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Why Republicans are rebuking Rep. Steve King now

After a long history of controversial statements by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, House Republicans stripped the 16-year congressman of his committee membership on Monday night. He recently wondered in The New York Times how terms like "white nationalist" and "white supremacist" became "offensive." Lisa Desjardins gets analysis from O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa and Asma Khalid of NPR.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Republican Congressman Steve King has been a fixture in Iowa politics for nearly two decades, but he has come under new scrutiny after he questioned, in an interview last week, why the term white nationalism is offensive.

    Just this afternoon, The Des Moines Register's editorial board called on King to resign.

    Congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins reports now on how the Republican Party is distancing itself from a representative with a long history of controversial comments.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This morning, at a House Republican news conference, the questions were mostly about Leader Kevin McCarthy's decision to strip committee membership from 16-year-Congressman Steve King.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:

    We believe the base of our country is fundamentally different than what he talks of.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The rebuke comes after King told The New York Times, as part of a lengthy interview last week — quote — "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization, how did that language become offensive?"

    On the House floor Friday, King said his thoughts were misrepresented and cherry-picked.

  • Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa:

    Today, The New York Times is suggesting that I'm an advocate for white nationalism and white supremacy. I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I reject those labels and the evil ideology that they define.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Republicans were not swayed. Today, GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney said King shouldn't just be penalized; he should go.

  • Rep. Liz Cheney, D-Wyo.:

    His language questioning whether or not the notion of white supremacy is offensive is absolutely abhorrent. It's racist. We do not support it or agree with it. And as I said, I think he should find another line of work.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This after nearly two decades of controversy from King, with a history of comments the critics see as anti-immigrant, anti-minority and anti-Muslim.

    Just one example, in 2013, the congressman argued undocumented immigrants were — quote — "undermining American culture."

  • Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa:

    For everyone who is a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they have got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Republican presidential hopefuls have long sought King's endorsement. In October, President Trump showed his support.

  • Donald Trump:

    We are thrilled to be joined tonight by a number of terrific Republican leaders, Iowa Congressman Steve King.


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yesterday, he refused to weigh in on King's latest headline.

  • Donald Trump:

    I haven't been following it. I really haven't been following it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Last night, however, Majority Leader McCarthy clearly was paying attention, and said King has shown a pattern.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.:

    These are not the first time we have heard these comments. That is not the party of Lincoln, and it's definitely not America. All people are created equal in America, and we want to take a very strong stance.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For more on the fallout over the controversial congressman, we are joined by O. Kay Henderson, news director at Radio Iowa, and Asma Khalid, who covers the intersection of politics and demographics for NPR.

    Kay, I want to start with you.

    Tell us, how do voters and politicians see King's remarks, and also the actions against him by Republicans?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    This is a split decision among Republicans.

    There are Republicans among the conservative base that very much think Steve King is being thrown under the bus. Those were the words that were used by the former Republican National Committee woman from Iowa on Twitter this morning, whereas there are other Republicans who have sort of run out of patience.

    One — in the word of one, they're just weary of defending Congressman King. The reason this is sort has risen to the fore is because he didn't perform as well as expected in the 2018 election, and looking forward to 2020, Republicans here on the ground are worried about their prospects if he is on the ballot.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Asma, of course, late today, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that recognized or talked about Steve King's comments, and then condemned white supremacy and also white nationalism, though didn't specifically condemn him.

    My question to you is, these are not the first controversial remarks he's made, not even the first controversial remarks about the phrase white supremacy. Why, politically, do you think this is happening now?

  • Asma Khalid:

    I mean, I think that Kay is correct in sort of pointing out the political reality on the ground there in the district in Iowa that has made this rise up.

    But, look, I also think that, to some degree, there are Republicans within the party that are increasingly frustrated with the tone that their party standard-bearer, Donald Trump, has taken, and they can't necessarily continuously call him out on things, nor do they sort of feel like that's a politically expedient thing to do.

    And so it's easier to sort of publicly rebuke and reprimand a sitting congressman.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's interesting.

    Kay, when I have been reporting in Iowa, covering politics, I have found that Iowa voters really value tolerance. This is something that they have conveyed to me. Yet Here we have Steve King, someone who's in the past said he questions multiculturalism, he's not even sure that mixing cultures is a good idea.

    Why is it that voters keep electing him? Why — what do they see in him?

  • O. Kay Henderson:

    I talked to a well-known conservative in the district today, and the word they used was loyalty.

    Steve King has been loyal to them and to the district. And they feel, in return, they should be loyal to him. In the past, when Steve King has been rebuked, as he was in 2013 by then House Speaker John Boehner for comments that King made about the so-called dreamers, residents in that district rose up and defended him.

    I think one of the things that Steve King has said that may be resonating with his base in that district is that this is an attack on him by the establishment of the party.

    And back to my first point, when you look at that district, Donald Trump won that district by 27 points in the 2016 election. So, there is a large swathe of voters in there who are anti-establishment. And so that is going to resonate with them.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Asma, let's take a bigger view.

    How is the Republican Party generally dealing with race right now? Is this a sea change today? Is it something less? What is this? Where are they?

  • Asma Khalid:

    I think that's an excellent question.

    And I don't know what the answer is entirely, in part because, if we look at the party standard-bearer, it's Donald Trump. And Kay was talking about how well he did in Steve King's district. I mean, a lot of the sort of quantitative analysis that we have seen since the 2016 election really does show that a number of people who were President Obama supporters who then became Donald Trump supporters did switch because of identity politics or race-based issues.

    And this is not me just talking sort of off the cuff on anecdotal interviews I have done. We have political science researchers, most notably John Sides and Michael Tesler, who've looked at this really analytically, and have found that a number of people, sort of one of the most consistent reasons we saw this shift was largely because of people who identified with what we call a white grievance, right, this idea that folks feel that white people have it worse than anybody else in society.

    And so when you have the leader of the Republican Party, as it is, in the form of Donald Trump right now, who's really capitalized on that sentiment, I think it's really hard to assess what's happening below, whether it's in the form of Congress or even at a local Republican club member, that's different, because what we're hearing from the president doesn't necessarily support the idea of a sea change.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Asma, let me just stay and finish with you and talk about the stakes here.

    I'm curious. We seem to have one party that believes racism is a core and significant problem in our society. We have another party that believes that it's exaggerated and that racism is being used as a political foil.

    What are the risks of that divide? What's at stake in this debate?

  • Asma Khalid:

    Oh, gosh.

    I mean, I think that, as we see both parties really identify more with sort of race-based ideologies or identity politics, as you could say, I mean, that's — that's kind of dangerous, because, to some degree, then what ends up happening is, people feel far more personally attacked when their party loses.

    And there are sentiments that we saw among some folks who really identified more with a white nationalist vision, who felt that way when President Obama was elected.

    And we certainly saw that many folks of different minorities groups felt personally attacked when Donald Trump was elected.

    I mean, I think that the difficulty that both parties have as we move forward is, it's really hard, it's very difficult to discuss public policy issues independent of race or culture, because that's just become a part of so much of this conversation at this point.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And it's a conversation we will continue.

    Asma Khalid of NPR, Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa, thank you both.

  • Asma Khalid:

    You're welcome.

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