Where in the World Did Elise Stefanik Go?
Elise Stefanik, who is now the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, used to hate Donald Trump so much that she wouldn’t even say his name. He is proud to call her “one of my killers” today.
Last month, she proved it again. Ms. Stefanik said, “This is not a serious investigation” to try to get people to doubt the select committee that was looking into the violent attack on the Capitol. This is a political witch hunt by one side.” She said that the committee has no right to be there. She did not change her mind after the hearings. Midway through July, before the last session planned for the summer, she called the committee a “sham” and said, “This is way worse than the first and second parts of the impeachment witch hunt.”
Maybe Ms. Stefanik kept trying to discredit the House committee because the evidence it has gotten from Trump insiders and the way it has been presented has done Mr. Trump a lot of damage, even though he might still win the Republican nomination for president for the third time in a row. Ms. Stefanik’s plans to hurt the committee didn’t work, but it’s not because she didn’t try.
Some of Mr. Trump’s advisers are talking about Ms. Stefanik as a possible vice-presidential candidate if he runs for president in 2024, which he and his advisers strongly hint he will do.
The change in 38-year-old Ms. Stefanik is one of the most dramatic and important in U.S. politics. Several people I talked to who used to be close to her and worked with her in the White House of George W. Bush are sad and angry about her change of heart about politics. I did not work with her directly, but I did work with other people who did. The way they see it, Ms. Stefanik’s story is about a person who gave up her beliefs and her country in a mad rush for power.
Ms. Stefanik was born in upstate New York and went to Albany Academy for Girls and Harvard. After that, she worked for the Bush administration on the Domestic Policy Council and then in the office of the White House chief of staff. She worked for Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign in 2012, and then she was in charge of getting Paul Ryan ready for his debates as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
Ms. Stefanik was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress when she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2014. In January 2017, Ms. Stefanik became a co-chair of the Tuesday Group. The Tuesday Group is made up of moderate Republicans who work as a balance to the right-wing Freedom Caucus. The Freedom Caucus was started two years earlier by Mark Meadows, who later became President Trump’s chief of staff. At the time, Ms. Stefanik was seen as practical and very smart. She was part of the Republican Party establishment, and Democrats thought they could work with her.
But all of that changed in just a few years, and now Ms. Stefanik calls herself “ultra-MAGA and proud of it.” Because of what she used to think, she had to reassure people who supported Trump. So, she went on the right-wing provocateur and Mr. Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon’s podcast last year to make her case for replacing Liz Cheney as chair of the House Republican Conference. Bannon is a popular figure among Republicans and was Mr. Trump’s chief strategist. Ms. Stefanik’s bid to replace Ms. Cheney was backed by Mr. Trump, who said in a statement that he “fully and totally endorsed” Ms. Stefanik. And it’s easy to see why. She voted to throw out the 2020 election and has said the same false things about election fraud over and over again.
I talked to a number of people who have worked with Ms. Stefanik over the years. Some were willing to talk on the record, while others wanted to remain anonymous so they could be honest. This helped me figure out what had happened to her and what her rise to power and celebrity status says about the Republican Party in the 21st century.
People who know Ms. Stefanik well think she is smart and talented, but that she is hollow inside. Barbara Comstock, a Republican from Virginia who worked in Congress with Ms. Stefanik, told me that she is a person with “ambition without principles.”
Margaret Hoover, the host of “Firing Line,” worked with Ms. Stefanik in the Bush administration and was consulted by her before her 2014 run for Congress. She said that Ms. Stefanik is “pure ambition” and “has no principles at all.” Another Republican, a former member of Congress who served with Ms. Stefanik and worked closely with her, also told me about her big goals. He used the Greek mythological character Icarus as an example. “She’s flying too close to the sun,” said this person, who asked to remain anonymous so that they could talk freely about her change.
People who worked with Ms. Stefanik say that she didn’t like Mr. Trump at all during the 2016 campaign, and that she was especially upset by the way he treated women. She thought Mr. Trump’s comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape were disgusting, and she thought, like a lot of other people, that he would lose the election. He didn’t, so Ms. Stefanik, like so many other Republicans, started to find a way to work with him. Hers would be done soon.
When George W. Bush was in charge of the Republican Party, she was a Bush Republican. She became a Trump Republican when the Republican Party became a Trump party. People who worked with her before will tell you that she meant it then and still does. She is the kind of person whose views are shaped by where she is, and right now she is in a pro-Trump district and a party that has become very pro-Trump.
Several of the people I talked to about Ms. Stefanik told me about two important steps on her way to MAGA world. The first was a visit by Mr. Trump to Fort Drum in August 2018. Fort Drum is an Army base that has a big effect on the economy and politics of the 21st Congressional District in New York, which she represents. Ms. Stefanik was happy to see how many people came to see the president and how excited they were. Ms. Comstock told me, “Elise stood in front of the MAGA Trump crowd and decided to let go of her old self and follow instead of lead.” “It marked the start of the end.”
But Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial in 2019 was the most important turning point. Ms. Stefanik said that Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the committee in charge of the impeachment trial, was trying to shut down Republicans. She also got into a fight with Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, whose testimony about Mr. Trump was very bad.
Ms. Stefanik’s performance made Mr. Trump so happy that he called her a “new Republican star” on Twitter. After that, her life changed. She got a lot more famous and was able to raise a lot of money from her new position and new way of standing.
A Bush administration worker who worked with Ms. Stefanik told me, “She became famous.” This person asked to remain anonymous so that they could talk freely about what is still a very sensitive subject. This person said, “Until then, she hadn’t fully jumped on the Trump train. Then she was put in first class and couldn’t get off. First class is pretty comfortable.”
I tried to get a comment from Ms. Stefanik twice through her communications director, but I never heard back. In her defense, Ms. Stefanik has said that she is speaking for the majority of people in her district, which is true. In 2016, Mr. Trump won by 14 percentage points in her district. She told Mr. Bannon on his show, “I speak for farmers, manufacturers, and hard-working families who want someone to stand up for them, and President Trump spoke to those people.”
But even if you think that the job of an elected representative is to vote according to the will of the voters and not to owe voters one’s “judgment and conscience,” as the British parliamentarian and conservative political theorist Edmund Burke famously said, there are times when doing what the voters want is wrong. That is for sure true if a member of Congress has to back a president who is causing trouble.
People who know Ms. Stefanik say that what happened to her is sad and scary because she should have known better. She was willing to let life shape her, even when it took her to bad places and made her believe in conspiracy theories. This is different from what happened to Ms. Cheney, who was kicked out of the Republican leadership and replaced by Ms. Stefanik. Ms. Cheney speaks for the people of Wyoming on many important issues, but she drew the line when it came to an attack on our democracy at its core. She wouldn’t do something like that. Ms. Stefanik did.
The story of Ms. Stefanik is important because it is similar to the stories of so many other Republicans. They are opportunists, just like Ms. Stefanik. They live in the moment and change who they are to help their immediate political goals. They don’t seem to care about doing the right thing, caring about the common good, or sticking to the truth. These traits are just tools that can be used when it’s helpful and thrown away when it’s not.
When I talked to politicians and people who worked in the Bush administration, they were worried that Republicans in Congress would think that Ms. Stefanik’s path to power is the one to follow. The fastest way to become a leader is to work with people like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon, and “the army of the base,” which is made up of QAnon followers, Christian nationalists, right-wing talk radio fans, and people who want to change the results of elections.
The person in the Bush administration who worked with Ms. Stefanik told me that her move into MAGA-dom was a good example of a bigger problem. “By herself, Elise is not a particularly bad person. She is more of a sign than a cause.” But this person said that she and other Republicans “could have made a difference if they had had the courage to work together.”
They could have shown that Mr. Trump’s actions were bad and against the law. They could have tried to change the way the Republican base feels in a healthy way. But they said no.
Never mind Ms. Stefanik. This person said, “I put a lot of the blame on the dozens and dozens of Republican leaders who agreed to things they knew were wrong.”
During the time of Trump, Republican lawmakers did a terrible job of being leaders when it came to calming down angry populists.
Wise people who follow politics have told me that in a populist time like ours, leaders need to figure out which complaints are valid and which are not. Leaders talk about real problems and figure out how to solve them through policies. Demagogs make up problems that aren’t real and talk to people about them in dangerous ways. In times of populism, good leaders try to stop bad things and bring up the good. Ms. Stefanik and a very large number of other people chose to highlight the worst.
This has done a lot of damage to the political world and made Americans even less trusting of politics as a whole. I don’t even want to think about what it tells younger people who might want to run for office.
Ms. Hoover told me that taking the path to power that Ms. Stefanik has chosen “degrades and demeans public service.” “Anyone who cares about how our government works should find what she did to be very wrong. We deserve better. Our country deserves better, and so do the people who lived here before us.
At the end of my talk with Ms. Comstock, I asked her how she thought Ms. Stefanik’s game was going.
“I do think this hurts people in the end,” she said. “It might seem like a good idea in the short term, but things like this usually go horribly wrong.”
She also said, “I don’t see Elise’s story as a success story.” “It won’t work out. Stories like this never do.”