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Stefanik seizes the spotlight at Trump impeachment proceedings

New York Republican trends on Twitter and is praised by Trump as ‘new Republican star’

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik questions former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday during a House Intelligence hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik questions former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on Friday during a House Intelligence hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

She went out of her way to confront Adam B. Schiff

The House Intelligence Committee had gathered Friday for its second open hearing of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump when Rep. Elise Stefanik stormed into the spotlight.

“This is the fifth time you have interrupted members of Congress, duly elected members of Congress,” the New York Republican told Schiff, the Intelligence chairman who had just cut her off for speaking out of turn in a clear violation of the committee’s rules.

She later tweeted, “Adam Schiff flat out REFUSES to let duly elected Members of Congress ask questions to the witness, simply because we are Republicans.”

It was midmorning on a Friday, but it was prime time.  

With the hearing splashed across every news network, the third-term congresswoman delivered her party’s message: Schiff, a California Democrat, is an unfair partisan who will use any dirty trick to impeach Trump.

[Trump’s defenders try to narrow impeachment case to one call]

Throughout the first two open hearings of the inquiry, Stefanik has emerged as one of Trump’s chief defenders. It’s an abrupt change for a lawmaker who opposed top Trump priorities and supported the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

But battling Schiff, Stefanik says, benefits her reelection campaign. She explained over the phone that her rural upstate New York district — which twice voted for President Barack Obama, but flipped to Trump in 2016 — is “becoming more Republican.”

And as the GOP cements itself as the party of Trump, Stefanik appears eager to burnish her own conservative credentials and capitalize on the impeachment proceedings.

Her approach, including ignoring the committee rules in a partisan play, has infuriated Democrats — and not just those inside the Beltway. Model and liberal activist Chrissy Teigen tweeted that Stefanik is “trash.”  At one point, #TrashyStefanik trended on the social media platform.

Stefanik’s performances, though, have pleased her Republican colleagues and haven’t gone unnoticed by Trump.

“How wonderful did Elise Stefanik do today?” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy asked at a fundraiser after the first impeachment hearing.

Other Republicans applauded her on Twitter. The National Review wrote that Stefanik “stood out” on Day One of the open hearings.

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That’s the kind of attention that turns a relatively obscure lawmaker into a household name.

During the closed-door depositions that preceded the open hearings, a lawyer for a witness thought Stefanik was a staffer. A Democrat at the deposition called the incident sexist.

And as she entered through a door reserved for staff and members at the second open hearing of the inquiry, Stefanik had to point to her congressional lapel pin to show a Capitol police officer that she is, in fact, a member.

Seizing the opportunity

Stefanik is a 30-something Republican woman in a place where few hold office. It’s a reality she is working to change with E-PAC, a political action committee dedicated to electing Republican women to Congress.

Previously known more for policy prowess than attack-dog instincts, Stefanik spent her time focusing on E-PAC or on the issues important to her district, like health care, workforce development and defense.

Advancing those electoral and policy interests, though, requires party buy-in. And the impeachment hearings offer opportunity for Stefanik to raise her profile, something party elders welcome.

“Elise isn’t just the future of the Republican Party,” former Speaker Paul Ryan wrote in Time, a publication that named Stefanik one of the 100 rising stars of 2019. “She is the future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America.”

Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, a panel on which Stefanik sits, agrees.

“I’m very comfortable with her as the future of the party,” said the Texas Republican who will retire from Congress next year. “That would be a good thing.”

Being the future of the GOP, of course, means surviving — and thriving — in the party of Trump. It also means retaining her seat.

In 2020, Stefanik is expected to again face Tedra Cobb, a Democrat who challenged her last cycle. She won that race with 56 percent of the vote.

Stefanik calls the impeachment inquiry “a losing issue” for Cobb. “This has been a political nightmare for her,” she added.

And she is seizing on the impeachment inquiry to bolster her campaign coffers.

“Far-left Socialist Democrats — like my opponent — are attacking me,” Stefanik writes on a fundraising website for her 2020 race. “They will stop at NOTHING to impeach our President.”

Next to that message is a photo of Stefanik with Trump at Fort Drum in 2018, a visit she fought hard to secure.

But it’s unclear whether Stefanik’s calculus — and her allegiance to Trump — will pay off in the long run. Cobb raised more than $400,000 in the 24 hours after the second impeachment hearing.

“Stefanik’s partisan political theatre is beneath the dignity of her office,” Cobb said in a Saturday statement.

Role reversal

In many ways, Stefanik — who Trump on Sunday called a “new Republican star” — is a world apart from the lawmaker who earned a reputation as a rare moderate in a polarized Congress who was unafraid to tangle with Trump.

Stefanik was one of the few GOP members to vote against the Republican tax overhaul in 2017. She also called for Trump’s EPA director to resign and supported Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into 2016 election meddling.

“She’s a thoughtful member. Very smart,” Rhode Island Democrat James Langevin, who chairs the House Armed Services Emerging Threats Subcommittee said of Stefanik, the panel’s top Republican, earlier this month. “She approaches issues with a deep level of seriousness and commitment.”

Georgetown University’s Lugar Center rated Stefanik the 19th most bipartisan member of the 435-person House. While speaking on a Harvard panel recently, the former George W. Bush aide fondly recalled helping incoming Obama staffers settle in to the White House. 

But Stefanik has always been ambitious — and, as an alum of that Bush White House and Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, she knows firsthand the importance of getting the attention of the president.

Trump ties

In August 2018, after repeated calls from Stefanik, Trump visited Fort Drum to sign into law the annual defense policy bill.

“She called me so many times,” Trump told the troops at the signing ceremony, noting that he initially denied her request to visit the base because he was too busy. “But that didn’t suit her. She didn’t stop, and here I am.”

The base is the area’s largest employer and home to some of the Army’s most battle-hardened soldiers. And the bill Trump signed there guaranteed those troops a pay raise.

“My constituents expect me to have an independent record and stand up for their views and stand up for them in Washington,” Stefanik said.

For now, Stefanik believes that means standing up to Schiff. She has railed against the impeachment inquiry on Trump’s favorite TV show, “Fox and Friends,” and tweets often about the impeachment process. She calls it Schiff’s “#RegimeofSecrecy.”

Her tweets and questions at the open hearings have drawn scorn from people who once respected Stefanik and praise from some Republicans who, in electoral contests, have worked against her.

Elise Stefanik is a perfect example of why just electing someone because they are a woman or a millennial doesn’t necessarily get you the leaders we need,” Matthew Dowd, ABC News’ chief political analyst, tweeted during the first open hearing.

Dowd, like Stefanik, worked for Bush. And while a Harvard undergraduate, Stefanik helped him write a book. Dowd deleted his tweet and apologized. Stefanik accepted.

Meanwhile Rep. Mark Meadows, a member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, praised Stefanik.

“Elise did a great job laying out the facts,” the North Carolina Republican tweeted following the first impeachment hearing. “And, not least of all, [Dowd’s tweet] is reprehensible.”

But it wasn’t that long ago that Meadows and Stefanik battled each other in a proxy war in North Carolina.

Last summer, a Stefanik-backed candidate ran against a Meadows-supported hopeful for the GOP nomination in a special congressional election. Both Stefanik’s and the Freedom Caucus’ PACs poured cash into the race. Meadows’ candidate won.

But now, at least until the impeachment inquiry is over, they’re on the same team.

Meadows helped lead the public GOP messaging during the closed-door depositions. Now, it’s Stefanik’s turn.

Like many of her colleagues who rose in the party of Bush and Romney, Stefanik is quick to note that Trump is unconventional.

She does not, though, think the substance of Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during which Trump asked Kyiv for a “favor” while military aid to Ukraine was on hold, is an impeachable offense.

She said Schiff, not Trump, is the wannabe tyrant. “I have never seen more of an abuse of power in this institution than I have seen from Adam Schiff,” she said.

The Intelligence Committee has more open hearings scheduled for this week. It’s unclear whether there will be more beyond that, so the coming days could be Stefanik’s last moments at the center of the fleeting impeachment spotlight. She’ll likely relish it.

Bridget Bowman and Simone Pathé contributed to this report.

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