Iowa congressman Steve King, who has relished his potential to play kingmaker in this Republican presidential race, announced Monday morning that he’s endorsing Ted Cruz, providing a boost to the Texas senator’s organization ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation nominating contest February 1.
In an interview shortly after his announcement, King spoke with me about the timing of his decision, the events surrounding it, and how he thinks President Cruz would deal with the illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. — Tim Alberta
Tim Alberta: Your admiration for Senator Cruz has long been apparent, and it always seemed likely that if you endorsed a candidate, it would be him. When did the decision become clear to you?
Steve King: I’ve said to people it had to be a conviction. So, the pieces began to fall into place. I started to see some of the positions that were emerging from other candidates, and I’m watching it, asking, “Who is completely consistent?” And it was Cruz all along. But I still had not come to a conviction on this, until there were two things that came together almost simultaneously: I’m watching the epic migration going on in Europe [King traveled to Europe and the Middle East last week, visiting refugee camps and discussing the migration crisis with government officials.], and then when I came home, I’m driving and hearing about the attacks in Paris. And a day or two earlier, Marco Rubio’s team was attacking Ted Cruz and alleging taht he’s for amnesty. This world is pretty topsy-turvy if Marco Rubio is equating his immigration position to Ted Cruz’s. All of that came together with a clarity. So, Friday, I knew.
Alberta: Did you call the senator immediately? How did you inform him of your decision?
King: He and I haven’t talked in a few days. I know he’s not surprised, though. I talked to my staff and asked them to communicate with his staff. The balance of this has been through staff-staff communications.
ALBERTA: You didn’t tell him personally?
KING: I didn’t tell him personally, no. And I didn’t tell my wife, either.
ALBERTA: Why not?
KING: I left last night to come down here to Des Moines, and she wanted to know where I was going, and I said I was going to Des Moines and staying at the Marriott. And she said, “Well, why?” And I said, “I have to be out the door in five minutes, so I don’t have time to tell you.” And so I just figured if I was going to keep a secret, I was going to keep a secret, and that’s the way I am.
ALBERTA: Your announcement this morning seemed a little rushed and wasn’t particularly well-choreographed. Why wasn’t Senator Cruz there with you?
KING: Well, I didn’t think about it that much. I’m getting on a plane to go to Washington tonight, and by the time we match up our schedules and get this done so that we can do a big rally in Iowa, another week goes by. And I don’t want to wait that week. I want to get it done. I told people as soon as I come to a conviction, I’ll let you know. So I actually waited over a Saturday and Sunday. I didn’t even think about not doing the endorsement until it was convenient, because I’d given my word I’d do it as soon as I could.
ALBERTA: It sounds as if you felt a sense of urgency to make the announcement at this time.
KING: The thing that galvanized it is that Europe is committing cultural suicide, and we have a president who is seeking to lead us there. And we’re going to need a president who can put the pieces back together in a four- or eight-year period of time. So that was the galvanizing part. And because we’ve got this media cycle that’s clearly showing us what’s going on in Europe and the mistakes they’ve made, when you have refugees and at least one of them is registered and turns out to be one of the murderers, one of the killers in Paris, and they’re talking about, “Well, we can vet these people” and the president wants 10,000 and then 100,000 and then 200,000 more — I want to be in the middle of this discussion. Because these are things I’ve been warning about for a long time, and these are the positions Ted Cruz has had for a long time.
The thing that galvanized it is that Europe is committing cultural suicide, and we have a president who is seeking to lead us there.
ALBERTA: Let’s talk immigration specifically. In the summer of 2013, when the Senate was debating its comprehensive immigration bill, what were the differences you saw between Senators Cruz and Rubio?
KING: I always had a positive relationship with both of them. On June 19, I set up a press conference — the longest in the history of Congress — that went from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. I invited people to speak who had positions similar to mine, and of the senators I invited, the one who came over was Ted Cruz. And Ted stepped up to the platform and he delivered a rousing speech that hit all of the notes. It was 30 or 40 minutes, and I listened to every minute of it. It was impressive to me that he had the courage to walk over from the Senate and step up and take that position, when at that time in politics . . . the energy was for the Gang of Eight bill. I was prepared to die on the hill to prevent that amnesty bill, and I didn’t realize until that time that Ted Cruz was prepared the same way.
ALBERTA: What about Senator Rubio?
KING: I’ve had a good relationship with Marco Rubio. And I’ve said many times I think he’s the most likable candidate in the race from a personality standpoint. He’s just — you can’t not like Marco Rubio. You don’t even have to know him. And when you do get to know him, you still like him. I’ve seen this happen to others — they arrive in a place like Congress and are tricked with this idea that they’re the one person or personality who can actually solve this problem of immigration. And it’s intractable. So I think if he had to do it over again, maybe in his heart of hearts, he might still be holding the positions he held when he came into the Senate.
ALBERTA: Senator Cruz during that debate offered an amendment that would provide a path to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants. His team now says that was a poison pill meant to derail the legislation, and you’ve said you believe him. But that’s an interesting maneuver for someone who rails against the so-called Washington Cartel. Do you believe he opposes a path to legal status?
KING: Oh yes, I don’t have any doubt about that. I think he understands what would happen if we grant a path to legal status. The purpose of the amendment, as I recall, was to block a path to citizenship — and to do that, he offered a path to legal status. I wasn’t in those subcommittee hearings, so I’m not as familiar with it as, say, Jeff Sessions and his excellent staff. But Jeff Sessions voted with Ted Cruz. And I say — case closed. There’s nothing that can be brought against Ted Cruz for that amendment if Jeff Sessions voted with him.
ALBERTA: Senator Cruz has often talked on the campaign trail about being the Senate’s biggest proponent of legal immigration, and he had previously advocated a 500 percent increase in H1-B visas. He recently backed off that stance. Are you concerned about his about-face?
KING: It’s going in the right direction. You know, we have this thing in the contracting business called “differing site conditions.” [King owns an earth-moving company.] You look at the pourings and the plans and then you start digging a hole, and when you get down into it and find there’s a bunch of junk buried there, you turn around and tell the engineer we have different site conditions. And that’s what Ted Cruz sees — we have a corruption with the H1-Bs, and it’s massive, and in reading his immigration document, he wants 180 days to study visa corruption and then take a different look at it. So it looks to me like he sees differing site conditions.
ALBERTA: But the political ground is shifting beneath him. Isn’t this the same political opportunism he criticizes others for?
KING: I wouldn’t say that. He wants a freeze put on H1-Bs for 180 days while there’s a study done and an audit done. And he also wants to give the death penalty to any company that defrauds under H1-Bs. So it will take some time to clean up the H1-B process. Right now I don’t think he’s changed a position.
ALBERTA: One thing Senator Cruz doesn’t address in his policy paper, which you referenced, is what to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants [already in the U.S.]. He has refused to say throughout the campaign what he would do with those living here illegally. Do you believe he’s in favor of mass deportation?
KING: I don’t know that I can tell you. I’m just reading the positions he’s taken and adding them up, and it would be something like this: If you eliminate the sanctuary jurisdictions — about 340 in his document — that means local-law enforcement will encounter people unlawfully in America and adjudicate them according to the law. And you shut off the jobs magnet through E-verify. And you end birthright citizenship. And you build a wall — a fence, and a wall on the southern border. And then this idea always thrown out by the open-borders, pro-amnesty crowd — “You can’t deport 11 million” — becomes a redundant proposition.
What I’m talking about is, when law enforcement encounters people who are unlawfully present in America, then the existing law would be applied to them.
ALBERTA: When you talk about ending sanctuary cities, you’re not just talking about deporting illegal immigrants with a criminal record, correct? You’re talking about deporting all illegal immigrants?
KING: What I’m talking about is, when law enforcement encounters people who are unlawfully present in America, then the existing law would be applied to them. If they’re not encountered by law enforcement, then they essentially live in the shadows. That’s what they came here to do, so they should be happy.
ALBERTA: Under a President Cruz, would law enforcement seek out illegal immigrants living in these communities, or would deportations happen only if they happen upon them?
KING: If you’re thinking about kicking doors down and deporting people, I know that’s not been mentioned or discussed between myself and Ted Cruz. That’s not the way — well, maybe it’s the way for another candidate, but it’s not the way Ted Cruz envisions this, and it’s not the way I envision it.
ALBERTA: Lastly, you and Senator Cruz are on opposite sides of one important issue to Iowans. The Renewable Fuel Standard is near and dear to your heart, and Senator Cruz opposes it.
KING: [Laughing] That’s something that’s workable. But I can’t go deeper into it right now, because I’ve got another call to get on.
— Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.