Stefanik’s emergence as Trump’s cheerleader sparks criticism

As Donald Trump aggressively fights multiple legal and political threats, New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik has become his most powerful ally in Congress in key ways by echoing Trump’s dangerous falsehoods and pushing outlandish conspiracy theories around the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

To bolster Trump, Stefanik has mimicked Trump’s calling convicted January 6 prisoners “hostages”, declined in a TV interview to say she would certify the 2024 election in advance, and filed ethics complaints against two judges overseeing cases against Trump or his allies.

Related: Why Trump made rural Americans turn their backs on Democrats

Stefanik’s emergence as a major Trump cheerleader has sparked sharp criticism from historians, ex-Republican members and Democrats for fueling election denialism and disinformation which weaken democracy. But it has earned Stefanik a notable distinction: her name is frequently mentioned as Trump’s potential 2024 running mate.

“She scares me in several ways,” said Harvard government professor Steven Levitsky, the co-author of How Democracies Die. “Stefanik appears to be willing to go down Trump’s authoritarian path wholeheartedly.”

Stefanik’s strong embrace of Trump, who faces 91 criminal charges including 17 about his zealous drive to overturn his 2020 election defeat, is a far cry from her political posture when the upstate New Yorker took office in 2016, say ex-House members and analysts. But her advent as the fourth-ranking House Republican and a loyal Trump soldier in many ways exemplifies Trump’s takeover of the current Republican party.

In her early House years, Stefanik was widely deemed a moderate, but she has pivoted hard right to help Trump since his loss in 2020 when she joined 146 other House members who opposed certifying the election results.

Stefanik was among the first House members to endorse Trump’s 2024 reelection bid and has mirrored Trump’s false claims about his 2020 defeat and the January 6 insurrection by his allies who attacked the Capitol.

In a Meet the Press interview on 7 January, for instance, Stefanik stated she had “concerns about the treatment of the January 6 hostages,” who have been convicted and jailed for assaulting police officers and trespassing.

In the same interview in Trumpist style, Stefanik raised the specter of election fraud when asked about accepting the 2024 election results, stressing: “We will see if this is an honest and legal election.” When pressed, Stefanik added she would certify them “if it’s constitutional”.

Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, also echoed Trump talking points in the same interview by saying: “We’re seeing the weaponization of the federal government against not just President Trump, but we’re seeing it against conservatives.”

Democratic congressman Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor, was so alarmed by Stefanik’s “hostages” comment that he filed a censure resolution against her.

Stefanik’s zealous backing of Trump is fueling considerable speculation that she’s angling to be tapped as his vice president pick.

Stefanik spent two days campaigning for him in New Hampshire before his primary win there and promoted him on Fox News too. “You can feel the energy,” she gushed in an interview, and added: “I’d be honored to serve in a future Trump administration.”

Ex-Republican congressmen, historians and other critics say Stefanik is playing a dangerous and anti-democratic game as she tries to bolster Trump’s candidacy and advance her own political career.

“Accepting the results of elections is the cardinal rule of democracy,” said Levitsky about Stefanik’s balking to commit to doing so on Meet the Press “ She’s going down Trump’s path of election denialism.”

Some see Stefanik’s political ambitions driving her strong embrace of Trump. “I think Trump has real interest in her as a potential vice president,” said ex-Republican Illinois congressman Joe Walsh. “Trump absolutely loves her. She’s incredibly ambitious.”

Walsh said: “Like he did in 2020, Donald Trump doesn’t want his supporters to accept the results in 2024 if he loses. So he plants doubts now about the election and he lies now about the election. Stefanik is taking the lead among House Republicans in doing the same.”

Leading House Democrats too are alarmed by Stefanik’s ardent backing of Trump’s authoritarian bent.

“Elise Stefanik is giving opportunism and sycophancy a bad name,” said Democratic congressman Jamie Raskin, who previously taught constitutional law for about 25 years. “She now mimics every move and word of Donald Trump.”

Raskin stressed that “Stefanik is clearly auditioning for the running mate slot by suggesting a la Trump that she’ll reserve judgment on certifying the election” until after it’s over, as she suggested in her Meet the Press interview.

Likewise, ex-Republican congressman Dave Trott of Michigan said: “Stefanik could be the most significant ally in Congress for Trump. She’s unwaveringly loyal. She’s hitched her star to him,” and is “clearly pandering to Trump”.

Trott said he found it “shocking that so few Republicans will step up and say this isn’t what we stand for” after Stefanik “talked about January 6 defendants as hostages”.

Critics notwithstanding, Stefanik keeps attacking Trump’s foes and the prosecutions he faces.

Speaking in New Hampshire about efforts to remove Trump from state ballots because he fought to overturn his election loss, she decried “witch-hunt after witch-hunt” against Trump, a sharp contrast from her remarks on Jan.6 when she lamented “the dangerous violence and destruction” by Trump allies.

Stefanik has even tried to tar judges who have overseen cases against Trump or his allies who were involved in the January 6 insurrection by filing ethics complaints against them.

Last month, Stefanik urged an ethics investigation into federal judge Beryl Howell, who has overseen a number of cases related to the January 6 insurrection and spoke to a white-collar legal group about some issues underlying these cases that Stefanik argued were “highly inappropriate political speech”.

“Stefanik’s complaint is, in reality, little more than an attempt to do what Trumpists claim the Biden administration is doing – weaponize the judicial system against those with whom she disagrees,” said former federal prosecutor Paul Rosenzweig, adding that it’s “ a classic case of projection”.

On another front, Stefanik and a top aide have pitched in with some joint fundraising appeals to benefit a Trump Pac, his campaign and her own campaign which could enhance her prospects of becoming his vice-president if he gets the nomination.

One email fundraising solicitation this month showed Stefanik next to Trump with a pitch to become a “ Trump 2024 advisory board” member and promised prospective donors on the advisory board that “your input will be CRITICAL towards President Trump’s campaign strategy”.

“These solicitations appear to offer contributors membership in an ‘advisory board’ that I suspect is little more than a list of contributors whose main perks will be the honor of receiving more email, text and phone solicitations,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission.

“While this may not cross a legal line, I think they are unethical and would be considered scams if done by groups outside of the political arena.”

Last year, Stefanik even tried to have Trump’s 2021 House impeachment expunged.

To critics, Stefanik’s multifront moves to back Trump and target his critics pose dangers to democratic rule.

“She’s smart, politically savvy and skilled, unlike Trump,” observed Levitsky. “The most dangerous autocrats like Orbán and Erdoğan are politically skilled. Stefanik has shown signs she has some of those skills.”

Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general in the George HW Bush administration, noted: “Stefanik seems to have been someone who knew better beforehand, but she now has become one of the shock troops systematically distorting reality in support of Trump.”

Looking ahead, Raskin and other critics worry that Stefanik’s tight alliance with Trump threatens democracy.

“A hallmark of fascist political parties is that they don’t accept the results of elections if they don’t go their way. Stefanik is now embracing this tactic to prove to Donald Trump she’s the most obsequious sycophant in the Republican party and can bow and scrape even better than Marjorie Taylor Greene.”

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