Meet Trump’s New Apprentice

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What’s the best way these days for an enterprising young Republican to set herself up for a big, intraparty power play? The answer, according to New York representative Elise Stefanik’s Thursday schedule, is to sit for interviews with one former Trump adviser recently arrested on a boat for fraud and another who had a warrant out for his arrest for gun charges in Hungary while working in the presidential transition team.

Stefanik’s conversations with Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka on Thursday seemed fairly tepid — discussing “constitutional issues” and “election integrity” — but the forums in which she did so reveal how she is working the right flank of the party to succeed Liz Cheney as the next House Republican conference chairwoman. Though Cheney has long promoted the GOP’s authoritarian drift, her decision not to bow to Trump’s electoral conspiracies has left her at the top of a caucus that does not want her there. With Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy preparing to remove Cheney from her position as the third-highest Republican in the House by a caucus vote that looks certain to succeed this time, Stefanik is the leading candidate to replace her, receiving endorsements from GOP whip Steve Scalise and the man over whose whims the conflict is being fought, Donald Trump.

As she lobbies for the position, Stefanik has found herself as the right candidate at the right time — a knack she has crafted since first entering Republican politics. After working in the Bush administration and as a campaign aide for vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan in 2012, Stefanik returned from D.C. to her home in the Adirondacks to work at her parents’ plywood company. She then leveraged that mix of government and small-business experience to take back New York’s 21st Congressional District in 2014 for Republicans, becoming, at the age of 30, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at the time. After an uneventful and relatively moderate first term, she tacitly endorsed Trump in 2016. “I’m supporting my party’s nominee,” she said at a debate that year. “But I’ll continue being an independent voice for the district.”

In office, she has maintained that voting independence, consistently ranking as one of the more bipartisan legislators in Congress: She voted against Trump around 22 percent of the time — opposing his tax cuts and the Paris climate withdrawal — compared to Cheney’s 7 percent. But since Trump’s first impeachment in 2019, Stefanik has staunchly defended her party leader and his conspiracies surrounding voting fraud in the 2020 election. Most notable was her statement on the day of the insurrection claiming that “more than 140,000 votes came from underage, deceased, and otherwise unauthorized voters” in Fulton County, Georgia, falsely suggesting one in four ballots there was fraudulent. (To date, prosecutors are investigating 24 potentially fraudulent votes in all of Georgia.)

“The Republican Party is at a turning point,” Cheney wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday explaining her decision to stand against Trump’s assault on electoral reality. But as the House caucus prepares to oust her, the favorite for her seat is turning further toward election conspiracism. In the Bannon interview Thursday, Stefanik talked about an insane recount effort in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Republicans are looking for bamboo fiber in ballots due to a baseless allegation that 40,000 ballots (close to Biden’s 45,000 margin of victory in the county) were smuggled in from China. (The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is concerned that the recount effort may be illegal, potentially violating the law against voter suppression.) “It is important to stand up for these constitutional issues,” she said, “and these are questions that are going to have to be answered before we head into the 2022 midterms.” If Stefanik gets her way, she’ll head into those midterms with a promotion thanks to her defense of “constitutional issues,” otherwise known as a wholesale desire to override certified electoral results.

Meet Trump’s New Apprentice