The birth of a Trumpist: How Elise Stefanik became one of the president's most ferocious supporters

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WASHINGTON — On Nov. 7, Elise Stefanik, the third-term Republican congresswoman from upstate New York, introduced legislation to fund upkeep for veterans’ cemeteries. The bill’s co-sponsor was Democrat Antonio Delgado, who entered Congress in 2018, after a ferocious contest in which the National Republican Congressional Committee tried to smear him for rap lyrics he had written as a young man.

Just a few weeks ago, Stefanik had no problem collaborating with a progressive like Delgado, who is also from New York. Or with a moderate Democrat like Anthony Brindisi, with whom she worked, also in early November, to secure funding for parts of New York devastated by floods.

When she wasn’t tending to her district, the 35-year-old Albany native was attending closed-door witness depositions in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s alleged attempt to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate political opponents. Those depositions were held in a basement room of the U.S. Capitol.

ReRepresentative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, speaks during an impeachment inquiry hearing in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 13, 2019. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., at an impeachment inquiry hearing on Nov. 13. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At first, Stefanik didn’t seem overly invested in the proceedings. According to an analysis of publicly available data by the progressive Center for American Progress Action Fund, Stefanik missed six of the 14 witness depositions that have been made public, giving her an attendance rate of 57 percent. That is actually near the top for Republican attendance; on average, GOP members on one of the three House committees involved in the inquiry showed up for only 3.2 depositions.

Stefanik’s spokeswoman, Maddie Anderson, noted that the congresswoman had among the highest attendance percentages of any Republican on the three impeachment inquiry committees. Stefanik missed several depositions, Anderson said, because she was on a congressional delegation to Afghanistan and also hosted town halls in her district.

In the eight witness depositions she attended, Stefanik stayed largely silent, asking a total of five questions. Those five came in the depositions of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a former official on the National Security Council, and Laura Cooper, a high-ranking Pentagon deputy. The questions were not especially confrontational, nor the kinds of diatribes members of both parties frequently use to tout their own partisan bona fides.

Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, left, and National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Jennifer Williams and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 19. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Most of Stefanik’s questions came during her single substantive exchange with Vindman, whom she questioned about the phone calls between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that are at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

And a good portion of that Vindman exchange has Stefanik explaining to Vindman’s attorney, Michael Volkov, that she is a member of Congress, not a congressional staffer.

“I don’t know who you are,” Volkov said.

He probably knows now. Since the impeachment inquiry entered its public phase earlier in November, Stefanik has become one of Trump’s most avid defenders. The only Republican woman on the House Intelligence Committee, she has routinely frustrated the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, with criticisms of his procedural decisions (in particular, refusal to summon certain witnesses demanded by Republicans). After the hearings last week, she held press conferences with Trump loyalists like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., front left, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, right, and other Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee, speak to members of the media as they conclude the testimony of U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump's efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 20, 2019. ((Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Stefanik, Rep. Jim Jordan, right, and other Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee speak to the media on Nov. 20. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The days of working with progressives like Delgado seem like an eternity ago. And it may be another eternity yet until anyone left of center works with Stefanik again, given how confused she has left a Democratic establishment.

Stefanik, who had previously kept her distance from Trump, did not previously seem enthusiastic about the prospect of defending the president. Only weeks ago, there had been talk on Capitol Hill that she might be one of two or three Republicans to vote in favor of opening an impeachment inquiry. She didn’t, but even the mere suggestion seems outlandish now.

Trump has certainly noticed. After her first eruption at Schiff on national television, the president declared on Twitter that a “new Republican Star is born.” He made the same point as the witness testimony concluded in the impeachment inquiry and the House Intelligence Committee prepared to file a report of its findings to the House Judiciary Committee. “I’ll tell you what, this young woman from upstate New York, she has become a star,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends.”

He had likely seen her primetime interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News the evening before, an appearance during which Stefanik called herself an “outspoken advocate for the facts” who had been maligned by the “Hollywood left.”

Stefanik’s newly harsh rhetoric has left many of her Democratic colleagues stunned. “I was really bummed to see her go the Trump route like this,” says Katie Hill, the former progressive congresswoman from the Los Angeles area. “She was one of the few that often broke with Trump. I was very surprised.”

Like others who spoke to Yahoo News for this article — most of them on the condition of anonymity — Hill praised Stefanik, who graduated from Harvard University in 2006, as exceptionally intelligent. And like most of the Democrats asked to explain Stefanik’s transformation, she could not fully account for the decision to side with Trump.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, answers a question about her statement on Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., at the end of a news conference on sexual harassment in the workplace, Dec. 6, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. At far left is Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Stefanik and Rep. Pramila Jayapal listen as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in 2017. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

However surprising her evolution into an unapologetic Trumpist has been, Stefanik has been preparing for high-stakes politics for the better part of a decade. Whatever else is at work, sophisticated political calculation is doubtlessly guiding her in this strange political season. That calculation, people say, has been there for decades.

Josh Schwerin was a young political operative in early 2009, working on a House race in upstate New York that would decide who would replace Kirsten Gillibrand, who had just been appointed to the U.S. Senate seat held until then by Hillary Clinton. Schwerin’s candidate was Scott Murphy, a Democrat.

As Schwerin remembers it, Murphy was at an event at “a greenhouse or garden shop” in either Otsego or Delaware County. “Per usual, Republicans sent a kid with a camera to follow Murphy around,” remembers Schwerin, who now works for the progressive political organization Priorities USA. “This time there was also a woman dressed in a business suit (very out of place given the setting) who claimed to be a local college student. She started asking questions about gun laws, which had been a point of contention in the race, with the hope of getting Murphy to trip up on camera.”

Murphy avoided making a gun-related gaffe and that spring won Gillibrand’s former seat. Sometime after that, Schwerin was attending a party in Washington, D.C., when he “met the woman in the business suit,” as he puts it. “Turns out we had some mutual friends, and her name was Elise Stefanik.”

She had graduated from Harvard three years before her campaign-stop encounter with Murphy.

Anderson, the Stefanik spokeswoman, disputed Schwerin’s account. Stefanik “has never tracked or filmed a candidate,” Anderson said, though she did acknowledge that the congresswoman volunteered for Murphy’s opponent.

Then-Republican Congressional candidate, now-Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. walks the business district in Ballston Spa, N.Y. on  Aug. 27, 2014. (Photo: Mike Groll/AP)
Then-Republican congressional candidate Elise Stefanik walks the business district in Ballston Spa, N.Y., in 2014. (Photo: Mike Groll/AP)

About three years later, Stefanik joined Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency. One person who worked with her on that effort, and who remains involved in Republican politics, describes her as “smart and hardworking. Ambitious and arrogant.”

Romney’s defeat in 2012 only made Republicans more anxious to keep President Barack Obama in check during his second term. Not only did the GOP retake the Senate in 2014, but it increased its share of House seats to a size not seen since 1928. Among the legislators newly sworn in the following January was Stefanik. At 30, she was the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives, a distinction she would hold until last year, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City supplanted her by about a year.

Unlike the woman now known simply as AOC, Stefanik did not arrive in Washington intent on immediately establishing her own star power. In her first year in office, she received all of four mentions in the New York Times. As partisanship increased during the last two years of the Obama presidency and the first two of Trump’s, Stefanik earned a reputation as “one of the most reasonable Republicans here,” an aide to a Democratic congressman told Yahoo News. The aide called her a “sensible moderate, someone we wanted to work with,” noting that Stefanik acknowledged the threat of climate change and voted against Trump’s 2017 package of tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals.

Especially flabbergasted by Stefanik’s recent volte-face are Democrats who have worked with her on the House Armed Services Committee and who saw her as above the petty vendettas and cynical alliances that mark so much of the daily business on Capitol Hill. “She always billed herself as a moderate focused on national security,” said an aide to a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. “Now she’s producing political theater,” he lamented, describing the committee’s Democratic majority as “pretty shook” by Stefanik’s staunch opposition during the impeachment hearings.

Exactly why Stefanik has chosen this moment to raise the Trump flag is difficult to say. Some believe she is motivated by an antipathy for Schiff, and in particular because of his handling of the impeachment inquiry. If that were the case, however, she could have expressed her frustration during the inquiry’s private phase. She declined to do so in the eight hearings she attended, remaining fully silent for six of the witness depositions, according to the transcripts that have been publicly released.

Max Bergmann, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, offered that some Republican members of Congress, including Stefanik, are taking advantage of the hearings as a way of “putting on a show for their audience of one — Donald Trump.” Largely unknown to a national audience before Schiff gaveled in the proceedings in the Longworth House Office Building, Stefanik is being talked about as a potential party leader.

Then Rep-elect Elise Stefanik in 2014 and challenger Tedra Cobb. (Photos: Mike Groll/AP)
Elise Stefanik and challenger Tedra Cobb. (Photos: Mike Groll/AP)

Yet her decision to go all in for Trump also carries risk for her political future. Stefanik is now facing a genuine electoral challenge from Tedra Cobb, a local politician who also ran against her in 2018. Stefanik defeated Cobb easily then, by 15 points. But in a solidly Republican district, this was news. “Tedra Cobb gives Stefanik strongest challenge since 2014,” ran a headline in a local newspaper.

Cobb is now challenging Stefanik again. Then, as before, Cobb is highlighting the fact that the vast majority of her opponent’s contributions come from outside the district and, in fact, outside New York state. And Stefanik’s prominence in the impeachment inquiry seems to help Cobb’s broader argument. A staffer on the Cobb campaign told Yahoo News that her campaign raised $1 million in the three days following the first public testimony in the impeachment inquiry. Among Cobb’s more vociferous supporters was George Conway — Republican lawyer, Trump detractor, spouse of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway — who controversially called Stefanik “lying trash” on Twitter.

But impeachment has also boosted Stefanik, leading her to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars of her own. “I am Rep. Elise Stefanik,” stated a fundraising email she sent as her popularity was soaring, “and I am the 35-year-old Republican Congresswoman standing between the Democrats and our American Democracy.”

Hill, the former congresswoman, responded on Twitter with a pithy message that seemed to encapsulate Democrats’ disappointment, their amazement that a woman as smart as Stefanik would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump.

“Wait, wut,” she wrote.


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