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The ‘Handmaiden of Trump’: How Elise Stefanik Went From Moderate to MAGA

17 minute read

When Elise Stefanik was elected to the House of Representatives in 2014, she was hailed as the fresh face of the new GOP. Stefanik had run for office in her 20s, determined to modernize the Republican Party to attract more women and appeal to her fellow millennials. In her victory speech, she praised her opponents for their good-faith participation in the miracle of American democracy. “No matter their party, our democratic process is strengthened by those individuals willing to put forth their ideas,” she said on the night she became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Today Stefanik is still a politician on the rise, but for very different reasons. As soon as next week, she is widely expected to ascend to the position of House GOP conference chair, which would make her the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress. And she will have gotten there by lashing herself to a cause that undermines the same democratic process she once hoped to strengthen.

The opening for Stefanik to become the No. 3 House Republican has been created by the anticipated ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney, who has lost the support of her colleagues for insisting the party stop parroting President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. Rejecting Trump’s fictions about a stolen election is enough to make Cheney, a rock-ribbed conservative and daughter of a former vice president, an outcast in today’s GOP. “Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair,” Trump said in a statement. To replace Cheney with Stefanik would send a powerful signal: that anyone who refuses to carry water for Trump’s conspiracy theories cannot carry the Republican mantle.

But Elise Stefanik is no Matt Gaetz or Marjorie Taylor Greene. She was not always a MAGA warrior. Not long ago, she was a widely respected moderate Republican known for her embrace of facts, her trust in science and her push to build a more diverse party, highlighted by her successful efforts to recruit more GOP women to run for office. She was a prominent member of the moderate Tuesday Group, a caucus of center-right Republicans. And she was widely credited for a bipartisan spirit—”every Democrat’s favorite Republican,” as one former aide to GOP leadership puts it now.

Elise Stefanik celebrates her win in the 21st Congressional district on election night at the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls, N.Y., on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
Elise Stefanik celebrates her win in the 21st Congressional district on election night at the Queensbury Hotel in Glens Falls, N.Y., on Nov. 4, 2014.Steve Jacobs—The Post-Star/AP

Yet over the last five years, Trump has redefined the GOP. Today the party primarily judges its representatives not by any particular policy positions but by their allegiance to a defeated President and an embrace of his conspiracy theories. Stefanik has adapted. It’s a calculation that has made her a fundraising star and a party leader-in-waiting. It’s also dismayed many Republicans who have worked with and admired her in the past.

“To be a handmaiden of Trump and get a little pat on the head from Trump is not a leadership move,” says former Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), who worked closely with Stefanik and helped organize a small, bipartisan shower in her honor ahead of her 2017 wedding. “It’s embarrassing. It’s sad.”

So how did Elise Stefanik go from praising the democratic process to standing on the House floor in the aftermath of the Capitol riot and voting to object to the Electoral College results? How did she go from saying that one particular Republican candidate was “disqualifying themselves with untruthful statements” in 2015 to feeding vague conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden on Steve Bannon’s podcast in 2021? Her evolution mirrors the transformation of her party, while her rise within its ranks is a fall from the modern, millennial conservatism she once was on track to define.

Stefanik’s office declined to make her available to comment for this story, which is based on interviews with former colleagues, aides, friends, classmates and mentors, and draws on others I conducted with Stefanik in 2018 and 2019 for my book, The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For. Stefanik’s embrace of Trump has disappointed her high school teachers, alienated her from her alma mater and puzzled former allies and mentors who envisioned a different future for her.

“Elise could have been the face of a new generation of Republicans that could represent a real big-tent party, that could build beyond the base, that could lay the foundation for a coalition that could win elections nationally,” says Margaret Hoover, a center-right commentator who worked with Stefanik at the Bush White House and now hosts PBS’s Firing Line. “It shows that she was never motivated by principles, and that’s deeply disappointing.”

Now, as her tolerance of baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election propels her toward Republican leadership, many of the people who knew her in the past are asking: what happened to Elise Stefanik?

If you ask Stefanik’s childhood classmates what she was like as a girl, two words keep coming up: “integrity” and “ambition.” Growing up in upstate New York, Stefanik was friendly with Melissa DeRosa, now an embattled senior aide to scandal-plagued Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. Both served in student government at the Albany Academy for Girls. In middle school they teamed up to pressure administrators to install a snack machine.

DeRosa grew into one of New York’s most powerful Democratic operatives as Stefanik climbed the GOP ladder. But despite their political differences, they remained close for a while. DeRosa was one of a handful of old classmates at Stefanik’s 2017 wedding. When I interviewed her about Stefanik two years ago for my book, DeRosa told me the old friends would frequently commiserate about the rough-and-tumble world of New York politics.

“There have been times over the years when I have called her, practically in tears, saying, ‘This just happened, I feel so beaten down, I don’t know what to do anymore,’” DeRosa told me back then. “And she is so morally supportive and will be there to coach through whatever the issue is.” Somewhere along the way, Stefanik also learned to interpret criticism as evidence that she was doing something right, according to DeRosa. “She says, ‘People who are criticizing you are criticizing you because you’re doing a good job,” DeRosa recalled. “Her attitude has been like: ‘Dig in and go the other way.’”

But in February of 2021, as DeRosa took heat for the Cuomo Administration’s alleged effort to obscure the number of nursing-home deaths from COVID-19 in New York, Stefanik went nuclear. On one occasion, she tweeted that the scandal enmeshing her friend of 20 years was a “criminal coverup,” On another, she linked to a story about about Cuomo’s senior aides, adding “PROSECUTE NOW!”

“She sort of threw Melissa under the bus,” says Caroline Mason, the former headmistress at Albany Academy for Girls, who says she kept in touch with Stefanik for years after she graduated, exchanged Christmas cards with her until last year, and even helped preside over her 2017 wedding ceremony. Mason said she had long admired Stefanik, but that “something stronger took hold of her.”

“She basically abandoned her own core values for a man who had no core values,” Mason says. “Her fealty to Trump seems to have trumped her fealty to her sisters in the House.”

After high school, Stefanik went to Harvard, becoming the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. Stefanik was one of few conservative women at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, but fellow campus politicos told me they admired her sharp reasoning, intellectual integrity and willingness to stick to her positions, even when they were unpopular on a liberal-leaning campus. She crossed paths there with Pete Buttigieg, now the U.S. Transportation Secretary, and they even met for coffee once. (Stefanik and Buttigieg both say their coffee was purely platonic, but the rumor on campus was that it was a single, uneventful date; while Buttigieg is now married to a man, he dated women in college. “Peter and Elise were at Harvard at the same time and were friends in college and once went to coffee,” a Stefanik spokesperson said. “They did not date.” )

From Harvard, Stefanik rocketed through the traditional Republican establishment. She worked in various roles in the George W. Bush White House, then as an adviser to vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan during the 2012 presidential campaign. After that defeat, the GOP released an autopsy that argued the GOP was struggling to reach young voters, women and voters of color. Stefanik saw it as an opening to help transform her party. With support from Ryan and deep-pocketed donors, she handily won her seat in New York’s North Country to become the youngest woman elected to Congress in U.S. history. (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has since beaten that record.)

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan administers the House oath of office to Elise Stefanik during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 3, 2017, as the 115th Congress began.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan administers the House oath of office to Elise Stefanik during a mock swearing in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 3, 2017, as the 115th Congress began.Jose Luis Magana—AP

When she arrived on the Hill, Stefanik was part of a cohort of young Republicans focused on helping the GOP appeal to younger, more diverse voters. With Ryan as her mentor, she staked out moderate positions on climate change and immigration consistent with her fellow conservative millennials, and pushed the GOP to recruit more women to run for office. She also built a strong record of bipartisanship. Stefanik was the 31st most bipartisan members of Congress in her first term and 19th in her second term, according to an index compiled by Georgetown University’s Lugar Center.

Stefanik tended to steer clear of hot-button right-wing issues, focusing instead on those that affected her district, like military funding and support for rural farmers. She voted against Trump’s signature domestic policy achievement—the 2017 tax cuts—because she felt they unfairly penalized high-tax states like New York. In 2017, she introduced a House resolution to commit to addressing climate change, calling environmental stewardship a “conservative principle.”

This relatively moderate record didn’t make her especially popular with Republican hard-liners. As Stefanik emerged in recent days as a top candidate to replace Cheney, the president of the conservative Club for Growth called her “very much a liberal.” Other conservative groups, from Heritage Action to the American Conservative Union, have ranked Cheney’s record as more conservative than Stefanik’s.

But Stefanik was cultivating a reputation among colleagues as a rising star. “She had developed a really good brand: she was the young, smart, vivacious millennial who could appeal to constituencies that Republicans had difficulty with,” says a former GOP congressman who worked closely with Stefanik. “She had that real up-and-coming thing.”

When Trump first emerged as a political phenomenon, Stefanik mostly ignored him. She said she would “support my party’s nominee” in the 2016 election, but largely avoided mentioning him by name. From time to time, she carefully spoke out against him, adopting a tone of dutiful scolding. In August 2015, she said in a radio interview that Trump had been “insulting to women” and said his campaign had “hurt the effort” to reach out to them. After Trump’s Access Hollywood scandal, she said his “inappropriate, offensive comments are just wrong.” When Trump moved to ban travel from some Muslim-majority countries, she said she opposed his “rushed and overly broad Executive Order.” She said she didn’t think his plans for a border wall were “realistic” and that the President “wasn’t exactly right on that.” When Trump blasted immigrants from “sh-thole countries,” Stefanik released a statement that the comments were “wrong and contrary to our American ideals.”

But as Trump’s presidency wore on, Stefanik’s party transformed. So did her district, which voted twice for Obama before breaking heavily for Trump. “It’s only become more and more supportive of President Trump over time,” Stefanik said on Bannon’s podcast. “I represent farmers, manufacturers, and hardworking families who want someone who stands up for them, and President Trump spoke to those people.”

“If you’re looking for a through line, it’s that her district has changed and she’s always been attuned to what her district wants,” says Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Speaker Ryan. “A swing purple district got a middle-of-the-road moderate member, and now it is a Trumpy district, and they have a Trumpy representative.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Stefanik’s own evolution began. Some suspect it started in August of 2018, when Trump joined Stefanik for a visit to Fort Drum, a key military base in her district. “You’re standing in front of a crowd, and all of a sudden you see there’s a bigger crowd than you normally would have,” says one former Republican Congresswoman who recalled that event.

Others point out that the political downsides of anti-Trumpism became clear around the same time. In the 2018 midterms, many Republicans who had criticized Trump lost their seats. Among them was Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a close friend of Stefanik’s who had been outspoken in his opposition to Trump’s immigration policy.

Still others see a substantive reason for the change. Stefanik sat on the Intelligence Committee during the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election. While former FBI chief Robert Mueller found widespread evidence of bad behavior by Trump and others, including repeated testimony showing Trump obstructed justice, the Intelligence Committee, and later the Department of Justice Inspector General, found evidence of inappropriate investigative measures by the FBI and others. Over the course of the Russia probe, Stefanik became an outspoken defender of the President, arguing that he was being unfairly persecuted by Democrats. “The longer she served on Intelligence, the more she pivoted towards defending the Administration,” says a former GOP member of Congress.

Elise Stefanik stands as she's acknowledged by former President Donald Trump as he speaks one day after the U.S. Senate acquitted on two articles of impeachment, in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 6, 2020
Elise Stefanik stands as she's acknowledged by former President Donald Trump as he speaks one day after the U.S. Senate acquitted him on two articles of impeachment, in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 6, 2020Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Then came Trump’s 2019 impeachment trial on charges he solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election. That’s when a switch flipped, according to a former aide to GOP House leadership. Stefanik was named a member of Trump’s impeachment defense team and emerged as a vehement advocate, earning favorable press on Fox News and praise from the President himself. “She became a darling of the right and an enemy of the left,” says a former Republican Congressman who knew her well. “And she just decided to own that and monetized it.”

In the last three months of 2019, Stefanik raised a whopping $3.2 million—a seven-fold increase from the previous quarter’s haul—making her the second-highest fundraiser in the House. She had picked her side. “She has become a star,” Trump gushed on Fox & Friends.

Stefanik soon became the co-chair of Trump’s re-election campaign in New York. She gave a rousing speech at the 2020 GOP Convention about “the Democrats’ baseless and illegal impeachment sham and the media’s endless obsession with it.”

“This attack was not just on the President, it was an attack on you: your voice, and your vote,” she added. “Our support for President Trump is stronger than ever before.” This would be the basis of her defense of Trump before, during, and after the 2020 election. Her constituents were Trump’s voters, and they perceived any attack on Trump to be an attack on them.

“I think all of this is very genuine to her,” says Anthony Pileggi, a former top aide for Stefanik from the beginning of her Congressional career. “I think this is someone who is a very hardworking member of Congress, who saw that the president was being attacked during impeachment.”

Others see it differently. “Trump has won the Republican Party. Trump owns it. It is the key to her re-elections, it is the key to her fundraising, it’s the key to her advancement within Congress,” says Hoover. “She knows how to play it, so that’s what she’s doing. Never mind that it’s undermining democracy. She’s made a calculation that she can rise to power by backing the Big Lie.”

In the aftermath of Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, Stefanik stopped short of adopting Trump’s false claims that the election was “rigged’ or “stolen.” But she perpetuated the baseless claims around the election outcome.

In a Newsmax interview a month after the election, she parroted conspiracy theories about “irregularities,” then mentioned she had “concerns” about “Dominion software,” indirectly alluding to a false conspiracy theory that the voting-machine company had been part of an effort to rig the election against Trump. (Officials from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying that “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” and Dominion has filed several lawsuits against people and organizations that spread the conspiracy theory, including one that forced Newsmax to retract its claims and apologize.)

In December, Stefanik was one of 126 Republicans who signed onto an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to consider rejecting election results in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin. She then announced in an open letter to her constituents that she would object to electors from the same four states. Amid the insurrection, when House Republicans forced a vote on only two states, Stefanik voted to certify Biden’s win in Arizona but reject his win in Pennsylvania. She continued to make baseless claims about “voting irregularities” and “lack of ballot integrity and security,” though no credible evidence of widespread voter fraud ever emerged. (Harvard, her beloved alma mater, stripped her from the Senior Advisory Council of the Institute of Politics after she voted to challenge the election results.)

Some people who know Stefanik said she may have cultivated genuine concerns about election integrity, given that votes were cast under the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic and the race was extremely close in some states. On Bannon’s podcast, she said she was concerned about “unprecedented, unconstitutional overreach” and “unelected judges and bureaucrats who were rewriting election laws in real time,” and raised questions about a “lack of chain of custody” for ballots. Her aides say she is simply representing the concerns of the millions of Americans who don’t believe the election was fair, including her constituents, who voted for Trump by a wide margin.

But no one I spoke to inside or outside her office believes she actually thinks the election was stolen. When asked directly, aides often pivot to “concerns” about “irregularities.”

“I don’t even know if she believes the Big Lie,” says Hoover, Stefanik’s former colleague. “But she is absolutely responsible for propagating a lie that will undermine our democracy.”

Whether she believes the lies or not, Stefanik has now aligned herself with Trump for good. She may still be the face of the GOP’s future. But that future looks a lot different than anyone thought.

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com