The Invention of Elise Stefanik

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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.”

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