Before Elise Stefanik Became a Trump Cult Leader, She Said He Was Misogynistic and Soft on Putin

She also said he should release his tax returns.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) is poised this week to become the highest ranking elected Republican woman in the House of Representatives, as the beneficiary of the GOP mutiny against Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). Cheney, the chair of the House Republican conference, dared to acknowledge reality: Donald Trump lost the election and then incited the seditious attack on the US Capitol. For that sin, the House Republican wing of the Trump cult will give Cheney the boot and replace her with Stefanik, who is in her fourth term representing a district in upstate New York.

This marks the triumph of Trump-uber-alles fealty within GOP circles. A heretic is being excommunicated and replaced by a loyalist. It’s been noted that Stefanik entered the House as a moderate and now is being anointed as a top Trumper who has fully supported Trump’s Big Lie that the election was rigged against him. But Stefanik’s Trumpification stands out because only a few years ago—well into Trump’s presidency—she was speaking critically about him on key fronts. In fact, at times Stefanik sounded practically like a Never Trumper, as she called on Trump to recognize that Russia had attacked the 2016 election to help him, urged him to release his tax returns, and assailed him for his comments about women. 

Before Trump tried to con the public with the claim he won the 2020 election, his grandest fabrication was claiming the Russia scandal was a hoax. He stubbornly refused to acknowledge that Moscow had mounted a covert operation to help him win in 2016, instead contending he was the victim of a supposed Deep State plot. He also dismissed all talk of the multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian representatives during the 2016 campaign, and he went so far as to cover up what was discussed at a secret meeting held between his senior campaign advisers and a Moscow intermediary and to hide his own business interactions with Russian developers and Vladimir Putin’s office during the 2016 contest. 

Stefanik didn’t buy Trump’s subterfuge about Russia. In an interview with the Watertown Daily Times in March 2018, she stated that “Russia meddled in our electoral process.” And she noted the Kremlin scheme was designed to benefit Trump: “We’ve seen evidence that Russia tried to hurt the Hillary Clinton campaign.” Moreover, she expressed worry about the Trump-Russia contacts: “I am concerned about some of the contacts between Russians and surrogates within the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign.”

A year later, as Trump continued to push his phony “Russia hoax” claim, Stefanik, at a town hall meeting, disagreed with the Trump line that the Moscow assault was no big deal. It was, she said, “much more systemic, much more targeted, with very sophisticated hacking efforts, disinformation efforts targeted to specific campaigns.” Stefanik, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, also said that the Trump administration needed to be pushed “to take the threat from Russia very seriously.” She criticized the Trump campaign for holding that covert meeting with the Moscow intermediary. 

At that town hall, Stefanik also took Trump to task on another touchy issue: Trump’s taxes. The year before he announced his presidential run in 2015, Trump told an Irish journalist that he would release his tax records should he seek the presidency. He never did. And as president, he continued with this stance and violated the modern-day tradition of presidents making their returns public. “He should at least release the tax returns to Congress,” Stefanik said. “He should do it voluntarily, I’ve been consistent in saying that.”

When she first won her House seat in 2014, Stefanik was the youngest woman elected to Congress at the time. She was immediately dubbed a rising star that could help her party appeal to female voters. At one point, House Speaker Paul Ryan asked her to help recruit other women candidates for the GOP, and he called her “the future of the Republican Party.” When the Access Hollywood video of Trump boasting of sexually assaulting women became public during the 2016 race, Stefanik criticized Trump, saying“Donald Trump’s inappropriate, offensive comments are just wrong—no matter when he said them or whatever the context. I hope his apology is sincere.” But she wouldn’t break with him. 

Two years later, she criticized Trump for his pattern of offensive remarks about women. When Trump in an October 16, 2018, tweet referred to Stormy Daniels—the porn star who he paid hush money to keep quiet regarding the allegation they once had an extramarital affair—as “Horseface,” Stefanik took exception. She told CBS News, “I think it’s unacceptable.” And she went further: “I’ve disagreed with the President’s rhetoric numerous times when it comes to how he addresses women.” 

It was not until Trump’s first impeachment in the fall of 2019—spurred by his effort to pressure the Ukrainian president to initiate investigations that would tar Joe Biden and support a crazy conspiracy theory that claimed Moscow did not attack the 2016 election—that Stefanik emerged as an full-throated Trump defender. During the impeachment hearings, she struck an aggressive stance, denouncing the Democrats’ case and falsely accusing Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, of not allowing Republicans to question the witnesses. Trump noticed. “A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik!” he tweeted. And come December 2020, Stefanik was among the 126 House Republicans who signed on to an amicus brief in support of a Republican lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to toss out Biden’s victory. After the assault on the Capitol, she voted with a majority of House Republicans against certifying Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. 

Though Stefanik refused to accept Trump’s first Big Lie (there was no Russia scandal), she enthusiastically embraced his second. And for that, Trump has endorsed her bid to supplant Cheney as the No. 3 Republican in the House. To the enabler goes the spoils. 

Once upon a time, Stefanik viewed Trump as misogynistic (at least in his rhetoric) and willfully negligent in how he handled a serious threat to the nation. Now she has become one of his most devoted lieutenants, and in mob-like fashion, she is delivering the political kill-shot to a conservative Republican with a solid pro-Trump voting record who committed the error of siding with reality and the Constitution over Trump’s delusion and violence. The GOP mutiny against Cheney shows the party cannot escape Trump’s Stalinist grip on it. And Stefanik, who once claimed a measure of independence, has happily become the poster child for its accelerating descent into soul-crushing cultism.


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