LEILA FADEL, HOST:
One of Donald Trump's biggest defenders and one of the House January 6 committee's biggest critics is Congresswoman Elise Stefanik from upstate New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ELISE STEFANIK: This is not a serious investigation. This is a partisan political witch hunt.
FADEL: But her defense of Trump includes spreading false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. And that's complicated things for a congressionally funded organization she works with to promote democracy abroad. Joining us now is Zach Hirsch of North Country Public Radio. Welcome.
ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: Good morning.
FADEL: Good morning. So tell us more about Stefanik's work promoting democracy abroad.
HIRSCH: Yes. Stefanik has spent a lot of her career working with groups that support free and fair elections abroad. Right now, she's on the board of directors at the National Endowment for Democracy. That group embodies all the values the United States traditionally stands for. Congress appropriates the money. And the endowment writes grants to help activists and civil society groups in countries with autocratic leaders. Stefanik was chosen for the board in early 2019, but her politics changed. And now some people who work at the endowment are telling me there's this person undermining their mission and harming their work from the inside.
FADEL: Because of what she's been saying about the attack on the Capitol?
HIRSCH: Yeah. This is a pro-democracy group. And Stefanik questioned the legitimacy of a U.S. presidential election. She spread a ton of misinformation about 2020. Here she is speaking last year on January 4, two days before the U.S. Capitol riot.
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STEFANIK: Tens of millions of Americans are rightly concerned that the 2020 election featured unprecedented voting irregularities, unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges ignoring state election laws and a fundamental lack of ballot integrity and ballot security.
FADEL: And we should say very clearly here that none of what she said is actually true.
HIRSCH: Right. Election experts say this was the most carefully watched election in American history. Both Republican and Democratic officials across the country oversaw it and never found any evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities. But Stefanik amplified this stuff. And on January 6, she voted against certifying Biden's win in Pennsylvania. At the National Endowment for Democracy, a lot of people on staff were livid. One staffer said the endowment's values were, quote, "totally undermined and mocked" by their own board member. Some started calling for her to be removed from the organization. More than 60 people signed a letter to that effect from a staff of over 200.
FADEL: And how did the endowment respond to these really serious concerns?
HIRSCH: They had internal meetings, which got pretty heated. And they put out a statement about January 6, saying the endowment is, quote, "appalled by the violent and seditious assault" on the Capitol. But they decided not to remove Stefanik. The leadership declined to comment on this story. But I did speak with staff members who were there for those meetings after January 6. They were told the endowment is bipartisan. And it cannot get dragged into domestic politics. Their funding has come under threat in the past, most recently during the Trump administration. But they've had consistent backing from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and they want to keep it that way. Staffers were also told that Stefanik supports their work abroad, that she's an ally for them, which raises interesting questions, right? How can you be pro-democracy overseas and take pretty brazen, anti-democratic actions here at home? It's hard to square those two things.
FADEL: Yeah. Absolutely. Has Stefanik's role at the endowment changed at all then since January 6?
HIRSCH: As far as I can tell, her role has not changed. In fact, about 10 months after the Capitol riot, she was onstage at an endowment event honoring a group of human rights activists.
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STEFANIK: Thank you, Ken (ph). Thank you, Senator. And thank you to President Damon Wilson and everyone at the National Endowment for Democracy for your critical work supporting U.S. foreign policy by promoting and strengthening democracy around the world.
HIRSCH: She presented a democracy award to a group called Nicaragua Nunca Mas. Around that same time, her campaign was running ads accusing Democrats of colluding with immigrants to stage a, quote, "permanent election insurrection." But when her position on the board expired in January of this year, she was renewed for another term.
FADEL: Wow. Now, has Elise Stefanik said anything about these concerns about her position?
HIRSCH: We reached out and she did not respond. Her office did respond to a related story last year, though. A spokesperson told Politico that Stefanik was, quote, "proud to have one of the strongest records in the House supporting and leading bipartisan efforts to fund the endowment and the mission of supporting and strengthening democratic institutions around the world."
FADEL: Now, you did speak with people at the endowment who felt she's undermining their work. What did they say?
HIRSCH: Yeah. I spoke with several people who felt that way. They didn't want to give their names because they weren't authorized to speak to the media and could lose their jobs for doing so. They said Stefanik was part of an attempt to overturn an election. And one person said, quote, "it's hard to think of anything more fundamental to the issues we care about." A lot of the staffers I spoke with were sympathetic to the leadership's point that funding has been at risk in the past and could easily be jeopardized again. But they wanted more transparency on the decision to embrace Stefanik. And they wanted to know how the endowment might react to attacks on American democracy in the future.
FADEL: Now, you've been covering Stefanik since 2015. And earlier you said that her politics changed. What do you make of her political transformation?
HIRSCH: The shift has been remarkable. When she won her first term at age 30, Stefanik was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She was known as a principled, hard worker, Harvard educated, someone who worked with Democrats on all kinds of issues. She seemed very interested in the idea of strengthening democracy in her work at the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank, and at Harvard's Institute of Politics. By the way, unlike the endowment, Harvard did remove Stefanik from her advisory role after January 6. Stefanik accused the University of, quote, "bowing to the woke, far-left mob."
FADEL: Now, this story about the endowment and Stefanik's connection to the endowment, it raises bigger questions - right? - about this moment in the U.S. Talk about that a little bit.
HIRSCH: Well, things are really polarized right now. One thing I wanted to know as I was reporting this story was, when it comes to democracy, does that transcend partisanship?
HIRSCH: Does there come a point when even a bipartisan, politically neutral group like the endowment has to draw some kind of line? And I think it's fair to say that a lot of institutions are grappling with this. I spoke about this with Charles Stewart III. He's a political science professor at MIT.
CHARLES STEWART III: These are tough issues. And I think we're all trying to figure out, is bipartisanship possible these days? You know, a year from now, two years from now, we could be longing for the day when the biggest worry we had was with Stefanik on the National Endowment of Democracy Board.
HIRSCH: It appears the endowment believes bipartisanship is still possible. Stefanik is one of 30 board members. They've indicated they want to include politicians of all stripes as they make decisions and write grants, even someone who votes to overturn an election.
FADEL: Zach Hirsch is a freelance reporter covering democracy and misinformation for North Country Public Radio. Thank you, Zach.
HIRSCH: Thank you.
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