On November 14, New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik was named to the Time 100 Next list. “Elise isn’t just the future of the Republican Party. She is the future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America,” former House speaker Paul Ryan said in his write-up of the 35-year-old congresswoman. The day before, Stefanik had been widely praised for her concise questioning during the first day of the public impeachment hearings. The day after the Time magazine article appeared, Stefanik was at the center of a bitter partisan fight.
“@EliseStefanik is lying trash,” tweeted George Conway, the anti-Trump lawyer. The response was swift: “This is absolutely uncalled for and disgusting. What is wrong with people? George Conway is the last person that can call someone ‘trash,’” former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley replied.
The spat began when Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member on the committee, tried to cede his time to Stefanik, and committee chairman Adam Schiff said Stefanik was not recognized under the House rules. Republicans accused Schiff of silencing Stefanik.
Schiff was right about the rules for the hearings, but Stefanik points out the rules were recently passed by Democrats on a party-line vote. “As an institution, the member controls the time, which in this case it was a Republican member’s time. You’re allowed to yield to other members: You’re allowed to do that on the floor. You’re allowed to do that in every other committee. You’re allowed to do that in any type of normal proceedings. This is an example of Adam Schiff literally making up the rules,” Stefanik tells National Review. “That rules package was passed on a party-line vote — and in fact, with bipartisan opposition, with two Democrats siding with Republicans.”
Stefanik’s attempt to challenge Schiff may have been a bit theatrical, but it was no worse than the supposed silencing of Elizabeth Warren, who had violated a longstanding rule of the Senate, not a rule passed by Republicans on a party-line vote.
Nevertheless, Stefanik’s persistence aroused strong feelings on both sides, with some celebrities helping make the hashtag #TrashyStefanik trend on social media and Donald Trump tweeting that Stefanik was “a new Republican star.”
Even before she grabbed the national spotlight during the public impeachment hearings, Stefanik had risen rapidly in politics.
After graduating from Harvard in 2006, she held a variety of Washington staff jobs — in the Bush White House, at the Foreign Policy Initiative think tank, and in the presidential campaigns of Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney (where she was in charge of Paul Ryan’s debate prep) — before returning home to upstate New York to run for Congress in the 2014 midterm elections. In three consecutive elections before Stefanik ran, a Democrat won the historically Republican district, due in large part to the fact that moderate Republicans and conservatives were divided. Stefanik defeated a pro-choice Republican in the primary and went on to win the general election by 37 points, becoming, at the time, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress (a record now held by another member from New York, Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).
What’s next for the young, talented, and ambitious congresswoman? As a representative in New York, a Republican has virtually no chance of winning statewide office. But maybe Stefanik could see herself serving in House leadership someday? “No,” Stefanik tells me, “I thrive on focusing on my district, focusing on the substance of my committees. I’m a really active member of the three committees that I sit on: the House Armed Services Committee, Education and Workforce, and Intelligence.”
What about a post in the Trump administration? Would Stefanik serve as secretary of state if Mike Pompeo steps down to run for Senate and President Trump asks her to join his cabinet? She does not say no. “I am focused on my district,” Stefanik replies. “We will see; that’s a lot of hypotheticals. But I’m focused on my district.”
In the short term, Stefanik is focused on fighting impeachment in the House.
During the public hearings, Stefanik pressed the “no harm, no foul” defense. “Ukraine got the aid. There was no investigation into the Bidens, so there can’t be any quid pro quo,” she says. “Ukraine did get security assistance before the end of the fiscal year as authorized by Congress.”
Under questioning by Stefanik, witnesses explained that corruption at Burisma, the company on whose board Joe Biden’s son Hunter sat, was a legitimate issue. But establishing the fact that there could have been legitimate reasons to request an investigation of Burisma is not the same as establishing the fact that the president’s request for an investigation was legitimate.
Wouldn’t Republicans have been outraged, I ask Stefanik, if President Barack Obama had asked Ukraine to investigate Mitt Romney’s son in 2011? “President Trump didn’t ask that question,” she replies. “If you read the transcript, President Trump didn’t ask that question. Read the transcript. That was not a question. I know that it’s been oversimplified. . . . You are putting words in the president’s mouth.”
In the transcript of the July 25 call, Trump told Ukrainian president Zelensky: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”
While taking questions on camera from reporters at the White House on October 3, President Trump was asked: “What exactly did you hope Zelensky would do about the Bidens after your phone call?”
“Well, I would think that, if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens. It’s a very simple answer. They should investigate the Bidens,” Trump replied.
I ask Stefanik a couple of times if the president’s public request for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens was wrong, but both times she doesn’t directly answer the question and focuses instead on the fact that the investigation never occurred. “Ukraine got the aid, and there was no investigation and there is no impeachable offense. People can disagree with the tone and President Trump’s nontraditional ways of communicating,” she says. “Impeachment is a constitutional matter, and that’s what I’m focused on.”
If military aid to Ukraine had been tied to an investigation into the Bidens, would that be an impeachable offense? “There was no investigation, and the aid was released to Ukraine, so you’re really talking about hypotheticals,” Stefanik says.
Even for a talented debater, it seems the best move sometimes is a dodge.