New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, one of former President Donald Trump’s loudest defenders in Congress, once harshly attacked Trump over both his rhetoric and policies, claiming that she’d be an “independent voice.”
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Stefanik, a rising Republican star who is working to replace Rep. Liz Cheney as the House GOP conference chair, has spent much of the last two years as a fierce defender of the former President, particularly during his first impeachment inquiry. After the 2020 election, she has recently encouraged and promoted lies about the 2020 election and objected to the Electoral College vote in Pennsylvania.
But in 2015, 2016 and the early days of his first term in office, Stefanik criticized Trump over everything from his incendiary comments about Muslims and women to his signature policy positions, such as reforming NATO, building a US-Mexico border wall and having stronger cooperation with Russia.
In interviews during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Stefanik said Trump would not become the GOP nominee for president. In one August 2015 interview, she said his campaign had peaked.
Stefanik, in her freshman term as a congresswoman, also said she believed Trump should release his tax returns to the public, which Trump famously never did. Stefanik did not endorse any candidate during the primary, and though she pledged she would support the Republican nominee, she initially did not invoke Trump’s name.
In another interview, in which she didn’t mention Trump by name, Stefanik blasted candidates who disqualified themselves by making “untruthful statements.”
“I think in the presidential field, there are some candidates — who over the long run and they’ve already started this process — are somewhat disqualifying themselves with untruthful statements,” she said in one local radio interview in December 2015. “Not being willing to really talk about the substance of issues and just firing away rhetorical devices that don’t necessarily have a basis in fact.”
Stefanik also frequently criticized Trump’s rhetoric, saying in one January 2016 interview, “Unfortunately, it’s tapping into the fear today of our security situation.” She added, “I think we should expect more substance out of our candidates.”
CNN reached out to Stefanik’s office, but they declined to comment on the record.
On Thursday, however, Stefanik said on Steve Bannon’s podcast that she would never forget campaigning during the 2016 election and said that she “really paid attention to the voters and the people in my district” who supported Trump.
“The energy was just palpable. Anyone on the ground or who was knocking on doors, talking to voters, understood that it was going to be a historic election. The media didn’t get it. The establishment didn’t get it. I was proud to be a part of it. And I was proud to be on that ticket and to win by a huge, huge margin as well as President Trump’s huge double-digit victory in my district,” she said.
Stefanik also said Trump’s “insulting” rhetoric about women hurt the Republican Party’s efforts to expand its appeal to women voters.
“I think he has been insulting to women,” Stefanik said in another local radio interview in August 2015, referring to Trump’s misogynistic comments about then-Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. “I think this may be Mr. Trump’s peak moment. And I think we’re going to see his numbers change and decline over the coming weeks and months as the other candidates have an opportunity to share their vision for the future of this country.”
“We need to ensure that we’re increasing our party’s ability to reach out to women,” she added. “And I work on that in Congress. I care passionately about that. And Donald Trump’s comments have not helped that effort. They’ve hurt that effort.”
At this time, Trump was not considered by political operatives as a serious contender to become the Republican nominee, despite leading the primary race in nationwide polls.
In October 2016, after Trump’s crude and sexist comments on the infamous Access Hollywood tape emerged, Stefanik called Trump’s comments wrong.
“Donald Trump’s inappropriate, offensive comments are just wrong - No matter when he said them or whatever the context,” she said in a statement posted on Facebook. “I hope his apology is sincere.”
The Muslim ban
When Trump proposed as a candidate to ban Muslims from entering the country, Stefanik told a local newspaper in a telephone interview, “This is not who we are as a country… This is not according to our constitutional principle.”
“And I associate myself with Speaker (Paul) Ryan’s comment just saying there is no place for what Trump said about Muslims in this country.”
“I don’t think that’s who we are,” she said again in January 2016 in a radio interview, adding Trump would not be the nominee. “That’s not according to our constitutional principles.”
After Trump won the Republican primary, Stefanik’s critiques of him did not diminish, even though she pledged to support the Republican nominee. Stefanik criticized Trump for attacking Khizr Khan, a 2016 speaker at the Democratic National Convention whose Muslim son was killed in Iraq while serving as a US soldier in 2004.
“I think there is no excuse to be attacking Gold Star families,” she said in August 2016. “Military families deserve our utmost respect.”
In the same interview, she noted that she would always support the GOP nominee but “I’m an independent voice and that has not changed.”
The wall and foreign affairs
While Trump campaigned for president in 2016, Stefanik opposed his signature policy proposals, including building a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Talking to the Press-Republican, a Plattsburgh, New York, newspaper in Stefanik’s district, in February 2016, Stefanik said she disagreed on the need to build a wall on the southern border.
“I think that you can use technology to have better security along the Mexican border,” she told the paper. “Far too often, securing the border has been a political talking point for the past 10 to 12 years, and there hasn’t been enough kind of common-sense discussions about what that actually means.”
A spokesman confirmed in October 2016 to Roll Call that she disagreed on building the wall.
When asked again about the wall in May 2017, months after Trump had taken office, Stefanik said the President’s plan wasn’t realistic.
“I don’t think that’s realistic,” Stefanik said. “I don’t think the President’s plan is exactly right on that.”
During the campaign, Stefanik also was dismissive of Trump’s foreign affairs plans.
Though she had backed Trump for president, saying he was preferable to the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Stefanik said his military proposals were “absolutely not a good idea,” but suggested her positions on the House Armed Services Committee allowed her to be a check on Trump.