Her climb through the ranks of GOP leadership in the House and embrace of Donald Trump has come at a personal cost.
December 22, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EST
There was a time, not long ago, when Elise Stefanik was eager to be understood, sharing parts of herself with the world, as any 30-something might, on Instagram.
Pinned to the top of her page, a row of old stories, archived for anyone to revisit, contained Q&As she used to conduct on the social media platform. Most of the posts were from 2019, when the congresswoman from New York was just beginning to journey deeper into President Donald Trump’s world, but did not quite yet inhabit it. Stefanik liked to share a lot back then: pictures of her mom’s Christmas Day omelets; her dad’s Christmas Eve pierogies, in honor of his Polish heritage; date nights with her husband; her manicure, painted glittering gold for the holidays. The Elise Stefanik on Instagram gave snippets of earnest advice and liked to tag her friends, punctuating inside jokes with laughing-crying and eye emojis. There were posts about the family dog, Nala. Her love of Broadway show tunes. Her favorite restaurants. The first jobs she worked as a clerk at an Old Navy store, as a counselor at an astronomy camp, as a coat check girl at a museum.
“It’s a HOT one today!” Stefanik wrote in the summer of 2019. “Ask me anything.”
Q: What did you want to be when you were 5 years old?
A: Disney animation artist!
Q: Favorite classes in college at Harvard?
A: Shakespeare & Politics … The Politics of War … The English Novel …
There were also signs of the change yet to come. Asked for her favorite Republican colleagues, she cheerily provided a long list of names, including her “friend” Liz Cheney, the woman she would help unseat from House leadership just two years later. Asked for her favorite female role models, she listed teachers from the Albany Academy for Girls, mentors who would later grow distant and cold. One was her old headmistress, Caroline Mason, who in 2017 helped officiate Stefanik’s wedding in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Four years later, in 2021, Mason would tell TIME magazine that something deep inside her friend had been lost to Trump. “She basically abandoned her own core values for a man who had no core values,” Mason said.
When I spoke to Stefanik in November, I mentioned the Instagram posts, not for what she wrote about Cheney or Trump, but because of how much there was to learn in the old Q&As. She didn’t appear to do them anymore. On the phone, Stefanik said she has security and private concerns that didn’t exist back then, not in the way they do now. Capitol Police have identified an uptick in threats against her as a result of her rise in the Republican Party. Now, she was hesitant to post too many pictures of her 1-year-old son, Samuel, “as much as I want to,” she said. When she was nine months pregnant with him last year, she watched with alarm, sitting on her front porch, as a TV truck pulled up to her driveway for no apparent reason. “I was not in the news at that time,” she said. “It’s a different level than I think people realize.”
But she was also on guard for exactly this — the excavation of her past, the calls to a certain set of people who will say they don’t recognize the Elise they once knew. She has come to expect reporters contacting her ex from high school, her old teachers, her friends, her friends who are no longer friends, the members of the Harvard Institute of Politics, a place she once loved that kicked her off its advisory board after Jan. 6, 2021, for making claims about voter fraud that had “no basis in evidence.” She is accustomed to people calling her calculated and craven and driven by a quest for power. She has seen the tweets nicknaming her “Trashy Stefanik” and the ad calling her a “Mean Girl.” She has read the articles charting her “political transformation” — her hard turn from “moderate” to “MAGA.” There is Elise before: the then-youngest woman ever elected to Congress; the promise of a younger, more moderate Republican Party; the open skepticism of Trump. And then there is Elise after: the open loyalty to Trump; the early, unwavering support for his 2024 campaign; the adoption of his rhetoric, his all-caps tweets, his grievances, his lie about the 2020 election results. At a time when other Republicans have taken cautious steps away from the former president, she has plowed ahead in the other direction. The shift is treated as bewildering and sudden — a mystery to be solved.
It is true that Elise Stefanik has changed.
She set aside the posture of a moderate politician and pursued new ambitions inside Trump’s world. She set aside some of her optimism about the potential of politics and replaced it with the language of a hardened partisan warrior. In the halls of Congress, where she was once celebrated in magazines as the face of a more transparent, collaborative government, she now operates from a place of distrust, poised for a fight with the reporters she believes have or will attack her “in vicious, vicious ways.” The more effective she felt she was, the more she felt attacked. And the more attacked she felt, the further the change took hold. “The smears and the meltdown of the media,” she said, “sort of began this chapter.”
The change, and her path to “this chapter,” is what put her at the top of Republican leadership in Congress, where she will serve a second term as House confere.nce chair, the No. 4 role in the GOP majority, climbing where others couldn’t survive in a party defined by its loyalty to one man. In January, when Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) steps down as speaker, Stefanik will become the most powerful woman in the nation’s legislative branch.
It is also true that the change has come at a personal cost. Behind the “moderate to MAGA” shorthand, a human transformation has taken place, too. Stefanik has lost friendships. She has lost ties to institutions that once mattered dearly to her. And she has responded in kind by making her world smaller and more insulated. She keeps her family life closely guarded and her inner-circle small: Outside her congressional offices, she has a set of male political advisers who have helped shape the scorched-earth language she wields with audiences she perceives as unfriendly. In the lingo of Stefanik’s orbit, someone is always “dude,” attacks are always “nasty” and the media is always “shameless.” On a scale of bad to worse, or, as they like to say, “a wipeout” to “a disaster,” someone can be “spiraling,” “imploding” or “combusting,” in that order. During our 40-minute phone call in November, Stefanik used the word “vicious” eight times to describe Democrats and the media. Reporters who sit down with her are advised not to show weakness; it will only bring out her one-word answers. In place of the openness she often once presented, Stefanik has developed a thick armor, smooth and hard, with no grooves or edges there to hold.
The week after we talked about the Instagram posts, I checked her page again. Where the old stories had been, there was now a blank space. Stefanik had deleted them all.
Maybe because it’s so small, with a graduating class of about 37 in 2002, Albany Academy is the place people start when they try to make sense of the story.
The school was really two schools — one for girls and one for boys. The girls’ side was more prestigious in a way, billed as the country’s oldest continuously operating nonsectarian day school for women still in its original municipality, established in 1814. But while the boys attended class in a stately red-brick building, topped by a grand cupola, the girls went to school in a low-slung structure, built in 1959, across the street. There was a military tradition at the boys’ school up until 2005, according to the school archivist emeritus, John T. McClintock, though it was not designed to produce officers for service, but involved students marching with rifles and in uniform for parades and ceremonial occasions.
Otherwise, Albany Academy was a typical regional prep school and Elise one of its typical students. The culture at AAG, as the girls’ school was known, was “working really hard to be good at stuff,” said Anne Conolly, a former Albany Academy teacher. Stefanik did that and did it well. She had a big smile and was nice to everybody. She always wore her uniform, never with her shirt untucked. She was well-liked, with friends on the boys’ side as well as the girls’, former classmates and teachers said. This was a mark of confidence, not shared by some of the cliquier students at AAG. Elise asked lots of questions. She was a senior during the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the tragedy sharpened her interest in government and civic service. She made friends with the teachers and filled her schedule with extracurricular activities. She rose to the top of student council. She played varsity lacrosse, even though it was never her strong suit. She was a committed member of the mock trial team. Lawrence Wiest, a former prosecutor in Albany County District Attorney’s Office who volunteered as a coach, helped prepare the team for a big criminal case against their rivals, a boys’ school, Christian Brothers Academy. Elise was set to deliver the closing statement on behalf of the defense. At practice, Wiest asked the girls if they’d heard of the singer Peggy Lee. Stefanik hadn’t. Neither had her classmates. Wiest said it didn’t matter: Get close to the bench, he told Stefanik, “own that courtroom,” shrug your shoulders and tell the judge, “Well, we all heard the people’s case, and in the words of the late, great Peggy Lee, ‘Is that all there is?’” Elise sold the line with perfect finesse. “She was a born actor,” Wiest said.
But Stefanik’s real skill in high school was her drive. What did not come naturally in class, she made up for with that drive. “I wanted to excel for myself, in the sense that I could,” she told me. “It didn’t come easy. I had to work hard. I was not someone where it just comes easily to you.”
Elise took herself seriously, even as a young girl. In her senior yearbook page, she wrote, “Someone once told me that I have single-handedly altered the Academy experience, and raised the bar not only in the academic realm, but also in the ethical realm.” To read the page, you have to squint. The text is so small — a block of plain sans serif text that stretches across the page, each line containing individualized shout-outs to classmates and teachers. Stefanik’s messages ranged from loving tributes (“Everything you are is an inspiration to me”) to savage parting admonishments (“Our friendship was one-sided. True friendships are undying, ours obviously was not”).
Behind the text, above her handwritten cursive signature — “Respectfully Yours, Elise M. Stefanik” — a giant photo of the White House looms across the page, filling the space edge-to-edge.
She chose the photo, she said, because she wanted to work in the building one day, not run it. “I’m ambitious for this country,” she said. “I always find it interesting that the media focuses on women who are ambitious.” Like other goals Stefanik laid out for herself, this was one she achieved. Her first job was in the George W. Bush administration, working as an aide on his domestic policy council. Her other dream was to go to Harvard, and she met that goal, too, graduating in 2006.
The oldest of two children, Elise was the first in the family to complete college. She looked up to her parents. “It’s not how smart you are. It’s how hard you work,” her dad always told her. “Always maintain your moral compass,” her mom always said.
Ken and Melanie Stefanik lived in Feura Bush, N.Y. Ken started in the lumber and plywood industry after high school. He worked his way up the ladder, first in the warehouse, then as a traveling salesmen and local branch manager. When Elise was 7, he left his job to start his own company, Premium Plywood Products, servicing local businesses across the Capital Region. Stefanik grew up with an awareness that her parents had risked a great deal to start the business, and that hard work had made it successful. She liked to hang around the office, learning to answer the phones by age 10 with a sunny, “Good morning, Premium!”
The business also helped form the foundation for Stefanik’s conservative politics. In October 1998, a young Stefanik got a waiver from school to attend a campaign event for Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, running against Congressman Charles E. Schumer. At the event, a reporter for the Albany Times Union, James M. Odato, approached the young girl in her AAG plaid skirt and blue blazer. “I support the Republican view, especially his,” Elise declared. “He supports all of New York State, not just downstate.” Stefanik sounded straight out of “a D’Amato ad,” Odato wrote in the piece he filed. She was 14.
Elise was always conservative — this her teachers knew. They said they were proud when she worked in the Bush administration — and prouder still when she launched her campaign in New York’s 21st, a 15,000-square-mile district spanning most of the Adirondack Mountains, with a promise to “bring new ideas to Washington.” It was her turn to Trump in 2016, first with many caveats, and then, later, with none at all, that made talk of Stefanik something of a sport in Albany Academy circles.
Certain mentors and classmates still harbor genuine disappointment and confusion toward Stefanik. Some, like Mason, the former headmistress, have said their peace in the press and let it lie, declining to weigh in further. Others address Stefanik as a distant figure from the past. Alisa Scapatici, a beloved AAG English teacher, was one of the female role models Stefanik cited on Instagram in 2019. Classmates said the two were close. Reached by email earlier this year, she wrote, “I am not sure that my insights are all that relevant as they were so long ago. She was an excellent student of literature.”
But among others, even the adult teachers, 20 or 30 years Stefanik’s senior, the speculation can take on a high school quality, with many speaking only on the condition of anonymity to protect their privacy. “I just thought, ‘What did we do?’” one former teacher said of mentoring Stefanik. “It’s like a parlor game, sending articles back and forth,” said another. To some members of the Albany Academy community, it’s become a strange piece of social history at the school. Countless Republicans have tied themselves to Trump over the last six years. But the questions behind the malleability of Stefanik’s political identity can take on different undertones compared to her male colleagues. “It’s bizarre,” said a close friend from high school. “If you had a man out there, particularly one who’s older, who decided to support Trump — and I mean, there are plenty of them — you’re not on the phone talking to one of their high school classmates, right?”
Stephen Brown, a member of the history department at Albany Academy, said that while his politics never aligned with Stefanik — “and the gulf has certainly widened over the last several years,” he said — “I always personally liked Elise.”
“Several of my colleagues all but disowned her,” Brown added.
If this is a source of hurt or sadness for Stefanik, she doesn’t say. But it is part of that armor she carries, and a source of clear frustration. On the phone, at the mention of Albany Academy, her voice stiffened on the line. “Just so you know, this is not the first time we’ve done this,” she said. “Some of the names you’ve talked to that you’ve listed so far, I have not talked to those people in a long time.”
In this case, the cause for alarm were two mock-trial coaches, both of whom recalled Stefanik as skilled and hard-working.
“Which mock-trial coach?” Stefanik asked quickly.
One of them, she suspected, might have bad things to say. Neither did.
Alex deGrasse was en route to Mar-a-Lago when he called to talk about his boss. The 29-year-old is Stefanik’s top political adviser, by her side since the beginning, and much like the congresswoman, he has adopted the language of Trump in his years of service.
“There are a lot of people out there that talk about Elise as if they know her, but they don’t and desperately seek relevance through any connection to her,” he said as he made his way to the former president’s Florida estate. “We realize it’s mostly people projecting their own issues” — the main one being “their own anti-Trump hatred,” something deGrasse said he knows firsthand.
“If I post a photo of me with President Trump, people go nuts,” he said. “If people want to have problems with me, then they’re just not a friend. And it makes it easier. And I think she’s had to deal with that.”
This was not the social arithmetic that Stefanik first took to Washington. When she began her career in politics, she was a player of the game of establishment politics and a student of its rules — disciplined and serious, yes, but also eager and open. She was an advocate of more outreach. After three years in the White House, she took on jobs around Washington and tried starting a blog, American Maggie, named after Margaret Thatcher and aimed at reaching an audience of women in conservative politics, though it never got off the ground.
In 2012, she worked for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, helping prepare Paul D. Ryan for his vice-presidential debate against Joe Biden. After they lost, she helped author the Republican Party’s autopsy report, a document urging more inclusivity and openness in the GOP. By 2013, she was back home in New York, working for the family plywood business. She met with Kellyanne Conway, the Republican pollster and Trump’s future campaign manager, as she made preparations to run for Congress. Over lunch in Manhattan, Conway found Stefanik to be “accessible and affable,” “serious-minded without being somber,” Conway recalled. On Aug. 6, 2013, 35 days after her 29th birthday, Stefanik signed the paperwork to become a candidate in the same perfect cursive script that sits at the bottom of her yearbook page. On the trail, she wore out multiple pairs of tennis shoes and documented her stops with daily Instagram posts. She went to Washington as the youngest woman elected to Congress, documenting the touchstones of the institution online (her new business cards; her first office assignment).
The presidential race in 2016 was her first big chance to put down a marker in the party’s national debate. Stefanik stayed quiet about her preference. She didn’t reveal her vote until after the primary, but in the end, she cast her ballot for John Kasich, the moderate Republican best known as an anti-Trump alternative and for giving hugs at his town halls, preaching tolerance.
There was some pressure to get onboard with Trump, but nothing so big that she had to acknowledge it. Carl Paladino, a controversial conservative agitator in New York, criticized her in an email to his supporters in the spring of 2016, describing her silence as “treachery.” “Clearly she’s a fraud,” he wrote. “She never told the people she was a RINO.” Six years later, Stefanik would break with House Republican leadership to endorse Paladino for Congress in the 23rd District. Asked about his comments now, Paladino said he didn’t recall them. “She’s certainly proved herself to me since,” he said.
When Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee in May, Stefanik released a statement that same week to the Albany Times Union endorsing the party’s choice, though she didn’t reference him by name. “Like my Democratic opponent,” she wrote, “I will support my party’s nominee in the fall.” Stefanik found some of Trump’s rhetoric problematic, and for years, she didn’t hesitate to say so. By the fall of 2016, when the Access Hollywood tape came out and the country heard Trump brag about sexually assaulting women, Stefanik spoke out against his “inappropriate, offensive comments,” but she didn’t rescind her endorsement. In recent years, it has become an important proof point for Stefanik’s team, looking back at the arc of her support for Trump.
Another was his visit in 2018 to Fort Drum, the military base in her district, to sign a national defense spending bill. As he introduced Stefanik onstage, Trump mispronounced her last name. “Elise STEF-an-ik,” he said. “She called me so many times. I said, ‘I don’t want to take her calls.’” Stefanik was determined to host him at Fort Drum. He had a scheduling conflict. But no, Trump said, “that didn’t suit her. She didn’t stop. And here I am.”
But it was the impeachment hearings, in 2019, that “radicalized” Stefanik, in the words of her aides. On the House intelligence committee, she became a key voice in his defense, eventually joining his legal team. She believed Democrats were abusing the committee’s institutional powers to advance a political agenda, and her sharp questions at hearings, boosted on cable news, and boosted again by Trump, brought her unseen levels of money online. When Democrats speculated that she had only been given a role in impeachment because Republicans needed the presence of a woman on their side, she developed a new disdain for her opponents. “They’re putting me forward because I ask the best questions,” she said of her GOP colleagues at the time.
Stefanik already believed that young, conservative women had it tough. But as her support for Trump grew and as more scrutiny followed — as the calls to classmates and friends began, as the stories about her political transformation arrived — her view of sexism hardened in step, knitting the two together into a tight knot of resentment.
There had always been little things she noticed. In her first election, as she faced a series of male candidates, newspapers printed her age without fail, even when they didn’t for the men. That little comma bothered her: “Stefanik, 29. Stefanik, 30.” Later, she was criticized for wearing patterned tights on the campaign trail. “They’re very tasteful,” she told Norah O’Donnell in an interview on CBS This Morning. By her second term in Congress, she was recruiting a record number of women, more than 100 candidates, to join her ranks and help fix the problem. After the midterm elections in 2018, she launched her own spending group, E-PAC, with the same goal.
But later, in January 2021, the Albany Times Union published a community blog post mocking Stefanik for being “childless.” The item was a satirical piece that imagined her reading to a group of first-graders and saying, “I myself am childless because I am a rising star in the Republican Party.” Stefanik and her husband, Matthew Manda, thought it was vile. “We have developed a thick skin over many years,” the couple wrote in a statement, but this was “truly heinous and wildly inappropriate.” They went on to demand a retraction and apology from the paper, adding, “Like millions of families, we hope and pray that we will be blessed by becoming parents.” Releasing that statement, seeing that last line, said deGrasse, her top political aide, “was one of the hardest and saddest things I’ve ever had to do in my career.”
Sam was born on Aug. 27, 2021. Stefanik made a point to work until the last possible moment, hosting a call at 8 p.m. with other members of Congress the night before she was due at the hospital at 5 a.m. Later as senior female staffer in her leadership office experienced their own personal milestones, Stefanik helped guide them through the details. When her press secretary, Charyssa Parent, got married this summer, they talked through color schemes and invitations. When her communications director, Ali Black, had her first child this fall, she gave her advice on the final days of pregnancy: “Take some time with your spouse and get some sleep before the baby comes.”
“When you go through the rigmarole with the press, wrestling every day in Upstate New York, you have a skewed vision of the press,” said Parent. “For a while, it was, ‘She couldn’t have a seat at the table because she was the youngest woman.’ Then she couldn’t have a seat at the table in leadership because the local press was saying, ‘How could she do it when she had a baby?’”
In the age of Trump, said Conway, his 2016 campaign manager, conservative women carried a special designation, a quadruple standard. “If you’re a pro-life Republican female who works with President Donald Trump, you’ve got a target on your front and your back and your forehead.”
“Most of the profiles about her connection to Trump — I mean, that’s an obsession with Trump,” said Conway. “Not an obsession with Elise. And the obsession with Trump prevents people from covering her, fairly and completely.”
In January 2020, Stefanik was boarding a plane to Vermont to travel home across the border in Upstate New York. At Reagan National Airport, as he waited to board the same flight, a Democratic strategist named Sam Donnelly saw the congresswoman from across the gate.
At the time, Donnelly was the chair of the Burlington Democratic Party. He had once viewed Stefanik as a moderate, he said, but her role in the impeachment hearings had made him change his mind. Sitting in the gate, scrolling on his phone, he opened a new tweet and attached a GIF of the actor Ryan Gosling, wearing sunglasses and doing a double-take. “I’m sitting next to Eliese Stefanik and I just want to get away,” he wrote, misspelling her name.
Donnelly was the last to board the plane. As he walked down the aisle, an arm reached out and stopped him in his path. It was Stefanik. “Hi,” she said. “Are you Sam?”
She let him know that she had seen his tweet and that she wanted to introduce herself “to have a more pleasant conversation,” Donnelly recalled. He told her it was a pleasure and shook her hand. Within seconds, he said, he saw she had quote-tweeted his original message, amplifying it on her @EliseStefanik account. “Hi Sam! Glad to shake your hand and introduce myself as you boarded! Genuinely nice to meet you. I sometimes take this flight with my friend @PeterWelch,” she wrote, naming her Democratic colleague from Vermont. Later, Donnelly replied in kind: “I don’t agree with your politics,” he tweeted back to her, but it was a pleasure to meet you.” On Instagram, she reshared the tweets in a series of screenshots, showing all three messages: “A #Toxic #Twitter Tale in Ten Seconds,” she wrote in the caption, “with a mind-your-manners happy ending smack down.”
Donnelly wasn’t sure what to make of the exchange. It walked that perfect line — between wanting to be understood, to show an online critic that there was a human on the other end of the screen, and wanting to troll right back, to own a lib from Vermont. She didn’t change Donnelly’s mind that day, and maybe her tweets didn’t change anyone else’s either. Maybe she wasn’t trying to. By all accounts, she doesn’t care anymore — and that in itself may be the biggest change.
There are plenty of things about Elise Stefanik that have stayed the same. She is still ranked among the top 25 percent most bipartisan members of Congress, according to the Lugar Center. She still works to put her name behind bipartisan legislation, including bills to increase the supply of baby formula, expand employer-provided access to child care and help families cover the cost of raising a child. This month, she voted with Democrats on the Respect for Marriage Act, requiring states to recognize same-sex couples. She has been and still is a committed presence in her district. But that’s not the work that has given Stefanik the profile she has today. What has made her a standout in her party, and a force in Trump’s orbit, is everything that did change about Elise Stefanik.
The change has meant her name will be on the VP shortlists all year. It’s meant that her advisers are regulars at Mar-a-Lago and that Stefanik has a direct line to Trump. When the former president announced his 2024 campaign, Republicans who once supported him began backing away, making subtle comments about it being time for someone new. Stefanik was not one of them. “It’s very clear President Trump is the leader of the Republican party,” she said in a statement last month. On Nov. 11, she became the senior-most Republican elected official to endorse his campaign. This means something, but it’s not clear it means everything. “The president likes and appreciates Stefanik,” according to a person who speaks regularly to both Stefanik and Trump, “but he doesn’t mention her often.”
But it does mean she will stay committed to his causes. She will continue casting doubt on the 2020 election results. It means that when Pelosi steps down from her leadership role next month, clearing the way for Stefanik to take her place as the most senior woman in Congress, she won’t commemorate her colleague’s history-making tenure in the House, as she might have when she first arrived in Washington as a freshman in 2014. Instead, in tweets and fundraising emails and media hits, she will celebrate, as she already has countless times, “firing Nancy Pelosi once and for all.”
This is the way things will be. The team around Stefanik believes that the people who say she’s changed come from a place of malice. That the media is “shameless” and “vicious.” That friends who have problems with her are “just not a friend,” as deGrasse said. These beliefs have hardened Stefanik, but they have also become a source of defiance and energy in her world — the “rocket fuel for Elise’s rise,” said deGrasse.
“At this point, to be honest with you, my skin is so thick,” Stefanik said on the phone. “What the media says really doesn’t matter.”
Stefanik does still pay attention to her press, asking for multiple updates a day on statements and forthcoming stories, like the former staffer that she is. She does hits on Fox News and talks on conservative podcasts. On Instagram, she still posts glimpses of her life as a congresswoman, at work and at home: a snapshot of the back of her son wearing a “Vote For My Mom” T-shirt, an image of her shaking the hand of a veteran, a photo of homemade chicken and fennel soup. But woven between the posts, there was that new hardness that has elevated Elise Stefanik to the top of MAGA politics: references to the “radical Far Left” and the “#RedTsunami” she hoped would wipe out Democrats this fall.
On the morning of Election Day, hours before she would win her fifth consecutive double-digit victory since 2014, Stefanik posted what she billed in the caption as “TODAY’S FORECAST,” in a now-familiar all-caps: It was the image of an ocean wave, pixelated and tinted bright red, as it crested and came crashing down on the water’s surface.