WASHINGTON, DC – It didn’t take long at Friday’s impeachment hearing before Rep. Elise Stefanik, the House Intelligence Committee’s only Republican woman, was gaveled down by the panel’s Democratic chairman.
Republicans kept the 35-year-old Harvard graduate from upstate New York in the spotlight all day. Among other things, they gave her a prominent slot to question the day’s witness, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, even though Stefanik ranks only seventh among the committee’s nine Republicans.
“We know clearly you're going to interrupt us throughout this hearing,” Stefanik complained within minutes of Friday’s opening gavel.
Though she was breaking committee rules with her interruptions, the outburst gave Republicans a nationally televised opening to accuse Trump nemesis and committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., of treating a woman lawmaker unfairly.
“You are gagging the young lady from New York,” said the panel’s top Republican, California Rep. Devin Nunes.
It was no accident that the GOP featured Stefanik — who looks even younger than her age and is one of only 13 Republican women in the entire House — so prominently.
A member of the Intelligence and Armed Services committees, Stefanik’s visibility in the House has slowly grown as she gets her footing on issues and at home in her upstate New York district. Lacking a deep bench of rising female members of Congress, Republicans said it was smart to give her a conspicuous role Friday.
“She’s effective. She’s a great spokesperson,” said Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, another member of the Intelligence committee. “And these issues are in her wheelhouse.”
But on the second day of Democratic-driven hearings into whether President Donald Trump should be impeached, there was more to Stefanik’s prominence than that.
Yovanovitch had become emotional when she was interviewed behind closed doors last month during the initial phase of the impeachment inquiry. There were worries that Democrats would try eliciting that reaction from Yovanovitch during Friday’s nationally televised hearing, and giving a woman a leading role would help soften that, said one Republican who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning.
Democrats said showcasing Stefanik was a strategic move by Republicans.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., said that with the committee questioning “a female witness who is a career foreign service officer with an impeccable record, and they want to badger her, it’s a better look when a woman has taken the lead on that.”
Elected to Congress in 2014, Stefanik is no political novice.
Daughter of parents who ran a plywood business, she worked in the White House under President George W. Bush. She was a campaign aide to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., when he was his party’s unsuccessful vice presidential candidate in 2012.
She’s been one of the more moderate House Republicans, befitting a lawmaker whose district voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 before shifting to Trump in 2016.
She’s broken from Trump on issues including his efforts to unilaterally use money to build a border wall with Mexico and withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris agreement on climate change.
“She’s been working hard,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a fiery Trump supporter. “We knew before this even started that she’d be outstanding.”
Stefanik was 30 when first elected, the youngest woman ever elected to the House. She’s since been supplanted by Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow New Yorker elected last year at age 29.
Stefanik has also solidified her hold on a huge district that hugs the Canadian border and that Trump won by 11 percentage points in 2016. She was not included on Democrats’ early list of GOP-held districts they are targeting next year.
Stefanik kept a low profile during the Intelligence panel’s year-long investigation into Russia’s help to Trump’s 2016 campaign.
But as this fall’s Ukraine inquiry heated up, she tweeted a criticism of Schiff for parodying Trump as a mob boss shaking someone down. Trump seized on that narrative, saying Schiff had made up a conversation.
By last year, she’d vaulted to a prominent job recruiting women candidates for the House Republican campaign committee.
But after only one of more than 100 female Republican candidates won last November, Stefanik’s feisty side went on display.
She left her campaign committee post and said she’d lead her own effort to find stronger women candidates. When she was criticized by a leading Republican, a male, she tweeted, “NEWSFLASH I wasn’t asking for permission.”
Stefanik didn’t shy away from Friday’s spotlight, either.
She queried Yovanovitch cordially, including questions about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his job advising a Ukrainian energy company. Trump has suggested without evidence that the arrangement involved improprieties.
And when the day’s testy five-hour hearing ended, Stefanik stood in the front ranks of GOP lawmakers facing television cameras.
She complained that Schiff had unfairly “muzzled” her and other Republicans from asking questions. In fact, each side’s lawmakers had received equal time to query Yovanovitch.
But Stefanik was also forced to defend a Trump tweet that many Republicans saw as a distracting public relations blunder.
As Yovanovitch testified, Trump tweeted that every country where she’d ever served as an envoy had “turned bad.” Democrats accused him of witness intimidation.
“We're not here to talk about tweets. We're here to talk about impeachable offenses,'' Stefanik told reporters.
Capitalizing on Stefanik’s role, Republicans and conservatives filled Twitter with raves about her performance, with one dubbing her, “Total rockstar.”
But her Democratic opponent in next November’s election, Tedra Cobb, used Stefanik’s appearance to raise campaign funds, tweeting that “partisan political theatre is beneath the dignity of her office.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Rep. Nunes’ first name is Devin, not Devon.