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Rep. Elise Stefanik Takes Spotlight In Impeachment Hearings

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The open hearings in the House impeachment inquiry have introduced the country to a new face - Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who represents a district in northern New York. She was once seen as a moderate who kept President Trump at arm's length. Now Stefanik has emerged as one of his fiercest, most high-profile defenders. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann tells us more.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Elise Stefanik first won her seat in 2014, she was just 30 years old, at the time the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She promised bipartisanship and a focus on policy.

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ELISE STEFANIK: And I will work with anyone, regardless of their party affiliation, to get it done - Republicans, Democrats, Independents and even...

MANN: Stefanik was appointed to the House Intelligence Committee. She already had a deep resume. She's a Harvard grad, worked in the Bush White House and was a close ally of former House Speaker Paul Ryan. After President Trump's election, Stefanik criticized many of his signature policies - opposing the border wall, blasting his trade tariffs and, most recently, condemning Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

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STEFANIK: I think it was misguided. I think it was the wrong approach. And I think it puts our national security at risk.

MANN: At times, Stefanik used startling language to describe the president, calling his actions inappropriate, offensive and, quote, "contrary to our American ideals." But when the Ukraine scandal broke, Stefanik pivoted, sending fundraising letters to potential donors, promising to stand up for President Trump and telling reporters the probe is a political smear.

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STEFANIK: This is a very, very serious matter, and I have not seen evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. I'm proud to support President Trump, and I oppose impeachment.

MANN: During public hearings this week's, Stefanik did just that, condemning the process at every opportunity, clashing with the Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff.

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STEFANIK: Ambassador Yovanovitch, thank you for being here today.

ADAM SCHIFF: The gentlewoman will suspend. The gentlewoman will suspend.

STEFANIK: What is the interruption for this time? It is our time.

MANN: In fact, Stefanik was violating procedural rules established for the hearing, but combative moments like that quickly elevated her profile. Tweets about her performance were shared repeatedly by President Trump, and her own Twitter following exploded. She's drawn praise from conservative media - Breitbart, the Wall Street Journal and National Review - and also made a coveted appearance on Fox News, where she again blasted Democrats, who she's now taken to describing as socialist and radical.

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STEFANIK: The American public was watching, riveted, waiting for a silver bullet, and they didn't have that.

MANN: Through weeks of open and closed-door hearings, Stefanik has appeared unswayed by detailed testimony from senior career diplomats who allege President Trump politicized U.S. foreign policy in order to leverage an investigation by Ukraine against Joe Biden, one of his Democratic rivals.

Her stance has drawn criticism, including from former allies. Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin blasted Stefanik in a column this week for, quote, "declaring there's no harm in extorting Ukraine to do Trump's political dirty work." Nicolle Wallace, the MSNBC host who also served in the Bush White House, tweeted that Stefanik is one of the occasionally reasonable Republicans who's become a Trump shill. That kind of high-profile pushback may be one more sign Stefanik has moved to the center of the fight over President Trump and impeachment. Stefanik was also named this week by Time magazine to its 100 next list of the most influential young leaders in America.

Brian Mann, NPR News, Westport, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.