrote the book The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America. "Of course they are. Someone distributed information about the time and place of each town meeting and encouraged people to show up and ask tough questions. That's how politics works."
Meyer has looked into several activist groups, with no evidence yet of protesters being paid. The closest some aides have come is suggesting that Planned Parenthood, with its paid staff, have supported activist meetings, he said.
Trump has been suspicious of protesters since the campaign trail, when he accused Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama of paying people to incite violence at rallies, without ever providing proof.
The Internet also has spread unproven or outright faked claims that protesters raked in thousands of dollars or that George Soros paid Women’s March participants. Soros has denied such reports; his foundation has recently denied paying town hall protesters.
Town hall attendees have taken to holding up their drivers licenses and signs with their ZIP codes in order to prove that they live in the districts in which they are protesting.
"Not a single member has challenged the authenticity of a town hall questioner to their face," said Nathan Williams, a spokesman for volunteer-based forum organizers the Town Hall Project. "Because they all know these claims of ‘paid protesters’ are ridiculous."
Williams said the Town Hall Project has no paid employees, even its full-time staff.
Gohmert said political activists are "being paid" to protest members of Congress.
His office didn’t provide any evidence of this, and neither did several other Republican officials we asked. It’s possible some protesters somewhere may be paid, but there’s zero evidence of a wide-ranging conspiracy to bring in paid activists to disrupt meetings.
We rate this statement False.
U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert, "Gohmert Responds to Group Calling for Town Hall Meeting," Feb. 21, 2017
New York Times, "Tea Parties Forever," April 12, 2009
Roll Call, "Pelosi: GOP Tax Protest Is AstroTurf, Not Grass Roots," April 15, 2009
PolitiFact, "Pants on Fire claim that George Soros money went to Women's March protesters," Jan. 25, 2017
PolitiFact, "Trump says Clinton and Obama paid people to cause violence at his rallies," Oct. 20, 2016
PolitiFact, "No, someone wasn't paid $3,500 to protest Donald Trump; it's fake news," Nov. 17, 2016
Mediaite.com, "Sean Spicer: Anti-Travel Ban Protesters are ‘Absolutely’ Paid Demonstrators," Feb. 6, 2017
Deseret News, "Chaffetz says town hall crowd tried 'bullying and intimidation'," Feb. 10, 2017
New York, "Chaffetz Claims, Without Evidence, That Town-Hall Protesters Were Paid Outsiders," Feb. 11, 2017
President Donald Trump, Twitter, Feb. 21, 2017
CBS News, "Town hall protesters scoff at Trump admin's claim they're paid agitators," Feb. 22, 2017
Mediaite.com, "Town Hall Crowd Cheers When Woman Tells Tom Cotton ‘I Am Not a Paid Protester’," Feb. 22, 2017
USA Today, "Take a peek at protests at town halls around the country," Feb. 22, 2017
PoliticsOutdoors.com, "The Trump resistance IS organized," Feb. 22, 2017
Fox News, "Spicer: Some 'Professional Protesters' Showing Up at GOP Town Halls," Feb. 22, 2017
CNN, "Indivisible leaders fight back against criticism of town hall protests," Feb. 22, 2017
The Hill, "GOP rep: Town hall protesters are constituents, not paid demonstrators," Feb. 23, 2017
Politico, "GOP split on whether paid protesters are to blame for rowdy town halls," Feb. 23, 2017
Politico, "No evidence town hall protesters are being paid," Feb. 24, 2017
The Hill, "George Soros denies funding town hall protests," Feb. 24, 2017
IndivisibleGuide.com, "Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda," accessed Feb. 24, 2017
Interview with Sarah Dohl, Indivisible spokeswoman, Feb. 23, 2017
Interview with Kimberly Willingham, Gohmert spokeswoman, Feb. 23, 2017
Interview with John Byers, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance spokesman, Feb. 23, 2017
Interview with Nathan Williams, Town Hall Project spokesman, Feb. 23 & 27, 2017
Interview with Caitlynn Moses, Ozark Indivisible activist, Feb. 24, 2017
Interview with David Meyer, University of California-Irvine sociology and political science professor, Feb. 27, 2017
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