The Invention of Elise Stefanik
Elise Stefanik had had enough.
In the wake of the 2018 midterms, the young congresswoman was sick of commuting to Washington from upstate New York and weary of dialing for campaign dollars. She was demoralized that Republican primary voters had spurned so many of the women she had helped persuade to run for Congress. She was annoyed that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist who had displaced her that fall as the youngest woman ever elected to the House, had not shown her the respect she felt was her due.
But it was bigger than that. For years, Ms. Stefanik had crafted her brand as a model moderate millennial — “the future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America,” as her mentor, Paul Ryan, would describe her in Time magazine. But as her third term unfolded, according to current or former friends and advisers, it was becoming painfully clear that she was the future of a Republican Party that no longer existed. The party was now firmly controlled by Donald J. Trump, a populist president she didn’t like or respect — a “whack job,” as she once described him in a message obtained by The New York Times. Fox hosts attacked her for not supporting Mr. Trump enough. Her friends criticized her for not opposing him more forcefully. You don’t understand, she would tell them. You don’t get how hard this is.Democrats were back in charge in the House. Mr. Ryan was gone, driven into early retirement. She told friends she was thinking of joining him.
Instead she embarked on one of the most brazen political transformations of the Trump era. With breathtaking speed and alacrity, Ms. Stefanik remade herself into a fervent Trump apologist, adopted his over-torqued style on Twitter and embraced the conspiracy theories that animate his base, amplifying debunked allegations of dead voters casting ballots in Atlanta and unspecified “irregularities” involving voting-machine software in 2020 swing states. The future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America now assails Democrats as “the party of Socialists, illegals, criminals, Communist Truth Ministers & media stenographers.” In the process, she has rocketed from the backbench to the party’s No. 3 House leadership job, presiding over the conference’s overall messaging.
Ms. Stefanik’s reinvention has made her a case study in the collapse of the old Republican establishment and its willing absorption into the new, Trump-dominated one. But as Republicans prepare to take control of the House in the coming days, her climb to MAGA stardom may also be a cautionary tale. Mr. Trump’s obsession with litigating his own defeat has left him at once the party’s most potent force and its greatest liability, blamed by many Republicans for their failure to win the Senate in November and for a House majority that, some fear, may be too narrow to govern effectively. Republican politicians and voters are now agonizing anew over the price of their alliance with Mr. Trump. “It’s crystal, crystal, crystal clear,” Mr. Ryan told SiriusXM. “We lose with Trump if we stick with Trump. If we dump Trump, we start winning.”
For her part, Ms. Stefanik has only doubled down, betting that her alliance with Mr. Trump will carry her further still — to a job in his cabinet, perhaps, or even a slot as his running mate in 2024. In November, even before Mr. Trump made his bid for re-election official, she became one of the few senior Republicans to endorse him. “Republican voters determine who is the leader of the Republican Party, and it’s very clear President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party,” she said, putting her loyalty on display in the way that Mr. Trump prizes.
That loyalty has already exacted a steep cost. Within the old-line Republican circles that spent years grooming Ms. Stefanik for a different kind of stardom, charting her turn toward Mr. Trump has become a kind of morose parlor game. Mr. Ryan has told associates he now considers her the biggest disappointment of his political career. One by one, many of her oldest and closest friends have stopped speaking to Ms. Stefanik, leaving a trail of embittered final texts and emails. Over dinners and group chats, they sometimes talk about what happened to the talented woman they once loved and respected. What really made her abandon her old political self? What had they missed?
Ms. Stefanik insists they missed nothing at all. She declined to be interviewed by The Times. But in a statement responding to questions for this article, Alex deGrasse, executive director of her political operation, denied she had ever considered quitting Congress and repeatedly rejected criticism of her as sexist. Mr. deGrasse denounced “anonymous sources who are clearly viciously Anti-Trump, Anti-Elise, and Anti-Republican,” who “clearly hate the American people who support Trump.” As criticism of her has mounted from former friends and allies, Ms. Stefanik has argued that in embracing Mr. Trump, she is merely serving her older, predominantly white and rural constituency, as she has since first being elected. “I’m the same member of Congress that I’ve always been,” she said after her breakout performance defending Mr. Trump during his first impeachment.
In an important sense, Ms. Stefanik is right. Virtually no one who knows her believes she has any genuine attachment to Trump-style populism — unlike Mr. Trump’s earliest supporters, for example, or media figures like the Fox host Tucker Carlson. Indeed, over dozens of interviews, former aides, advisers and friends going back to Ms. Stefanik’s Harvard days struggled to identify any of her deeply held political beliefs at all. Most recalled, instead, her generic loyalty to the Republican Party, her intense competitiveness and her unerring ability to absorb what she thought people around her wanted and to reflect it back at them. Eager to advance, skilled at impressing more powerful figures with her intelligence and work ethic, she has spent years embedding herself wherever the action seems to be at the time. “She knows exactly what she’s signed up for,” said Kate Yearwood Young, a former friend from Harvard. “There was no radicalization.”
Ms. Stefanik spoke at the Dykeman dairy farm last October in Fultonville, N.Y.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times
‘I Am Ultra-MAGA’
One day this past October, Ms. Stefanik stood in front of a dozen gigantic bins of bovine teat cleanser, decrying the war on chocolate milk to a nodding crowd of farmers. Months earlier, New York City’s quirkily centrist mayor, Eric Adams, had floated the idea of banning chocolate milk from city schools, then quickly abandoned the idea amid bipartisan criticism. Now, in the closing weeks of the campaign, Ms. Stefanik had come to the Mohawk Valley village of Fultonville, seizing a chance to simultaneously defend local businesses and stoke her constituents’ age-old suspicions of big-city liberals. “We are seeing really bad ideas from the progressive left,” she warned, adding, “I’ve been proud to be the leader standing up for chocolate milk.”
Like Mr. Trump, Ms. Stefanik, who is 38, does not merely advocate policies; she casts herself as a warrior against the leftist forces scheming to take away the things that make America great. She speaks MAGA fluently but with a touch of a foreign accent. “No matter what the Far Left says, #NY21 will ALWAYS stand for, salute and honor our flag,” she tweeted in 2021, referring to her district. “Check out these beautiful American flags in the North Country!” Like any convert, she makes up in zeal what she lacks in pedigree. When a reporter asked her last May about the new “Ultra-MAGA” label President Biden had begun affixing to her party, she responded almost too eagerly. “I am Ultra-Maga,” she said in a tone of utter seriousness. “I’m proud of it.”
Ms. Stefanik writes her own tweets and is effectively her own campaign manager — the first and often last word on messaging, scheduling and strategy. “She was always the smartest strategic mind in the room,” said Anthony Pileggi, who worked on her first two campaigns. Somewhat unusually for a high-ranking lawmaker, she personally approves every piece of campaign direct mail, weighing in on the design, photos and creative content and sometimes writing the copy herself. Routine statements from her office or campaign often appear first on Breitbart, the alt-right Bible, which hypes them as “exclusives.”
Since throwing in her lot with Mr. Trump, Ms. Stefanik has endorsed politicians like Sandy Smith, an unsuccessful House candidate in North Carolina who called for the arrest and execution of those responsible for the “fraud” of Mr. Trump’s defeat. In May, she hosted a fund-raiser for George Santos, a pro-Trump Republican recently elected to a district in Queens and Long Island, who fabricated vast swaths of his résumé and biography. (A picture of the two still adorns Mr. Santos’s Twitter profile.) The same month, Ms. Stefanik attacked “the White House, House Dems, & usual pedo grifters” for failing to address the nationwide infant-formula shortage, a seeming allusion to the QAnon mythos. In 2021, as a surge of Haitian migrants sought to cross the border into Texas, she ran a series of Facebook ads warning that Mr. Biden would “grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants” to “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” The ads echoed a racist conspiracy theory, heavily promoted by Mr. Carlson, about a supposed Democratic plot to replace the native-born electorate with illegal immigrants.
In New York, Ms. Stefanik has allied herself firmly with the Republican Party’s clamorous Trump wing.Two weeksafter a young white man killed 10 people at a supermarket this past May in a largely Black neighborhood in Buffalo, accusing his victims of seeking to “ethnically replace my own people,” Ms. Stefanik endorsed Carl Paladino, a developer and Trump friend running for Congress, who had suggested online that the massacre might have been a false-flag operation meant to help Democrats “revoke the 2nd amendment.” (Within days of Ms. Stefanik’s endorsement, audio surfaced of Mr. Paladino praising Adolf Hitler as “the kind of leader we need today.” The congresswoman told HuffPost that his comment had been taken out of context.)
Last January, she joined the New York Young Republican Club, a longtime redoubt of Rockefeller Republicanism recently taken over by MAGA enthusiasts. In May, the club announced a partnership with the youth wing of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, proclaiming a shared interest in “ending illegal immigration undertaken with the interest of eradicating the traditional people of a land.” Guests at the club’s annual holiday banquet in December included Peter Brimelow, founder of the nativist website VDare, and Jack Posobiec, a far-right commentator known for promoting the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. The club’s president, Gavin Wax, views Ms. Stefanik’s trajectory as almost inevitable. “She’s really transformed,” he said in an interview. “There’s no point in being a moderate Republican in New York anymore.”
From Harvard to the Hill
Like the Ivy-educated Republican senator Josh Hawley or Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Ms. Stefanik has succeeded in the Trump era in part by turning on the kind of people and institutions that made her.
The daughter of a prosperous Albany-area plywood distributor, she arrived at Harvard a year after the Sept. 11 attacks and immediately got involved with the university’s Institute of Politics. At the institute’s glass-and-brick building near the Charles River, a college freshman might brush elbows with a visiting senator, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, even a former president. “We all wanted to be around power, and we all had to decide what we were going to do with that access,” said Naomi Ages, a Harvard contemporary who went on to a career in environmental law.
The institute tried, with mixed success, to weld the students’ natural ambition to some notion of the public good. Ms. Stefanik fell in easily with a mostly left-leaning crowd. Four people who knew her at the time said she identified as a supporter of abortion and gay rights, though another college friend, Daniel Dunay, said in an email that “she was pro-life then, just like she is now.” Friends recalled her zipping around Cambridge in a sporty BMW, an earnest and fun-loving young woman with an endearingly goofy side. “She was sort of fascinated by the glamour of politics,” said Clarke Tucker, now a Democratic state lawmaker in Arkansas. “A lot of people with the I.O.P., myself included, are sort of nerds with a reverence for American institutions. I would have said the same about her, which is the most heartbreaking part of this.” He added: “She was running for something from the second she got there.”
A few weeks into her freshman year, she was picked to help run a weekly study group for a seminar led by Ted Sorensen, the former Kennedy speechwriter and confidant. “After that, I was hooked,” she later told a Harvard newsletter. No other institution in the world, she exulted, could match the institute “in terms of exposure and having a seat at the table.”
As a rising junior, she set out to run for the institute’s student presidency. Institute elections were hotly contested — Pete Buttigieg was famous in their circle for his surprise victory two years earlier — but not particularly ideological. Ms. Stefanik and a friend named David Kaden, the polished son of a politically connected New York lawyer, decided to run together. Ms. Stefanik believed she should be at the top of the ticket, but in the end grudgingly agreed to be Mr. Kaden’s vice president, a concession that left her bitter years later. Adopting a quasi-populist platform — giving all students, not just those in leadership, keys to the I.O.P. student office — they won overwhelmingly. Later, a friend and Harvard alumna introduced Ms. Stefanik to her boss at the White House, an official who ran President George W. Bush’s domestic policy council. The day after graduation, she moved to Washington as his new assistant.
Ms. Stefanik was an adept networker in the way of many successful young Washingtonians. Older people had a tendency to see in her a younger version of themselves, and after Mr. Bush left office and her law school plans fizzled — none of the schools she applied to accepted her — she translated her White House connections into a succession of opportunities. With vague ideas about a revival of Mr. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” or an American version of Thatcherism, she persuaded several prominent Bush alumni to join the board of a new web magazine, named American Maggie and dedicated to promoting “new ideas, new voices, and new types of candidates.” American Maggie lasted about six months, publishing a mix of syndicated columns and lightly polished essays by young conservative women in Ms. Stefanik’s orbit. In 2011, she became policy director for Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor running for president as a Tea Party-friendly lunch-pail conservative. When the party nominated an altogether different candidate, the patrician ex-financier Mitt Romney, her Bush connections helped land her a job with his running mate, Mr. Ryan, an icon of the party’s libertarianish wing.
After Mr. Romney lost, Ms. Stefanik was hired by a Republican National Committee task force charged with figuring out what had gone wrong. The project, known as the Republican “autopsy,” would call on the party to embrace comprehensive immigration reform — “amnesty,” as it was disparaged on the right. Ms. Stefanik, who served as an editor for the task force, was “a strong advocate of including the immigration language,” according to Sally Bradshaw, a task force member. “I can’t recall any time where Elise argued against being bold in that document,” Ms. Bradshaw said. As she recalled, Ms. Stefanik was most involved in the passages that examined how the party could attract a more diverse electorate. More inclusive messaging would not be enough, the final report argued; the party had to run more women for office. Ms. Stefanik, it turned out, had a specific kind of candidate in mind.
North Country Makeover
Running for Congress would be her first reinvention: from staff member to principal, insider to outsider, Beltway striver to North Country native. As Ms. Stefanik prepared to run in New York’s sprawling, largely rural 21st Congressional District, she took a job at her family’s company, Premium Plywood Products, and moved to their vacation home in the town of Willsboro, on Lake Champlain. She told friends she would play down her liberal views on abortion rights and gay marriage by casting them as settled matters. She hired Mr. Romney’s media consultant, who prepared a rosy-toned introductory ad heralding her “return home to the North Country”; her campaign bio described Ms. Stefanik as “a small businesswoman who works in North Country sales, marketing and management.” When one local reporter visited Willsboro for a profile, he couldn’t find a single person who had either met or heard of her.
The older, overwhelmingly male political class in the district did not immediately take Ms. Stefanik seriously. The candidate and her aides felt that local news coverage of her was hostile and nitpicky. But she had an instinctive sense of how to craft a sound bite and repeat it relentlessly, embracing the slogan “new ideas and a new generation of leadership.” She logged thousands of miles on the road — she had ditched the BMW for a Ford F-150 pickup — and boned up on local issues, like broadband internet access and tick control. When the incumbent Democrat announced his retirement in early 2014, Ms. Stefanik’s main challenge was defeating his previous opponent, a self-funding businessman, in the Republican primary.
Whatever resistance she may have faced in New York, the party’s national establishment, fearful of Democrats’ dominance among young voters, embraced her eagerly. Billionaires threw her fund-raisers and put more than $1 million into super PACs backing her candidacy. Smaller checks poured in from former White House colleagues and college friends, conservatives and liberals alike. “At the time, she was everything I agreed with,” said Heather Grizzle, a friend and fellow Republican from her Harvard days. “I was thrilled to help a friend who looked like she had a shot.”
That fall, at the age of 30, Ms. Stefanik became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. The Institute of Politics brought her onto its board, among the ranks of the politicians and leaders she had idolized as a student. In Congress, she joined a new, more diverse crop of young Republicans; senior Republicans began to discuss her as a future House speaker. She was profiled in Glamour magazine and told CBS she had been influenced to run by reading “Lean In,” the best-selling book by Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. But she carefully turned down most national interview requests. “I wanted to make sure that my first impression to my colleagues is that I am a workhorse,” she would later explain.
In private, Ms. Stefanik already seemed to be thinking ahead. Not long after the 2014 primary, according to records provided by the online forensics company DomainTools, StefanikForPresident.com was registered by Alex Skatell, the co-founder of IMGE, a political consulting firm retained by Ms. Stefanik’s campaign. Within days, the records show, the firm had registered or acquired two dozen other Stefanik-themed web addresses, more than half hinting at a future bid for Senate or president. Ownership of the addresses was later hidden behind a proxy service. In 2017, local papers reported that persons unknown had registered StefanikForPresident.com and other Stefanik-related domains. At the time, a spokesman denied it had been Ms. Stefanik or anyone working for her, chalking up the scrutiny to “desperate candidates and their partisan allies.”
‘Supporting’ the Nominee
When the congresswoman appeared in May 2021 on “War Room,” Stephen K. Bannon’s popular talk show, the onetime Trump consigliere prompted her to tell listeners how she had always stood by Mr. Trump’s side. “People in the audience need to understand this,”Mr. Bannon said: After the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2016, in which the future president bragged about groping women, “you had every opportunity to run like so many of the Republican establishment did at the time.”
Ms. Stefanik, then mounting her first bid for House leadership, wound up for the softball. “I will never forget campaigning in 2016 despite the media’s obsessive Trump derangement syndrome,” she said. She had felt the energy on the ground, had seen Mr. Trump’s win coming, even if others had not. “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.”
In truth, she had loathed Mr. Trump from the start. In August 2015, she told a New York radio station that he was “insulting to women,” and that his candidacy would hurt the party’s efforts to attract female voters. That December, at a friend’s wedding in Australia, she made Mr. Trump the butt of an elaborate rehearsal dinner toast, according to four people who attended. Whipping out a red MAGA hat, she glared at the other guests with mock suspicion, warning them not to post pictures or videos of the speech online, where they might get back to her constituents. Winding up, she placed the hat on the groom, a tech entrepreneur known for his socialist politics and friendly debates with Ms. Stefanik. Everyone laughed. (Her spokesman denied it was a MAGA hat and said the toast did not mock Mr. Trump.)
Like many establishment Republicans, according to her former friends, she thought Mr. Trump was too awful and ridiculous to be taken seriously, then watched with alarm as his campaign soared. She refused to endorse anyone before the New York presidential primary that April, leading Mr. Paladino, her future ally, to denounce her as a “fraud” and “Washington elitist establishment sellout.” Around that time, she returned to Cambridge for an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Institute of Politics. Afterward, she and a dozen of her old crowd gathered at a restaurant to catch up. Ms. Stefanik said she planned to vote for John Kasich in the primary and could not possibly vote for Mr. Trump in the general election, according to people who were there, and suggested she might write in someone else’s name if he became the nominee. (Her spokesman denied that account of the dinner.)
Ms. Stefanik skipped the Republican convention that summer. When the “Access Hollywood” tape broke, she drafted a statement demanding that he drop out of the race, according to a person familiar with her decision-making process,before settling for aFacebook postcalling his statements “inappropriate, offensive” and “just wrong.” (Her spokesman said that it was “Never Trump Outside consultants” working on her campaign who had drafted statements calling on Mr. Trump to drop out.) A week later, after a local debate, she told the assembled news media that she was “supporting my party’s nominee.” Then she dashed to her vehicle as her campaign staff blocked an Albany television reporter from following her. In text messages to friends after Mr. Trump won, she expressed shock and worry, not the exultation she claims today.
Her revisionism still shocks those who have known her the longest and who remember the disdain she expressed for Mr. Trump back then. “I suspect there are a lot of Republican members of Congress who take positions on Trump that they don’t hold privately, for their own political security or gain,” said Mr. Tucker, the Arkansas lawmaker. “Elise is the only one I know for certain who has.”
Woman in the Middle
Over Mr. Trump’s first two years in office, Ms. Stefanik fought what amounted to a losing battle against her own ambition. She voted with the president most of the time but against some of his signature initiatives — his tax cut, for example, and his attempt to free up funding for a border wall by declaring a national emergency. She co-sponsored legislation to provide a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” young immigrants brought to America as children, and registered high-toned disapproval of the president’s attacks on “shithole” countries. (“Wrong and contrary to our American ideals,” she wrote on Twitter.)
Her friends outside Washington would occasionally text her with praise after a tough vote. “Getting a lot of negative feedback back home,” she wrote one after the wall showdown. “But also some positive. So mixed. But I feel strongly it was the right vote.” She began participating in a book about millennial politicians by a Time magazine journalist, Charlotte Alter, who cast Ms. Stefanik as a rising star determined to drag her party into the 21st century. “I just think my generation doesn’t want to see the extreme partisanship,” she told the writer. Mike Conaway, a former Republican lawmaker from Texas who served with Ms. Stefanik on the House Intelligence Committee, described her as a diligent and hard-working member who “would ask really good questions and ask really good follow-up questions.”
But according to current and former friends, she felt increasingly frustrated and lost in the House, horrified by the behavior of her harder-right colleagues and unsure of her place. As Mr. Trump’s presidency unfolded, it was becoming more difficult to play the middle. Some of the high-profile issues on which she had positioned herself as a bipartisan leader — climate action, immigration — had little traction in the Trump era. The president’s base wanted revenge, not high-minded ideas; Mr. Trump set policy by tweet, not white paper. As the 2018 midterms approached, Ms. Stefanik’s campaign took on a grim, joyless air. According to friends and advisers, she seemed brittle and unhappy. No longer a novice candidate, she dictated a hyperlocal campaign, emphasizing her bipartisanship and focus on regional issues. Though Democrats took the House that fall, Ms. Stefanik won the largest margin of any Republican in New York, a seeming validation of her carefully calibrated approach. But it was bittersweet. She was a promising young lawmaker with a seat at no particular table, respected by her party’s fractured establishment but viewed with suspicion by its ascendant Trump wing.
Still, the campaign had given Ms. Stefanik a glimpse of an alternate path. That August, she had appeared with Mr. Trump at Fort Drum, a major military base in her district, to mark the signing of that year’s defense bill. With a Democratic wave approaching, Ms. Stefanik had fretted for weeks over whether and how she wanted him to appear, but ultimately lobbied hard for Mr. Trump’s visit, according to a former White House official involved in the planning. At Fort Drum, Mr. Trump mispronounced her name — calling her “STEF-a-nik,” not for the last time — and offered backhanded praise. “She called me so many times” that he had dodged her calls, Mr. Trump told the audience. Ms. Stefanik gave a brief speech from behind the presidential lectern, lit for television as she cited the bill’s pay increase for soldiers and provisions she had written providing support for military spouses.
The day made a powerful impression, according to people who know or have worked with her. The cheering crowd was “a taste of being Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows for a day,” said the former White House official, referring to two of Mr. Trump’s staunchest House allies. More important, she had successfully maneuvered the power of the presidency — even if it was his presidency — behind a piece of her own agenda. It was a taste of the influence she had always imagined having.
In the months that followed, many people sensed her impending transformation only as a kind of withdrawal. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat serving with her on the intelligence committee, recalled that in their first years on the panel, they texted often about committee business. “She took the Russia stuff seriously for a long time,” Mr. Swalwell said. “And then she just went dark.”
Always a happy warrior — someone who loved a debate and gave as good as she got — she now seemed cornered and defensive. She felt she was taking risks in criticizing Mr. Trump, even gently. But amid the polarizing fever of the Trump presidency, longtime friends were increasingly impatient with her cautious triangulations.
In the summer of 2019, when Mr. Trump attacked the Baltimore district of a Black lawmaker as a “rat- and rodent-infested mess” and urged four Democratic lawmakers of color to “go back” to where they came from, Ms. Stefanik called his comments “denigrating and wrong” but balked at going further. “I don’t believe he’s a racist,” she told a North Country newspaper. A week later, she received a long email from her old Harvard friend, Ms. Yearwood Young. “I’ve been wanting to write this email for months, but have been holding out as long as I could, hoping you would redeem yourself at some point,” she wrote. “You know he is racist. It honestly disgusts me that for political purposes you will not only refuse to call it out, but to actually state that he is NOT racist.”
Ms. Stefanik wrote back that afternoon. “I am so sorry that I have disappointed you,” she said. She pointed out that she had among the more bipartisan records in Congress and asked her friend to respect their differences. “I know how divided this country is right now. I hear it, see it, experience it every day. I receive emails like this on a daily basis from people (including some of our college friends!) who shame me for not supporting President Trump enough,” Ms. Stefanik wrote. She skirted the question of whether Mr. Trump or the things he said were racist, responding that “supporting President Trump does not make voters or people racist.”
Their volley of emails took on a progressively bitter tone. Ms. Stefanik said she had been “called out by name on Fox News and radio repeatedly” after voting for “immigration reform and legal status for undocumented immigrants.” She had been subject to violent threats; strangers had followed her while driving. She sounded resigned. “As long as I happen to be a Republican today,” she wrote, “that is unacceptable and immoral in your mind.” They never spoke again.
That October, after receiving a list of routine fact-checking queries from Ms. Alter, the Time journalist, Ms. Stefanik demanded through an aide to speak to Ms. Alter’s publisher. The aide claimed that the queries reflected significant factual errors, according to emails Ms. Alter provided, but when pressed, identified only a handful of minor items, easily fixed before publication. “They were trying to use my good-faith effort to check the facts as a cudgel to stop a book they didn’t want to be in anymore,” Ms. Alter said. “The book aligned with her earlier image, and she was making a transformation.” Just weeks later, Ms. Stefanik made her move.
‘She Has Become a Star’
Among those who have known her longest, a question about Ms. Stefanik’s ideological journey almost invariably draws a pause, a sigh and a theory. Even now, many former friends and associates believe that she did not, at first, intend to travel quite as far as she did. “I don’t think that the plan was to become a MAGA star,” Mr. Tucker said.
Indeed, through most of autumn 2019, as the intelligence committee examined allegations that Mr. Trump had threatened to withhold military aid unless Ukraine investigated Mr. Biden, she remained a minor player, attending fewer than half of the private depositions and asking questions at just two. She closely watched the Democratic presidential debates, sometimes offering, through a friend working on his campaign, unsolicited advice for Mr. Buttigieg. Even weeks later, as she publicly defended Mr. Trump, she was mulling other paths for advancement: She asked the friend whether Mr. Buttigieg might consider her for a cabinet job if he won the presidency. The friend, incredulous, told The Times the idea was never sent up the chain.
Yet as public hearings loomed that November, Ms. Stefanik lobbied for a bigger role. Like other Republicans, she felt that Democrats were abusing their power, forcing through one-sided rules for the impeachment battle. Her plan, she told one Republican friend, was to highlight the unfairness of the process. But she would not carry Mr. Trump’s water. “I will never defend Trump,” she said. (Her spokesman said that the notion that Ms. Stefanik had raised the idea of a cabinet job with anyone on the Buttigieg campaign was “stupid and false,” and that she had never expressed reluctance about defending Mr. Trump.)
On the first day of the hearings, she led off Republican efforts to derail the hearing, attacking the panel’s chairman, Representative Adam Schiff of California, for blocking Republicans from calling some witnesses. But as the hearing progressed, she did defend Mr. Trump: Addressing herself directly to the television audience, she waved away the president’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainians. “For the millions of Americans viewing today, the two most important facts are the following,” she said. “No. 1, Ukraine received the aid; No. 2, there was, in fact, no investigation into Biden.” When the committee reconvened two days later, Ms. Stefanik again led the attack. With theatrical interjections, deliberately breaking the Democrats’ rules, she lured Mr. Schiff into calling his young female colleague out of order. “What is the interruption for this time?” she demanded.
On the left, Ms. Stefanik became an instant target of hatred. Hollywood celebrities and liberal Twitter influencers attacked her relentlessly, dubbing her “Trashy Stefanik” and circulating a doctored picture of her supposedly giving the finger to a photographer during the hearings. In a clumsily sexist tweet, ABC’s Matthew Dowd suggested she had been elected only because she was a woman. But Fox ate up her performance, featuring clips through prime time. Mr. Trump loved it. “I know a lot about stardom,” he said on “Fox and Friends” the following week. “This young woman from upstate New York — she has become a star.”
Ms. Stefanik’s Republican friend, to whom she had pledged not to carry Mr. Trump’s water, was not surprised. He had watched many Republican politicians grapple with the political incentives of Trumpism. All her life, Ms. Stefanik had streamlined herself for success; finally she had found the engine of her ascent. The farther she turned the dial, the more power and influence she would have. “So then the question is, what do you do with that dial?” said the friend. “You can say, ‘I can embrace it without going full MAGA.’” Ms. Stefanik chose differently. “She just said, ‘Wow.’ She cranked the dial. I don’t think she arrived at this issue set totally disingenuously.”
‘I’ve Chosen My Values’
As the positive reviews rolled in, Ms. Stefanik seized the opportunity. On the day of the second impeachment hearing, her team activated a new account on WinRed, the small-donor platform set up by Trump campaign veterans. She raised more in grass-roots contributions in a week than she had over the entire rest of her congressional career, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance records. By the end of the first week of hearings, her team had prepared to unveil a new impeachment-themed fund-raising site, FightSchiff.com, and set out to have her booked on Fox to plug it.
Ms. Stefanik marveled to friends at the flood of money. Contributions from her leadership PAC to other Republicans would quadruple by the end of 2020. With Mr. Trump’s blessing, she could tap into a nationwide base of MAGA fans. Out of roughly $4 million she raised on WinRed this election cycle through late October 2022, just 4 percent came from her own district, according to a Times analysis of campaign finance records.
Ever her own best adviser, Ms. Stefanik dictated the tactics and message. As she milked the MAGA base for money and visibility, she began articulating a new, almost passive conception of her role as congresswoman, in which her job was to mirror her constituents, not take principled votes they might dislike. In 2014, her defenders have argued, her district wanted a Bush-style Republican; in the Trump era, it wanted a Trump-style Republican. “There’s no shift,” said Mr. Pileggi, the former campaign aide. Who could say she was wrong if the voters said she was right? The discredited gatekeepers of the mainstream media? The small papers back home that fewer and fewer people read? Asked in a recent interview whether she had chosen her ambition over her values, she simply avoided the question. “I’ve chosen my values,” she said. “And I’ve chosen my constituents.”
She moved quickly into Mr. Trump’s circle, readily accepting the compromises it entailed.In spring 2020, she flew with the president on Air Force One to witness the SpaceX rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Aboard the plane, according to a former White House official who was there, the president made a derogatory comment about the sex life of one of his most loyal and senior female aides. Ms. Stefanik had once criticized Mr. Trump’s demeaning comments toward women; now she simply plastered a smile on her face. “No one said anything. Neither did I,” the former official recalled. “It was a sign that she knew who he was.” Ms. Stefanik’s spokesman denied the account, saying it “never happened.”
In public, however, Ms. Stefanik’s new political self was most obvious on Mr. Trump’s favorite social media platform, where she began to favor his random capitalizations and conspicuous exclamation points. In the years since his first impeachment hearing, she has attacked political opponents or journalists as “sick” or “sickening” more than three dozen times — language she had never before used on Twitter. She edited away parts of her old online persona that might grate against the new. As the 2020 elections approached, according to a Times analysis of Twitter data collected by ProPublica, Ms. Stefanik deleted a pair of tweets from that March praising Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the public face of the federal Covid response. “America ❤️s Dr. Fauci!” she had written. In 2021, with Dr. Fauci firmly established as a right-wing punching bag, she expressed a different view. “Fire Fauci,” she tweeted. “Save Christmas!”
After Mr. Trump’s election defeat, as he fomented a deluge of lies and conspiracy theories about cheating and voter fraud, Ms. Stefanik quickly fell in line. Mr. Trump had made his election lies a litmus test for fellow Republicans, and Ms. Stefanik was unwilling to fail it, even as election officials and judges dismissed or refuted almost every claim made by the president or his legal team. Repeating a string of already debunked assertions, she claimed that local officials had counted the votes of dead people, or tossed out procedures intended to prevent fraud, or illegally counted late-arriving votes. Having lied to her own constituents, fanning their fears of a rigged election, she then claimed their suspicions as a casus belli. “Tens of millions of Americans are rightly concerned that the 2020 election featured unprecedented voting irregularities,” she said in an open letter to her district on the morning of Jan 6.
That evening, after the Trump-inspired mob was cleared from the Capitol, she joined other Republicans to vote against certifying electors from Pennsylvania. The next day, she got a text from Mr. Tucker, the Arkansas lawmaker and Harvard friend. “I cannot put into words how disappointed I am in you,” he wrote. She had squandered a “historic opportunity to fundamentally strengthen our country and democracy,” he told her. “You’ve done this all for, what exactly?” Disgusted, he joined hundreds of other Harvard alumni and students on a petition for Ms. Stefanik’s removal from the Institute of Politics board. So did Ms. Grizzle, her fellow Republican, who had lived most of the year in Pennsylvania: One of the ballots Ms. Stefanik had tried to invalidate was her own. “You can’t promote democracy if you’re throwing out people’s votes,” Ms. Grizzle said.
A few days later, the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, which oversees the institute, asked Ms. Stefanik to step aside. When she refused, he announced her removal. She had disqualified herself, the dean said in a statement, through repeated false statements about the election. Ms. Stefanik responded with the kind of bristling performance her former friends had come to expect. Her alma mater had decided to “cave to the woke Left,” she said; getting kicked off the board was a “badge of honor.”
A Fall and an Ascent
A few weeks after the insurrection, House Republicans met to consider removing Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, then the party’s highest-ranking woman in Congress, from her job as conference chair. In the two previous leadership contests, it was Ms. Stefanik herself who had stood before colleagues to nominate Ms. Cheney, once calling her a “huge asset in the role.” But Ms. Cheney had now voted for Mr. Trump’s second impeachment, infuriating not only Trump allies but a broader range of Republican lawmakers, who complained that she had made their party look divided. Days after the vote, Politico reported that Ms. Stefanik had “privately signaled” her interest in replacing her.
That February, Ms. Cheney’s colleagues voted to keep her in the job. But as Ms. Cheney continued to speak out against Mr. Trump, the woman who had remade her principles to fit her ambition set out to depose the one risking career suicide in service of hers. Though Ms. Stefanik had a far more liberal voting record than the woman she wanted to replace, she worked both sides, making clear she would neither embarrass Republicans who had cowered before Mr. Trump’s election lies nor anger supporters who insisted on believing them. Her argument, as one Republican member recalled it: “I’m a woman, I’m young, I’m reasonable. I like Liz, but we need to quit focusing on Jan. 6.” Mr. Trump’s ringing endorsement that May sealed the deal. Ms. Cheney was out, and Ms. Stefanik was in.
It became harder, then, for her to reconcile the identity she said she hadn’t abandoned with the power she had finally grasped. She dropped her support for the Equality Act, a bipartisan bill aimed at extending housing and employment anti-discrimination rules to gay, lesbian and transgender people, and pulled her name from another Republican-backed gay-rights bill, known as the Fairness for All Act, saying she now had “serious concerns on how this bill would impact society.” (She recently voted in favor of a bipartisan bill codifying the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.) Her voting score from the conservative group Heritage Action was a squishy 24 percent at the end of 2018; she currently rates a stalwart 86.
She has repeatedly voted against spending bills championed by Mr. Biden and the Democrats, then taken credit for the money those same bills delivered back home. Last March, her press office alerted upstate reporters that Ms. Stefanik had secured $205,000 for job training in Warren County, though a news release from her Washington office, quoting the congresswoman, proclaimed that she could not support “Speaker Pelosi’s bill,” which was “drafted in the dead of night.”
The further Ms. Stefanik traveled into Mr. Trump’s world, the deeper she seemed to dig in. She hadn’t changed; her former friends had. They were out of touch, driven mad by hatred of Mr. Trump. That spring, Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a fellow Harvard graduate and her Democratic colleague on the Armed Services Committee, approached her on the House floor. Both elected in 2014, they often had lunch together at the Capitol, and had mutual friends outside Washington. Speaking carefully, he told her that people were worried about the course she had set herself on, Mr. Moulton recalled. Ms. Stefanik lashed out, demanding to know which of their friends had talked to him. She mocked him, saying that some of the same people had asked her what Mr. Moulton thought he was doing when he ran for president the previous year.
He tried to get up and leave, but she pulled him back down, pressing her case. Her former friends had no idea what real Americans thought, Ms. Stefanik told him. They didn’t know anything about the district she represented.
“But these people know you, Elise,” Mr. Moulton replied. “And now they feel like they don’t even recognize you.”
The Price of Loyalty
“What happened to the red wave, congresswoman?”
The day after her party’s midterm underperformance, even the normally friendly hosts on “Fox and Friends” had questions for Ms. Stefanik. In the weeks leading to Election Day, she had predicted nothing less than a “red tsunami.” But around the country, Mr. Trump’s handpicked candidates for the Senate and other offices went down to defeat; those he had endorsed in close House races ran significantly behind Republicans he had not, hampered in part by voters’ revulsion at the extreme rhetoric he had normalized in Republican circles. Fewer than a third of thefemale House candidates Ms. Stefanik had endorsed through her leadership PAC made it through the general election. Republicans will soon take control of the House with one of the slimmest margins in history; the party’s House leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, has already been forced to cut deals with the most extreme members of his caucus to keep his would-be speakership alive. Like the party more broadly, House Republicans cannot yet afford to banish those most responsible for their quandary.
But as other Republicans questioned how to wean their party off Mr. Trump, Ms. Stefanik issued her pre-emptive endorsement of his all-but-announced re-election campaign. In some respects, she had little choice: Ms. Stefanik is arguably more dependent on Mr. Trump’s patronage than any other Republican leader, and his team soon made clear that he expected such an endorsement from anyone he was supporting for a leadership job. Two weeks after her re-election as conference chair, when Mr. Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago with the rapper Kanye West and the young MAGA commentator Nick Fuentes — two guests with a history of antisemitic or racist statements — Ms. Stefanik said nothing. Nor did she have anything to say publicly when Mr. Trump, citing stories about how Twitter had handled moderation decisions during the 2020 election, suggested “termination” of the Constitution might be an appropriate remedy.
When Congress reconvenes, many of the younger, more Trump-critical Republicans who joined the House alongside Ms. Stefanik eight years ago will be gone. So will all but two of the Republicans who voted to impeach him. Some in Congress believe that if Mr. McCarthy cannot corral the votes to make himself speaker, Ms. Stefanik could offer herself up as a compromise candidate.
Yet her position may be more precarious than it appears. Unwilling to acknowledge that her politics have changed, she has never offered MAGA die-hards a persuasive conversion story, leaving behind lingering suspicion. “One thing I’ve heard consistently from pro-Trump members is that the 180 that she pulled was just so jarring,” said one veteran Republican lobbyist who is in touch with a wide array of Republican lawmakers.
Among her fellow Republicans, according to Republican lawmakers, Hill staff and lobbyists, Ms. Stefanik has a reputation for being both diligent in advancing the party’s message and unabashedly transactional in amassing chits of support for her own climb up the ladder. But her campaign donations and endorsements have given her support that may be more broad than deep. For much of the spring and summer, while serving as conference chair, she quietly tested the waters for promotion to the next highest-ranking House job, that of Republican whip. As the race grew more crowded, however, Ms. Stefanik found herself without a clear constituency for the position. The party’s remaining moderates no longer saw her as one of them, and its right wing preferred a more consistent conservative. Only when another House member announced his interest in succeeding her as conference chair did Ms. Stefanik finally commit to running for another term in her old job.
News stories about the upcoming presidential campaign still mention Ms. Stefanik as a rising star who might join a Trump ticket in 2024 — a political pole vault that would carry her, finally, to the very top of the Republican Party. But within the president’s inner circle, according to two people close to Mr. Trump, stories casting Ms. Stefanik as a potential running mate are regarded as clumsy plants by her own team, and inspire bemusement and mockery. Mr. Trump liked her, they said, and liked watching her defend him. But even he didn’t trust her.
Reporting was contributed by Gabriel J.X. Dance, Michael H. Keller, Jesse McKinley and Rachel Shorey. Julie Tate contributed research.