Elise Stefanik’s Trump Audition

Elise Stefanik and I had been speaking for only about a minute when she offered this stark self-assessment: “I have been an exceptional member of Congress.”

Her confidence reminded me of the many immodest pronouncements of Donald Trump (“I would give myself an A+”), and that’s probably not an accident. Stefanik has been everywhere lately, amassing fans among Trump’s base at a crucial moment—both for the GOP and for her future.

Stefanik spent October presiding over the leaderless House GOP’s search for a new speaker—a post that Stefanik, the chair of the conference, conspicuously declined to seek for herself. In a congressional hearing last month, she pressed three of America’s most prominent university presidents to say whether they’d allow students to call for Jewish genocide; directly or indirectly, her interrogation brought down two of them. And for the past several weeks, Stefanik has been making an enthusiastic case for Donald Trump’s return to the White House.

She campaigned with him in New Hampshire last weekend, defending his mental acuity in the face of obvious gaffes (“President Trump has not lost a step,” she insisted) and rejecting a jury’s conclusion that he sexually abused E. Jean Carroll. She parrots his baseless claims that the 2020 election was “rigged” and that the defendants charged with storming the Capitol to keep him in office are “hostages.” After a GOP congressional candidate was caught on tape mildly criticizing Trump, Stefanik publicly withdrew her endorsement. Barely an hour after the networks declared Trump the winner of the Iowa caucus—before Iowans had even finished voting—she issued a statement calling on his remaining opponents to drop out of the race.

I spoke with Stefanik about her fierce defense of Trump, which has won her praise from the former president. In New Hampshire, he called her “brilliant” and lauded her questioning of the university presidents as “surgical.” (He did, however, butcher her name.) Just about everyone can see that Stefanik has been mounting an elaborate audition. The 39-year-old clearly didn’t pass up a bid for House speaker because she lacks ambition. On the contrary, she seems to have a bigger promotion in mind: not second in line to the presidency, but first. In our conversation, Stefanik didn’t make much effort to dispel the perception that she wants to be Trump’s running mate. “I’d be honored to serve in any capacity in the Trump administration,” she told me, repeating a line she’s used before.

Her displays of fealty aside, Stefanik has a lot going for her. She has become, without question, the most powerful Republican in New York, where her prodigious fundraising helped give the GOP a majority. Stefanik’s House GOP colleagues say she is extremely smart, and she still draws compliments for her behind-the-scenes role during last fall’s speakership crisis, when she ran a tense and seemingly endless series of closed-door conference meetings. Whether or not her declining to run for speaker was tied to the vice presidency, it was politically shrewd. “It didn’t work out well for most others,” joked Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, who briefly served as acting speaker and similarly turned down a chance to win the job permanently. “She saw the writing on the wall,” a fellow New York Republican, Representative Andrew Garbarino, told me. “She was smart enough to say, ‘I’m not popping my head up only to get it chopped off.’”

The fervor that Stefanik brings to her Trump defense has made her a favorite for VP among some of his staunchest allies, including Steve Bannon, who remains a force in MAGA world. “She’s a show horse and a workhorse, and that in and of itself is pretty extraordinary in modern American politics,” Bannon told me. “She’s at, if not the top, very close to the top of the list.”

Stefanik may not be subtle, but she’s made herself relevant in a party still devoted to Trump. Her future success now depends on his—and whether he rewards her loyalty with the prize she so clearly wants.

Stefanik routinely boasts that she was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump’s reelection. That’s true as far as 2024 goes, but it neatly obscures the fact that she did not back his primary campaign in 2016. Nor did she show much support for Trump’s movement as it took root in the GOP.

After graduating from Harvard, Stefanik began her political career in the George W. Bush White House and later served as an aide to Paul Ryan during his vice-presidential run. In 2014, at age 30, she was elected to the House—the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at the time—and carved out a reputation as a moderate in both policy and tone. She made an abrupt turn toward Trumpism during the former president’s first impeachment hearings, in 2019, and eagerly backed his reelection the following year. In 2021, she replaced the ousted Trump critic Representative Liz Cheney as conference chair, making her the fourth-ranking Republican in the House.

Not one for public introspection, Stefanik has never fully explained her transformation into a Trump devotee beyond saying she was impressed by his policies as president. The simplest answer is that she followed the will of her upstate–New York constituents, who came to embrace Trump after favoring Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. “I reflect, I would say, the voters in my district,” she told me shortly before the 2020 election.

To say that Stefanik displays the zeal of a convert doesn’t do justice to the phrase. She has become one of Trump’s foremost defenders and enforcers in Congress. At first “it was surprising,” former Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican colleague of Stefanik’s for eight years, told me of her Trump pivot. “Now it’s just gross.”

Kinzinger and Stefanik had both served as leaders of a group of moderate House Republicans, but they took opposite paths during the Trump years. Kinzinger voted to impeach Trump after January 6 and left Congress two years later. “In her core, she’s a deep opportunist and has put her personal ambition over what she knows is good for the country,” Kinzinger said. Although Stefanik has been in Trump’s corner for more than four years now, Kinzinger said she “has ramped up her sycophancy” as the chances of Trump’s renomination—and the possibility of her serving on the national ticket—have come more fully into view.

Close allies of Stefanik naturally dispute this characterization; they told me that although they think she’d make an excellent vice president, she has not once brought up the topic with them. “He’s going to have great options, but Elise will be at the top of that list,” Majority Leader Steve Scalise told me. When I asked Stefanik whether she was campaigning to be on Trump’s ticket, she replied: “I’m focused on doing my job.”

Other contenders frequently mentioned as possible Trump running mates include South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem; Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as one of Trump’s White House press secretaries; Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina; and the businessman Vivek Ramaswamy.

One senior Republican who is friendly with both Stefanik and Trump lauded her leadership skills and political acumen but doubted that Trump would pick her. “She doesn’t have executive experience,” the Republican told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about Stefanik’s chances. A Trump-campaign spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

Even as they praise her, Stefanik allies occasionally describe her in ways that suggest she lacks authenticity. “She’s a highly intelligent, calculated individual,” Chris Tague, a Republican in the New York legislature, told me. Representative Marc Molinaro, a member of New York’s House delegation, described Stefanik as “a calming force” inside a House Republican conference often marred by infighting. When I noted that this characterization seemed to be at odds with her combative style in public, Molinaro explained that Stefanik’s “outward persona” helps her keep the conference from getting out of hand. “We all know Elise. She’s strong. She’s tough,” he said. “She didn’t need to be that person, because we know she can be that person.”

Still, Kinzinger said, unlike some Republicans in Congress, Stefanik does not speak differently about Trump in private than she does in public. “I got that wink and nod from a lot of people, not from her,” he said. “She’s smart enough to know that if she says something in private, it could get out.”

Stefanik is also smart enough, Kinzinger told me, to understand that Trump’s claims about the 2020 election, which she now recites, are not true. “She knows the drill,” he said. “She would say exactly what I would say if she had the freedom to do it, but she’s all in.”

To interview Stefanik is to strike a sort of deal: access in exchange for browbeating. She answered my questions even as she rebuked me for asking about such trifling matters as election denialism and January 6. “Everyday Americans are sick and tired of the biased media, including you, Russell, and the types of questions you’re asking,” Stefanik told me. I started to ask her about her recent appearance on Meet the Press, where she had casually referred to the January 6 defendants as “hostages”—an unsubtle echo of Trump’s language. The comment prompted a predictable round of shocked-but-not-surprised reactions from Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans. A New York Democrat, Representative Dan Goldman, introduced a resolution to censure Stefanik over the remark.

Even though Stefanik made a show of protesting my line of inquiry, she beat me to the question. I had barely uttered “Meet the Press … ” before she started speaking over me: “I know—you’re so predictable—what you’re going to ask. You’re going to ask about the January 6 hostages.” Bingo. Without missing a beat, Stefanik proceeded to read aloud snippets from New York Times and NPR reports about poor conditions and alleged mistreatment of inmates charged with January 6 crimes. “The American people are smart. They see through this,” she said. “They know that there is a double standard of justice in this country.”

Stefanik was trying to argue that these news reports justified her use of a term usually reserved for victims of terrorism. The specifics of the reports weren’t really the point. More than anything, she seemed to want to demonstrate that, like Trump, she wouldn’t back down or apologize. She sounded almost cheerful, like a happy warrior for Trump—his pugnacious defender who would engage with the biased mainstream media without giving in to them, without conceding a single premise or hemming and hawing through an interview.

Stefanik was riding high in MAGA world when we spoke. Her Meet the Press appearance was “a master class,” Bannon told me. In addition to the “hostages” line, she refused to commit to certifying the 2024 election, generating outrage that only added to the performance. “This is what we’re thinking. This is us. This is who we are,” Susan McNeil, a GOP county chair in Stefanik’s district, told me, referring to Stefanik’s comments about certification. “Do I trust this election right now? No.”

“For her to stand strong and make those statements? Good. You’re not being bullied,” McNeil continued. “You’re not gonna get pressured to cave in to saying something that you’re not ready to dignify with an answer yet.”

Stefanik has no interest in appearing humble or self-deprecating. When I brought up the Meet the Press interview, she used the same word that Bannon had to describe her performance. “It was a master class in pushing back” against the media, she told me, “and it has been widely hailed.”

Cooperating with this story, like appearing on the D.C. establishment’s favorite talk show, seemed to be part of Stefanik’s unofficial, unacknowledged audition for VP. It was a low-risk bet. A positive portrayal might impress the media-conscious Trump. If, on the other hand, she didn’t like how the piece turned out, she could hold it up to Trump supporters as confirmation that the press has it out for them. Stefanik’s team lined up nearly a dozen local and national validators to speak with me, including Bannon, Scalise, and Representative James Comer, who heads the committee leading the Biden-impeachment inquiry.

Trump clearly prizes loyalty above just about anything else. Mike Pence displayed that quality in spades, until suddenly, at the most climactic moment of Trump’s presidency, he did not. To test whether Stefanik’s allegiance had a limit, I asked whether a Trump conviction for any of the crimes with which he’s been charged would affect her support in any way. “No,” she replied without hesitation. “It’s a witch hunt by the Department of Justice. I believe Joe Biden is the most corrupt president not just in modern history, but in the history of our country.”

Stefanik was more circumspect when I asked her what she would have done differently from Pence had she been responsible, as vice president, for presiding over the certification of Electoral College ballots on January 6. Trump had pressured Pence to throw out ballots from states where he was contesting the vote. Pence had refused. Given Stefanik’s apparent interest in Pence’s old job, it seemed relevant.

At first, she dodged the question by claiming that the election was rigged and referring to a speech she delivered on the House floor in the early hours of January 7, when she voted against certifying Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. But that speech was worded far more carefully than the outright claims of fraud that Stefanik makes today. Back then, she couched her objections as representing the views of her “concerned” constituents. She didn’t say the election was stolen, nor did she say what action Pence should have taken.

When I pressed her on Pence’s decision not to intervene and what she would have done, Stefanik replied simply, “I disagreed, and I believe it was an unconstitutional election.” She would go no further than that.

At some point over the next several months, Stefanik’s dual roles as Trump booster and protector of the vanishing House majority could come into conflict. She has made clear that she wants Republicans to unify around Trump, and sooner rather than later. Control of the House, however, might well be determined in her deep-blue state, where the nation’s most vulnerable Republicans represent districts that Trump lost in 2020. Embracing Trump this fall could cost some of them their seats.

Now the longest-serving Republican in the New York delegation, Stefanik serves as a mentor for several of the state’s more recent arrivals to the House. She has helped get them seats on desired committees, and, during the speaker battle in October, she arranged for the various candidates to sit for interviews with the delegation. But Stefanik has also worked to keep them in line.

“She’s not afraid to be blunt,” Garbarino said, recalling times when Stefanik chastised him for a public statement she didn’t like. Her message? “We don’t have to do everything publicly,” Garbarino said. “Sometimes it’s better if you say this stuff behind the scenes to somebody instead of smacking them in the face publicly about it.”

Stefanik has taken the lead in fighting Democratic attempts to gerrymander New York in their favor, part of an effort to reclaim the House majority. (A recent state-court ruling didn’t help her cause.) To that end, she is working to ensure that none of the state’s GOP House members tries to save their own seat at the party’s expense or says anything in public that could undermine a potential Republican legal challenge. “She’s cracking the whip,” one Republican strategist in the state told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Stefanik’s toughest task, though, might be getting her colleagues to support Trump. Two swing-district Republicans in New York, Representatives Nick LaLota and Brandon Williams, have endorsed Trump as he easily captured the first two primary states. But others in the delegation have yet to heed Stefanik’s call. In interviews, a few of them seemed hesitant even to utter his name. “I have avoided presidential politics, and Elise has always respected that,” Molinaro told me. As for Trump, he would say only, “I intend to support the presidential nominee.”

Garbarino used almost exactly the same words when I asked about the presidential race. Two other New York Republicans in districts that Biden won, Representatives Mike Lawler and Anthony D’Esposito, declined interview requests. When I asked Stefanik if they would back Trump, she offered a guarantee: “They’re going to support President Trump, who will be the nominee, as Republicans will across the country.”

Privately, Stefanik has delivered an additional message to vulnerable Republicans in New York, according to several people I spoke with. “Stefanik has been very clear to not attack President Trump,” the GOP strategist said. “Everyone knows that in New York.” As Stefanik sees it, criticizing Trump would hurt even swing-district Republicans, because the MAGA base is now a sizable constituency in districts that Biden carried. Still, other House leaders haven’t exerted nearly as much public pressure on rank-and-file Republicans. “We all each individually take different approaches to growing our majority,” Scalise told me. “I don’t tell anybody how to manage their politics back home.”

As Stefanik’s profile has grown, and as her rhetoric has become even Trumpier, Democrats have sought to turn her into a political liability for swing-district Republicans, just as they have the former president. After Stefanik’s “hostages” comment, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who also hails from New York, said that Stefanik “should be ashamed of herself.”

But then he pivoted to a political angle. “The real question,” Jeffries told reporters, “is why haven’t House Republicans in New York, like Mike Lawler or others, denounced Elise Stefanik, and why do they continue to rely on her fundraising support in order to try to fool the voters in New York and pretend like they believe in moderation?” None of the New York Republicans took the bait, choosing to remain silent rather than cross Stefanik. (“I didn’t see the clip,” Garbarino told me, in one characteristic dodge.)

Stefanik clearly welcomes these attacks. In the MAGA world she now inhabits, enraging Democrats is the coin of the realm. Taking their fire only pushes her closer to the place she really wants to be: at Trump’s side.

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