The Worse Kind Of DC Political Hack, She Remade Her Principles To Fit Her Ambition
When Elise Stefanik was elected to Congress in 2014 to represent New York’s North Country, she was, at age 30, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She had started as a mainstream conservative and worked for the Bush administration and attached herself to politicians like Tim Pawlenty and, most of all, Paul Ryan. When GOP-lite conservative Democrat Bill Owens— who had interrupted a century of GOP domination of the North Country congressional seat— announced he wasn’t running for reelection, she swooped in and easily won the seat. It took her just a couple of years to find fascism more attractive than conservatism and by 2016 she was, at least on the surface, a Trump-backer.
Yesterday, Nick Confessore penned an exhaustive and definitive profile of the MAGA congresswoman based, in part, on the premise that as late as 2018 she still thought Trump was a “whack job” and that she was still a mainstream, conservative who was so frustrated by the MAGA shtik that she was considering retiring. “Instead,” wrote Confessore, “she embarked on one of the most brazen political transformations of the Trump era. With breathtaking speed and alacrity, Stefanik remade herself into a fervent Trump apologist, adopted his over-torqued style on Twitter and embraced the conspiracy theories that animate his base, amplifying debunked allegations of dead voters casting ballots in Atlanta and unspecified ‘irregularities’ involving voting-machine software in 2020 swing states. The future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America [as Ryan had once called her] now assails Democrats as ‘the party of Socialists, illegals, criminals, Communist Truth Ministers & media stenographers.’ In the process, she has rocketed from the backbench to the party’s No. 3 House leadership job, presiding over the conference’s overall messaging. Stefanik’s reinvention has made her a case study in the collapse of the old Republican establishment and its willing absorption into the new, Trump-dominated one. But as Republicans prepare to take control of the House in the coming days, her climb to MAGA stardom may also be a cautionary tale. Trump’s obsession with litigating his own defeat has left him at once the party’s most potent force and its greatest liability, blamed by many Republicans for their failure to win the Senate in November and for a House majority that, some fear, may be too narrow to govern effectively. Republican politicians and voters are now agonizing anew over the price of their alliance with Trump. ‘It’s crystal, crystal, crystal clear,’ Ryan told SiriusXM. ‘We lose with Trump if we stick with Trump. If we dump Trump, we start winning.’”
She was once in love with Paul Ryan. Now, in MAGA-world, he’s as much the enemy as Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell. He’s not part of Stefanik’s world any longer and he calls her “the biggest disappointment of his political career.” Confessore wrote that she “has only doubled down, betting that her alliance with Trump will carry her further still— to a job in his cabinet, perhaps, or even a slot as his running mate in 2024. In November, even before Trump made his bid for re-election official, she became one of the few senior Republicans to endorse him. ‘Republican voters determine who is the leader of the Republican Party, and it’s very clear President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,’ she said, putting her loyalty on display in the way that Trump prizes… One by one, many of her oldest and closest friends have stopped speaking to Stefanik, leaving a trail of embittered final texts and emails. Over dinners and group chats, they sometimes talk about what happened to the talented woman they once loved and respected. What really made her abandon her old political self? What had they missed?”
She refused to talk with Confessore but her political director sent him a statement denying “she had ever considered quitting Congress and repeatedly rejected criticism of her as sexist. DeGrasse denounced ‘anonymous sources who are clearly viciously Anti-Trump, Anti-Elise, and Anti-Republican,’ who ‘clearly hate the American people who support Trump.’ As criticism of her has mounted from former friends and allies, Stefanik has argued that in embracing Trump, she is merely serving her older, predominantly white and rural constituency, as she has since first being elected. ‘I’m the same member of Congress that I’ve always been,’ she said after her breakout performance defending Trump during his first impeachment.”
No one recalls her ever— going back to when she was in school— having had any kind of ideological foundation or any strongly-held beliefs beyond just being a generic Republican and whatever that meant at the moment. Confessore noted “her unerring ability to absorb what she thought people around her wanted and to reflect it back at them. Eager to advance, skilled at impressing more powerful figures with her intelligence and work ethic, she has spent years embedding herself wherever the action seems to be at the time. ‘She knows exactly what she’s signed up for,’ said Kate Yearwood Young, a former friend from Harvard. ‘There was no radicalization.’”
Like Trump, Stefanik, whois 38, does not merely advocate policies; she casts herself as a warrior against the leftist forces scheming to take away the things that make America great. She speaks MAGA fluently but with a touch of a foreign accent. “No matter what the Far Left says, #NY21 will ALWAYS stand for, salute and honor our flag,” she tweeted in 2021, referring to her district. “Check out these beautiful American flags in the North Country!” Like any convert, she makes up in zeal what she lacks in pedigree. When a reporter asked her last May about the new “Ultra-MAGA” label President Biden had begun affixing to her party, she responded almost too eagerly. “I am Ultra-Maga,” she said in a tone of utter seriousness. “I’m proud of it.”
…Since throwing in her lot with Trump. Stefanik has endorsed politicians like Sandy Smith, an unsuccessful House candidate in North Carolina who called for the arrest and execution of those responsible for the “fraud” of Trump’s defeat. In May, she hosted a fund-raiser for George Santos, a pro-Trump Republican recently elected to a district in Queens and Long Island, who fabricated vast swaths of his résumé and biography. (A picture of the two still adorns Santos’s Twitter profile.) The same month, Stefanik attacked “the White House, House Dems, & usual pedo grifters” for failing to address the nationwide infant-formula shortage, a seeming allusion to the QAnon mythos. In 2021, as a surge of Haitian migrants sought to cross the border into Texas, she ran a series of Facebook ads warning that Biden would “grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants” to “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” The ads echoed a racist conspiracy theory, heavily promoted by Carlson, about a supposed Democratic plot to replace the native-born electorate with illegal immigrants.
In New York, Stefanik has allied herself firmly with the Republican Party’s clamorous Trump wing. Two weeks after a young white man killed 10 people at a supermarket this past May in a largely Black neighborhood in Buffalo, accusing his victims of seeking to “ethnically replace my own people,” Stefanik endorsed Carl Paladino, a developer and Trump friend running for Congress, who had suggested online that the massacre might have been a false-flag operation meant to help Democrats “revoke the 2nd amendment.” (Within days of Stefanik’s endorsement, audio surfaced of Paladino praising Adolf Hitler as “the kind of leader we need today.” The congresswoman told HuffPost that his comment had been taken out of context.)
…Like the Ivy-educated Republican senator Josh Hawley or Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Stefanik has succeeded in the Trump era in part by turning on the kind of people and institutions that made her.
…Not long after the 2014 primary, according to records provided by the online forensics company DomainTools, StefanikForPresident.com was registered by Alex Skatell, the co-founder of IMGE, a political consulting firm retained by Stefanik’s campaign. Within days, the records show, the firm had registered or acquired two dozen other Stefanik-themed web addresses, more than half hinting at a future bid for Senate or president. Ownership of the addresses was later hidden behind a proxy service. In 2017, local papers reported that persons unknown had registered StefanikForPresident.com and other Stefanik-related domains. At the time, a spokesman denied it had been Stefanik or anyone working for her, chalking up the scrutiny to “desperate candidates and their partisan allies.”
When the congresswoman appeared in May 2021 on War Room, Stephen Bannon’s popular talk show, the onetime Trump consigliere prompted her to tell listeners how she had always stood by Trump’s side. “People in the audience need to understand this,” Bannon said: After the release of the Access Hollywood tape in 2016, in which the future president bragged about groping women, “you had every opportunity to run like so many of the Republican establishment did at the time.”
Stefanik, then mounting her first bid for House leadership, wound up for the softball. “I will never forget campaigning in 2016 despite the media’s obsessive Trump derangement syndrome,” she said. She had felt the energy on the ground, had seen Trump’s win coming, even if others had not. “The media didn’t get it; the establishment didn’t get it. I was proud to be a part of it. And I was proud to be on that ticket.”
In truth, she had loathed Trump from the start. In August 2015, she told a New York radio station that he was “insulting to women,” and that his candidacy would hurt the party’s efforts to attract female voters. That December, at a friend’s wedding in Australia, she made Trump the butt of an elaborate rehearsal dinner toast, according to four people who attended. Whipping out a red MAGA hat, she glared at the other guests with mock suspicion, warning them not to post pictures or videos of the speech online, where they might get back to her constituents. Winding up, she placed the hat on the groom, a tech entrepreneur known for his socialist politics and friendly debates with Stefanik. Everyone laughed. (Her spokesman denied it was a MAGA hat and said the toast did not mock Trump.)
Like many establishment Republicans, according to her former friends, she thought Trump was too awful and ridiculous to be taken seriously, then watched with alarm as his campaign soared. She refused to endorse anyone before the New York presidential primary that April, leading Paladino, her future ally, to denounce her as a “fraud” and “Washington elitist establishment sellout.” Around that time, she returned to Cambridge for an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Institute of Politics. Afterward, she and a dozen of her old crowd gathered at a restaurant to catch up. Stefanik said she planned to vote for John Kasich in the primary and could not possibly vote for Trump in the general election, according to people who were there, and suggested she might write in someone else’s name if he became the nominee. (Her spokesman denied that account of the dinner.)
Stefanik skipped the Republican convention that summer. When the Access Hollywood take broke, she drafted a statement demanding that he drop out of the race, according to a person familiar with her decision-making process, before settling for a Facebook post calling his statements “inappropriate, offensive” and “just wrong.” (Her spokesman said that it was “Never Trump Outside consultants” working on her campaign who had drafted statements calling on Trump to drop out.) A week later, after a local debate, she told the assembled news media that she was “supporting my party’s nominee.” Then she dashed to her vehicle as her campaign staff blocked an Albany television reporter from following her. In text messages to friends after Trump won, she expressed shock and worry, not the exultation she claims today.
Her revisionism still shocks those who have known her the longest and who remember the disdain she expressed for Trump back then…
Over Trump’s first two years in office, Stefanik fought what amounted to a losing battle against her own ambition. She voted with the president most of the time but against some of his signature initiatives— his tax cut, for example, and his attempt to free up funding for a border wall by declaring a national emergency. She co-sponsored legislation to provide a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” young immigrants brought to America as children, and registered high-toned disapproval of the president’s attacks on “shithole” countries. (“Wrong and contrary to our American ideals,” she wrote on Twitter.)
…[A]ccording to current and former friends, she felt increasingly frustrated and lost in the House, horrified by the behavior of her harder-right colleagues and unsure of her place. As Trump’s presidency unfolded, it was becoming more difficult to play the middle. Some of the high-profile issues on which she had positioned herself as a bipartisan leader— climate action, immigration— had little traction in the Trump era. The president’s base wanted revenge, not high-minded ideas; Trump set policy by tweet, not white paper. As the 2018 midterms approached, Stefanik’s campaign took on a grim, joyless air. According to friends and advisers, she seemed brittle and unhappy. No longer a novice candidate, she dictated a hyperlocal campaign, emphasizing her bipartisanship and focus on regional issues. Though Democrats took the House that fall, Stefanik won the largest margin of any Republican in New York, a seeming validation of her carefully calibrated approach. But it was bittersweet. She was a promising young lawmaker with a seat at no particular table, respected by her party’s fractured establishment but viewed with suspicion by its ascendant Trump wing.
Still, the campaign had given Stefanik a glimpse of an alternate path. That August, she had appeared with Trump at Fort Drum, a major military base in her district, to mark the signing of that year’s defense bill. With a Democratic wave approaching, Stefanik had fretted for weeks over whether and how she wanted him to appear, but ultimately lobbied hard for Trump’s visit, according to a former White House official involved in the planning. At Fort Drum, Trump mispronounced her name— calling her “STEF-a-nik,” not for the last time— and offered backhanded praise. “She called me so many times” that he had dodged her calls, Trump told the audience. Stefanik gave a brief speech from behind the presidential lectern, lit for television as she cited the bill’s pay increase for soldiers and provisions she had written providing support for military spouses.
The day made a powerful impression, according to people who know or have worked with her. The cheering crowd was “a taste of being Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows for a day,” said the former White House official, referring to two of Trump’s staunchest House allies. More important, she had successfully maneuvered the power of the presidency— even if it was his presidency— behind a piece of her own agenda. It was a taste of the influence she had always imagined having.
In the months that followed, many people sensed her impending transformation only as a kind of withdrawal. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat serving with her on the intelligence committee, recalled that in their first years on the panel, they texted often about committee business. “She took the Russia stuff seriously for a long time,” Swalwell said. “And then she just went dark.”
Always a happy warrior— someone who loved a debate and gave as good as she got— she now seemed cornered and defensive. She felt she was taking risks in criticizing Trump, even gently. But amid the polarizing fever of the Trump presidency, longtime friends were increasingly impatient with her cautious triangulations.
In the summer of 2019, when Trump attacked the Baltimore district of a Black lawmaker as a “rat- and rodent-infested mess” and urged four Democratic lawmakers of color to “go back” to where they came from, Stefanik called his comments “denigrating and wrong” but balked at going further. “I don’t believe he’s a racist,” she told a North Country newspaper. A week later, she received a long email from her old Harvard friend, Yearwood Young. “I’ve been wanting to write this email for months, but have been holding out as long as I could, hoping you would redeem yourself at some point,” she wrote. “You know he is racist. It honestly disgusts me that for political purposes you will not only refuse to call it out, but to actually state that he is NOT racist.”
Stefanik wrote back that afternoon, “I am so sorry that I have disappointed you,” she said. She pointed out that she had among the more bipartisan records in Congress and asked her friend to respect their differences. “I know how divided this country is right now. I hear it, see it, experience it every day. I receive emails like this on a daily basis from people (including some of our college friends!) who shame me for not supporting President Trump enough,” Stefanik wrote. She skirted the question of whether Trump or the things he said were racist, responding that “supporting President Trump does not make voters or people racist.”
… [Her performance at the televised impeachment hearings mad her] an instant target of hatred. Hollywood celebrities and liberal Twitter influencers attacked her relentlessly, dubbing her “Trashy Stefanik” and circulating a doctored picture of her supposedly giving the finger to a photographer during the hearings. In a clumsily sexist tweet, ABC’s Matthew Dowd suggested she had been elected only because she was a woman. But Fox ate up her performance, featuring clips through prime time. Trump loved it. “I know a lot about stardom,” he said on Fox and Friends the following week. “This young woman from upstate New York— she has become a star.”
Stefanik’s Republican friend, to whom she had pledged not to carry Trump’s water, was not surprised. He had watched many Republican politicians grapple with the political incentives of Trumpism. All her life, Stefanik had streamlined herself for success; finally she had found the engine of her ascent. The farther she turned the dial, the more power and influence she would have. “So then the question is, what do you do with that dial?” said the friend. “You can say, ‘I can embrace it without going full MAGA.’” Stefanik chose differently. “She just said, ‘Wow.’ She cranked the dial. I don’t think she arrived at this issue set totally disingenuously.”
As the positive reviews role in, Stefanik seized the opportunity. On the day of the second impeachment hearing, her team activated a new account on WinRed, the small-donor platform set up by Trump campaign veterans. She raised more in grass-roots contributions in a week than she had over the entire rest of her congressional career, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance records. By the end of the first week of hearings, her team had prepared to unveil a new impeachment-themed fund-raising site, FightSchiff.com, and set out to have her booked on Fox to plug it.
Stefanik marveled to friends at the flood of money. Contributions from her leadership PAC to other Republicans would quadruple by the end of 2020. With Trump’s blessing, she could tap into a nationwide base of MAGA fans. Out of roughly $4 million she raised on WinRed this election cycle through late October 2022, just 4 percent came from her own district, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance records.
Ever her own best adviser, Stefanik dictated the tactics and message. As she milked the MAGA base for money and visibility, she began articulating a new, almost passive conception of her role as congresswoman, in which her job was to mirror her constituents, not take principled votes they might dislike. In 2014, her defenders have argued, her district wanted a Bush-style Republican; in the Trump era, it wanted a Trump-style Republican. “There’s no shift,” said Pileggi, the former campaign aide. Who could say she was wrong if the voters said she was right? The discredited gatekeepers of the mainstream media? The small papers back home that fewer and fewer people read? Asked in a recent interview whether she had chosen her ambition over her values, she simply avoided the question. “I’ve chosen my values,” she said. “And I’ve chosen my constituents.”
She moved quickly into Trump’s circle, readily accepting the compromises it entailed. In spring 2020, she flew with the president on Air Force One to witness the SpaceX rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Aboard the plane, according to a former White House official who was there, the president made a derogatory comment about the sex life of one of his most loyal and senior female aides. Stefanik had once criticized Trump’s demeaning comments toward women; now she simply plastered a smile on her face. “No one said anything. Neither did I,” the former official recalled. “It was a sign that she knew who he was.” Stefanik’s spokesman denied the account, saying it “never happened.”
…A few days [after she voted her support for Trump’s J-6 coup] the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, which oversees the Institute [of Politics board on which she was a member], asked Stefanik to step aside. When she refused, he announced her removal. She had disqualified herself, the dean said in a statement, through repeated false statements about the election. Stefanik responded with the kind of bristling performance her former friends had come to expect. Her alma mater had decided to “cave to the woke Left,” she said; getting kicked off the board was a “badge of honor.”
A few weeks after the insurrection, House Republicans met to consider removing Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, then the party’s highest-ranking woman in Congress, from her job as conference chair. In the two previous leadership contests, it was Stefanik herself who had stood before colleagues to nominate Cheney, once calling her a “huge asset in the role.” But Cheney had now voted for Trump’s second impeachment, infuriating not only Trump allies but a broader range of Republican lawmakers, who complained that she had made their party look divided. Days after the vote, Politico reported that Stefanik had “privately signaled” her interest in replacing her.
That February, Cheney’s colleagues voted to keep her in the job. But as Cheney continued to speak out against Trump, the woman who had remade her principles to fit her ambition set out to depose the one risking career suicide in service of hers. Though Stefanik had a far more liberal voting record than the woman she wanted to replace, she worked both sides, making clear she would neither embarrass Republicans who had cowered before Trump’s election lies nor anger supporters who insisted on believing them. Her argument, as one Republican member recalled it: “I’m a woman, I’m young, I’m reasonable. I like Liz, but we need to quit focusing on Jan. 6.” Trump’s ringing endorsement that May sealed the deal. Cheney was out, and Stefanik was in.
…[After the GOP’s poor midterm performance], as other Republicans questioned how to wean their party off Trump, Stefanik issued her pre-emptive endorsement of his all-but-announced re-election campaign. In some respects, she had little choice: Stefanik is arguably more dependent on Trump’s patronage than any other Republican leader, and his team soon made clear that he expected such an endorsement from anyone he was supporting for a leadership job. Two weeks after her re-election as conference chair, when Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago with the rapper Kanye West and the young MAGA commentator Nick Fuentes— two guests with a history of antisemitic or racist statements— Stefanik said nothing. Nor did she have anything to say publicly when Trump, citing stories about how Twitter had handled moderation decisions during the 2020 election, suggested “termination” of the Constitution might be an appropriate remedy.
…Unwilling to acknowledge that her politics have changed, she has never offered MAGA die-hards a persuasive conversion story, leaving behind lingering suspicion. “One thing I’ve heard consistently from pro-Trump members is that the 180 that she pulled was just so jarring,” said one veteran Republican lobbyist who is in touch with a wide array of Republican lawmakers.
Among her fellow Republicans, according to Republican lawmakers, Hill staff and lobbyists, Stefanik has a reputation for being both diligent in advancing the party’s message and unabashedly transactional in amassing chits of support for her own climb up the ladder. But her campaign donations and endorsements have given her support that may be more broad than deep. For much of the spring and summer, while serving as conference chair, she quietly tested the waters for promotion to the next highest-ranking House job, that of Republican whip. As the race grew more crowded, however, Stefanik found herself without a clear constituency for the position. The party’s remaining moderates no longer saw her as one of them, and its right wing preferred a more consistent conservative. Only when another House member announced his interest in succeeding her as conference chair did Stefanik finally commit to running for another term in her old job.
News stories about the upcoming presidential campaign still mention Stefanik as a rising star who might join a Trump ticket in 2024— a political pole vault that would carry her, finally, to the very top of the Republican Party. But within the president’s inner circle, according to two people close to Trump, stories casting Stefanik as a potential running mate are regarded as clumsy plants by her own team, and inspire bemusement and mockery. Trump liked her, they said, and liked watching her defend him. But even he didn’t trust her.
She's no dummy like Madison Cawthorn or Lauren Boebert but who ever heard of a Harvard graduate being turned down by every law school she applied for? She's smart enough to know her limitations, even if they drive her crazy, and she seems ready to attach herself to any bigger fish who is going to further her ambitions, which far outstrip her talent. That this matters not at all in MAGA-world, must have seemed very attractive to her, even if it meant giving up any pretense of membership in an establishment she once relentlessly pursued.