Steve King Talks About The Steve King Precedent For Dealing With Extremists

BOONE, IA - AUGUST 13: Former Rep. Steve King (R-IA) (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
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February 4, 2021 4:17 p.m.

Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) will soon be inducted into a small club: members of Congress who have been stripped of their committee assignments. 

A former representative’s presence hovered over the Thursday debate deciding Greene’s fate, though he was over 1,000 miles away, parked on the side of the road while a blizzard hammered western Iowa. 

Former Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was removed from his assignments by House GOP leadership in mid-January of 2019 after he questioned why white supremacy was offensive in a quote published in the New York Times. That interview was the last in a long line of controversial comments, including calling American deaths by undocumented immigrants a “slow-motion Holocaust,” using the infamous “calves the size of cantaloupes” imagery to describe the supposedly drug-dealing children of immigrants and wondering aloud what “subgroup” has done more for civilization than whites. 

But Greene, at least so far, doesn’t seem destined for a King-like retribution from the GOP. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made it clear this week that he will not punish her, leaving Democrats to pass a resolution stripping her of committee assignments themselves. 

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King can recall with clarity what it was like two years ago when he entered the House Minority Leader’s office, armed with an annotated copy of the New York Times story and ready to plead his case. 

“It was like being shut in a room with a prosecutor,” he said. “I laid evidence out in front of him that disproved this, but he rejected it all. He latched onto the thinnest threads as if it was definitive evidence of absolute guilt in my soul.” 

King maintains that his words were taken out of context in the article, and that McCarthy was predisposed to get rid of him because he saw him as an obstacle to his path to the speakership. King says that he was an instrumental part of forcing former Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) out of leadership back in 2015. Then, Boehner left rather than face a no-confidence vote from the party’s right wing.

King said he asked McCarthy in the meeting for 24 hours to make his case. “My staff and I were pulling all-nighters on Lexis Nexis” to prove and document his innocence, he said. McCarthy gave him one. 

Fifty-five minutes later King called McCarthy. “You go do what you have already decided to do and I’ll do what I have to do,” King remembered saying. “He already had his mind made up.” 

That was the beginning of the end for King. He remembers the doors of the Republican establishment being slammed on him one by one: people stopped talking to him on the House floor, there was no more foreign travel, invites to evening social events stopped coming, the fundraising dried up. 

Even while King tried to make his own platform, holding town halls all over Iowa, the national and state parties were turning away. When it came time for him to run for reelection in 2020, they rallied around his Republican challenger, Randy Feenstra, instead. Feenstra won the June primary by nearly 10 points. 

King remembers the private support amid the public cold-shouldering, particularly from the Conservative Opportunity Society, which he chaired for 16 years. At his last meeting of the club, an off-the-record weekly gathering of conservatives founded by Newt Gingrich in 1983 that hosts “almost everybody that pops up on Fox News,” King recalls fondly the standing ovations and flattering speeches. Greene seems to be experiencing some of the same, as reports emerged of applause from the caucus after she gave a speech defending herself and selectively apologizing on Wednesday.

But Greene, King thinks, has some factors working in her favor that he didn’t. 

“Her best shot comes from Democrats, then she’s got a chance to be a martyr,” he said. That her punishment is coming from them instead of GOP party leadership may help her avoid the establishment ostracizing he experienced. 

He theorizes that McCarthy cut a deal with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), leaving the dirty work to the Democrats so he didn’t have to do anything himself. He also pointed to Greene’s prolific fundraising abilities — she claims to have raised well over a million dollars off of the controversy her comments have caused. 

“It makes me sick to my stomach to see Congress devolving down into this,” he said of the House vote on Greene. “They’re disrespecting the voters of Georgia in the way that they disrespected the voters of Iowa.”

The Steve King precedent has been cited constantly since a tranche of Greene’s social media comments was dredged up, revealing that she had liked calls for the execution of Democratic lawmakers before she was elected. For her, like King, it was not the first offense. 

Democrats have used the King punishment as a cudgel while McCarthy frantically decided what to do with Greene behind closed doors.

“The language she has used, in many respects, goes far beyond the remarks Steve King made through the years,” Hoyer told reporters on Wednesday.  

If King was punished for years of comments criticized as racist and xenophobic, Democrats posited, surely Greene deserved at least the same for embracing the violent fantasies of the QAnon conspiracy theory, calling school shootings “false flags” and harassing their survivors, making a raft of comments characterized as Islamophobic and anti-Semitic and approving of threats to the lives of her now-colleagues. 

After all, back in 2019, Republicans gave quotes to the press patting themselves on the back, calling King an “albatross” as they later rallied around his primary challenger. “Steve’s remarks are beneath the dignity of the party of Lincoln and the United States of America,” McCarthy said then. 

Not so this time. After saying he would not punish Greene, McCarthy dismissed the House floor vote as a time-wasting Democratic gambit.

King is glad, though he thinks the move reeks of hypocrisy. “I expect duplicity out of McCarthy,” he said. 

McCarthy, King said, will have manipulated the situation in accordance with what best serves his own political interests.

“McCarthy calculated that he was willing to feed me to the alligators thinking that he would be eaten last,” King said. “He’s now coming to the conclusion that if he keeps feeding members of his own conference to the alligators, he may not be so much last as next.”

King spared no sympathy for the other controversy McCarthy is struggling with. Showing flashes of his old bombastic self, King took aim at Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) for her pro-impeachment vote. 

“Liz Cheney doesn’t mind getting blood on hands,” he said matter-of-factly. “She’s an establishment, elitist, neocon never-Trumper.”

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