In early March 2006, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) stood on a nearly empty House floor to give C-SPAN watchers a brief history of immigration in the United States and his plan to stop it. Among his proposals was a call for Congress “to pass a law here in the United States Congress to put an end to anchor babies, birthright citizenship.”
King went on to co-sponsor bills in 2007 and 2009 that would have altered birthright citizenship to only apply to parents who are citizens, lawful permanent residents or an immigrant who is serving in the military. In early 2011, he took up the lead sponsorship of the measure.
Few others were comfortable being part of King’s crusade. His 2011 bill debuted with only a handful of co-sponsors. And in the years that followed, as he kept bringing up the bill, the position remained on the outskirts of acceptable Republican immigration policy. Alan Keyes, a fringe presidential candidate, decried the idea as a gateway towards proto-fascism.
But things have since changed.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, many of the leading candidates rushed to embrace the idea of ending birthright citizenship. King’s bill gained co-sponsors. And, then, Donald Trump was elected president. On Tuesday, Trump announced that he would be issuing an executive order that would end birthright citizenship—an announcement that was not just highly dubious in its constitutionality but seemingly born out of a desire to have a wedge issue for the remaining days of the midterm campaigns.
For King, the announcement is nothing short of a triumph. The hardline immigration hawk who is a lightning rod for his evident embrace of white nationalism, even as he denies it, has found political nirvana in the Trump era. Monday was just the latest serving of it.
“From the beginning, I came in there wanting a wall before I was ever elected to Congress,” King told The Daily Beast. “We are on the cusp of being able to do that now. And we elected a president that was elected a significant part on the chant of ‘Build the Wall,’ so that’s vindicating.”
On birthright citizenship, King said he has been trying to get a congressional hearing on the topic but has been ignored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). He now planned to press for one in the lame duck session after the midterm election.
“I think we should have a hearing to support the president’s position and to support mine,” he said. “We don’t have that agreement, but I bet we can get one really quickly now that the president has called for it... I feel good about that.”
On the surface, King and Trump could not be more different. The congressman representing rural Iowa has a long history in Republican politics, and mingles with a religious conservative crowd that would have been appalled, in a prior era, by Trump’s flashy cosmopolitan roots. But the two men have struck up a mutually beneficial relationship driven in part by a broadly shared worldview.
King memorably stood by Trump in the immediate aftermath of the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape, on which Trump was caught bragging about sexually assaulting women. Trump has never forgotten that moment, and has specifically praised King, among others, for staying loyal, according to two sources close to Trump. “The president remembers people who stuck by him during that month,” one of those sources said. “He brought [them] up constantly.”
In return for his loyalty, King has been given the ear of the president. Early this month, King tweeted about his “private, 75 minute, Oval Office meeting with” Trump.
Even on days when the congressman isn’t physically at the White House, his presence can be felt. Roughly a year ago, when he was meeting with officials in the Oval Office to discuss immigration policy and proposed legislation, Trump asked if King specifically supported the bill. One person in the Oval replied, “Yes, he’s with us,” according to a source in the room. The president visibly smirked. “Steve’s always with us,” he responded, according to the source.
King has maintained his warm relationship with this president not only by holding similar draconian positions on immigrants, but through old-fashioned sucking up. He was among the 18-member group of congressional Republicans that nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize.
That King is even stepping foot in the White House, let alone getting a 75-minute window with the president, is almost unfathomable to those who have followed his career.
When he first ran for office, King was regarded as a fairly mundane conservative. “He wasn’t like this 16 years ago,” said one Iowa Republican who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivities of the current campaign season. Dubbed the “The Great Right Hope” by National Review in 2002, King promised that he was going “to step forward and take leadership where it is needed.” But for years he toiled on the fringe of his caucus, particularly on issues of immigration. His bills to make English the official language of the United States went nowhere, as did his push to ban bilingual ballots.
During the early 2000s, it was not uncommon to see King on the House floor with an actual model of a border fence, complete with tiny barbed wire. In one 2006 speech, over the course of about a minute, King launched into an infomercial-worthy pitch for a border wall, assembling it in miniature as he spoke. As he uncoiled wire and affixed it to the top of his wall, King explained part of the structure could be electrified “with the kind of current that wouldn’t kill somebody, but would simply be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it.”
In another speech that year, he said the wall would help to stop “the mass quantity of humanity pouring across our southern border.”
“Some of that humanity is pretty good humanity, though they have still broken our laws,” he said, standing behind his mini-wall. “And then there is some of that humanity is not very good humanity, and in that group is the criminal element and the drug dealers and the terrorists, the needles within that 4-million-person haystack of humanity that must be sorted out.”
King was given his share of responsibilities but they seemed to be congressional backwaters. Over time, however, he quickly discovered that power in the modern political age was determined more by public profile than committee assignments. The congressman became a regular presence on cable and at conservative rallies. Even as he took positions that seemed politically short sighted, he was able to help galvanize conservative support in a way that forced party leadership to bend.
“I give him the credit or the blame, depending on your perspective, for the repeal Obamacare votes,” said one former House Republican who served with King, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to complicate their current employment. “I remember early on, we got into a heated conversation on the floor, in that 2011-2012 time frame. We were first having the debates about what to do, and we were arguing that we should only have a vote if we had the replacement piece. King had an outsized voice in the argument that we should just replace it and leadership followed him.”
Those who have worked with King said that on a personal level, he is actually quite enjoyable—strong-willed in his opinions but friendly and even funny.
“Dealing with him on a day-to-day basis, he doesn’t come out as a wild-eyed crazy guy,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA). “He is approachable and has a decent sense of humor. He was like the guy next door, which is part of the reason he has done as well in Iowa. The media puts these horns on him but they say this is not the guy we know.”
But virtually everyone in Republican politics also recognizes that King can be toxic, almost sickeningly so. And it’s not only because of what he does and says about immigrants, but who he embraces abroad. For years, King has been the go-to point person in Washington for the European far-right. Early last year, he endorsed Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, tweeting, "Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny," and that "we can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."
King’s Twitter account alone is a near-bottomless pit of his proud fascist and white-supremacist associations. “Cultural suicide by demographic transformation must end,” King tweeted in September 2016, with a photo of him smiling alongside Frauke Petry, then a far-right leader of the party Alternative for Germany. (Petry infamously stated that German police should “if necessary” shoot at migrants trying to enter the country illegally.) And just this month, he endorsed Faith Goldy, a neo-Nazi sympathizer, for office in Toronto.
King has defended these associations without fail and even said, earlier this month, that if the conservatives he rubbed-elbows with abroad were actually in America “pushing the platform that they push, they would be Republicans.” All of which has not proved exactly helpful to his GOP colleagues.
“He’s a pain in the butt because he says so many things that Democrats say that Republicans believe,” one GOP congressional aide said. “But he’s very much in touch with a certain faction of the grassroots and still a very important part of the electoral base.”
Other parts of the base, though, appear to be out of patience. Following the news that King gave an interview to an anti-Semitic publication during a European trip funded by a Holocaust memorial group, financial backers of the far-right Congressman including Intel and Land O’ Lakes have abandoned him. Tuesday afternoon, the leaders of two synagogues in King’s district, Adas Israel in Mason City and the Ames Jewish Congregation said in a letter obtained by The Daily Beast that “We call on all elected officials to stand with Iowa’s Jewish community, denounce King’s actions, and hold him accountable.”
As King’s profile has risen, so too have Democratic dreams of knocking him off electorally. And this year, his race has notably tightened down the stretch. King’s opponent. J.D. Scholten, a former professional baseball player, is currently outraising the incumbent Congressman. King isn’t even running ads in the district and has a paltry $176,000 on hand, with a lot of his money getting spent on the hiring of his family as campaign staff.
But even the best run campaign has difficulty overcoming the structural advantages that the Republican party has in the district. And Iowa Democrats and political observers still don’t seem to think this will be the year that King finally falls.
“King gets elected because there are 70,000 more Republicans than Democrats in the 4th CD,” Jeff Link, former strategist for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), told The Daily Beast. “Every 3,000 votes represents about 1 percent of the total electorate in that district. He starts with a 23 percent lead in every race. That’s why it’s hard to beat him in that district.”
With King likely going nowhere, Republicans leaders have been encouraged to call him out in more forceful terms. And, on occasion, they’ve done so. On Tuesday, National Republican Campaign Committee chair Steve Stivers criticized King for comments that he equated to “white supremacy.” Asked which comments Stivers was referring to, a GOP aide said merely: “I think it’s the aggregate.”
Moments earlier, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) had come out against the very idea that birthright citizenship could be ended via executive order—an inherent rebuke to the King-Trump worldview.
But even with that pushback, it’s become undeniably true that King is no longer playing just to the base. He now has a president in his corner too.
“Trump is running for re-election and Steve King is running for his re-election, but Speaker Ryan is planning his retirement party. Which way is the Republican party going on immigration?” said a former King staffer.
With additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio