WASHINGTON — Rep. Steve King listened Tuesday as his colleagues stood on the House floor denouncing statements he made to the New York Times that seemed to defend white supremacy.
“White supremacy and white nationalism are evils,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C. “They are insidious and are clear and present dangers to our great republic.”
King, R-Iowa, has insisted repeatedly that his comments were misunderstood, and he even voted for the resolution that Clyburn offered Tuesday condemning white supremacy.
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The New York Times piece in question focused on King’s long-standing opposition to illegal immigration, which has included pointed comments about immigrants that critics label as racist, and his advocacy for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The story highlighted how King’s platform has influenced the agenda of both President Donald Trump and today’s Republican Party.
“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” King was quoted as saying at one point in the article. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
Clyburn warned about a rise in hate crimes, pointing to specific, horrifying incidents of racially motivated killings.
“The time has come to condemn those of ill will and say they have no part in our great nation,” Clyburn said.
His resolution passed 424 to 1, with the lone opposition vote coming from a Democrat who felt the resolution didn’t go far enough.
Before the vote, King was granted five minutes to defend himself. He rose from his seat and made the sign of the cross before heading to the microphone.
“I understand and recognize the gravity of this issue that’s before us,” King started out.
While noting that no tape of the interview exists, King did not dispute the accuracy of his quote. Rather, he said it had been seriously misinterpreted.
According to King, he was simply doing what he has done many times over the years — championing the virtues of Western civilization.
He said the offending quote represented his questioning of how promoting Western civilization had earned the label of white supremacy — which he described as an evil ideology that he rejects.
“That ideology never shows up in my head,” King said. “I don’t know how it could possibly come out of my mouth.”
King, who has drawn criticism for displaying a Confederate flag on his desk, also said that he comes from “a family of abolitionists.”
He said that he would vote for Clyburn’s resolution and urged other House members to do the same.
“I agree with every word that you’ve put in this,” King said.
One prominent Republican politician after another has condemned King since the story broke last week, including Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who called his comments racist. Several GOP leaders have suggested that King find a different career.
I condemn Rep. Steve King’s comments on white supremacy; they are offensive and racist - and not representative of our state of Iowa. We are a great nation and this divisiveness is hurting everyone. We cannot continue down this path if we want to continue to be a great nation.— Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst) January 12, 2019
House Republicans announced earlier this week that King had been stripped of his committee assignments, a move that King described as a “political decision.”
“I will continue to point out the truth and work with all the vigor that I have to represent 4th District Iowans for at least the next two years,” King said in a statement.
That seemed to indicate that he won’t resign but left open the possibility that he might opt not to seek re-election.
King has stirred controversies time and time again over the years with provocative rhetoric that occasionally draws rebukes from those in his own party.
But as recently as 2016, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., described King’s endorsement as a “tremendous honor” and praised the Iowan’s “strong moral courage and his deep devotion to serving our nation.”
Bacon this week issued a statement calling on King to apologize and renounce his New York Times comments.
“Racist comments are reprehensible and have no place in our conversations nor society, including the ones made by Rep. King. White supremacy is, was, and always will be repugnant,” Bacon said. “There can be no ambiguity on this.”
But Bacon’s statement stopped short of calling for King to resign.
In an interview, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., described white nationalism as a deep wound in the soul of the country. But he declined to say whether King should face further censure or expulsion.
“The House made its statement,” Fortenberry said. “Steve King got a moment to defend his perspective, and he actually supported the resolution.”
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said many are asking why Republicans have suddenly turned on King now after tolerating his rhetoric for so long.
One answer, Goldford said, lies in the midterm elections that saw Republicans lose control of the House.
“Republicans have reached the point that they do not want to be considered racists because they think it’s wrong to be a racist, but also they’re afraid of becoming known as the party that admits and tolerates racists, because that will ultimately sink their electoral chances,” Goldford said. “The Republican establishment had decided that they’d reached the point of diminishing marginal returns for King.”
But Goldford also said not to rush to the conclusion that this episode represents the end of Steve King, noting that his constituents have returned him to Congress repeatedly.
Iowa’s 4th District is heavily Republican, Goldford said, so it will probably take a GOP challenger to oust him.
And indeed, King is attracting multiple primary challengers, including State Sen. Randy Feenstra, who jumped on King’s loss of committee assignments — including one on the House Agriculture Committee.
“Today, Northwest Iowa doesn’t have a voice in Congress because Steve King’s caustic nature has left us without a seat at the table. By losing his seat on the Agriculture Committee, Iowa farmers are left without a vote on the important committee for the first time in 120 years,” Feenstra said.