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Trump ally Debbie Lesko gains clout

Arizona Republican’s forceful defense of Trump landed her spot on impeachment team during Senate trial

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., talks with reporters outside the deposition of Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, during the House's impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in October 2019.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., talks with reporters outside the deposition of Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, during the House's impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in October 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Debbie Lesko says she does best when she speaks from the heart, and her vociferous speeches on the House Judiciary Committee have made her a star in conservative media, garnered high praise from the White House and earned her an unexpected spot on President Donald Trump’s defense team during the Senate trial.

The Arizona Republican was initially angling for a seat on the Energy and Commerce panel last year when she was asked to join Judiciary by then-ranking member Doug Collins, the Georgia Republican. While she was initially skeptical, the decision has given her a platform she never anticipated.

[‘Force multiplier’: House Republicans reflect on aiding Trump impeachment defense]

“I’m glad I was asked to be on [Judiciary] because it put me right in the middle of impeachment,” said Lesko. “I’m in the middle of history. This is a big deal.”

Unlike many of her colleagues on the committee, Lesko, 61, does not have a legal background — before her political career she worked in construction sales. But as the Democrats moved to impeach Trump for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, she was armed with a firm belief that Trump did not do anything wrong. She says she never had any doubt about the president’s innocence, even as more details emerged and witnesses testified.

To her, the details the White House released on Trump’s July call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to launch an investigation, shows that Trump was not interested in Biden but instead an unfounded rumor that a Democratic National Committee server was located in Ukraine. Lesko says Democrats and the media blew the issue far out of proportion.

Her full-throated defenses of Trump in both committee and on the House floor made her a logical choice for the president’s defense team.

“You have no idea how much the public appreciates how smart, how sharp you are,” Trump said of Lesko at a February event after he was acquitted on both articles of impeachment. Last month, Trump echoed his praise at a rally held just outside of Lesko’s district, which centers on the northwestern suburbs of Phoenix.

While she has fiercely defended Trump, she said there is still more than enough room in the Republican Party for those who disagree, like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who voted to convict and remove Trump for abuse of power.

“I personally did not think there was anything wrong, but others may have thought it was wrong. But the question is, ‘Are you gonna impeach a president of the United States over it?’ And my answer is ‘absolutely not,’” Lesko said.

Lesko hopes the House will be able to move past impeachment, although she says the decision to do so ultimately rests with Democrats. She would like to see Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat, mark up any of her six immigration bills intended to decrease asylum applications and increase Immigration and Customs Enforcement bed space, but she does not have much hope he will do so.

Before entering Congress, Lesko served in both chambers of the Arizona Legislature. She garnered national attention for two bills, the first allowing golf carts on the roads in a retirement community and the second allowing employers or insurance companies the right to opt out of covering certain medical expenses for their employees based on moral objections.

Both were enacted, and she credits the latter bill with giving her the conservative bona fides that eventually helped her win the 2018 Republican special election primary after GOP Rep. Trent Franks resigned amid a sex scandal the previous year. She won the special election by 5 percentage points and doubled that margin for her reelection, but Democrats are targeting her district this fall.

She acknowledges that the Republican Party has lost ground with women in recent years, a fact she attributes in part to many Republican congresswomen occupying seats the Democrats targeted to flip in 2018. She says her Democratic colleagues too often focus on narratives of victimhood instead of empowerment, and that Republicans could make inroads by highlighting women in positions of power.

Currently she is one of only two Republican women on the Judiciary Committee, and her colleague Martha Roby of Alabama has announced that she will not seek reelection. As the only woman currently in the far-right House Freedom Caucus, Lesko is accustomed to being the only woman in the room.

While she and her male colleagues see eye to eye on most issues, she acknowledges that many are happy to let her take the lead on issues directly affecting women.

In that, she has lent credibility to GOP efforts to block Democratic efforts on women’s issues. Lesko opposed a measure extending the deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment over her concerns that it would force courts to overturn abortion restrictions, and she was a vocal opponent of the Democratic proposal for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, largely because of a provision that would allow transgender women in women’s shelters. She said that “biological males who identify as women” should not be allowed in, arguing it would put women at risk.

That’s a risk she says she is particularly attuned to because of her own experience. She says she was the victim of domestic violence by her ex-husband in the 1990s. While it was initially hard to speak on the topic, she says it became easier after the realization that addressing the issue may help other women. 

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