Ten minutes before the bipartisan U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee was set to begin its primetime hearing Thursday, Rep. Elise Stefanik’s team sent out a media release touting the congresswoman’s appearance on Newsmax, during which Stefanik was asked to provide a “counter message” to the nation.
Counter-messaging was Stefanik’s strategy all week leading up to the primetime hearing of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. Political scientists – as well as Stefanik’s political opponents – say the presentation of alternative content is dangerous, particularly when it includes misinformation.
No matter how the strategy is viewed, its intent was obvious, said Christopher Mann, a professor of political science at Skidmore College.
“This seems like an intentional distraction. Look at this thing over here, not the hearings,” Mann said.
Mann said Republicans may have some legitimate questions about the Jan. 6 investigation, such as wanting to find out more about why the U.S. Capitol Police force wasn’t properly prepared to defend against the attack on the Capitol. But Mann said Stefanik and other Republicans’ counter programming – Fox News did not air the primetime hearing, with Tucker Carlson calling the investigation “illegitimate,” “deranged” and saying “We will not be playing along”– plays into the fact that, in a polarized environment, people seek out the information they want to hear.
“Knowing that that’s the way people behave, the Republican leadership has created this alternative event so that people can turn and look at that, because if they don’t create that then they risk that the only thing to look at is this thing that may be damaging to individual Republicans and the Republican brand more generally,” Mann said. “By creating this other thing to look at, they get people to look away.”
Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who was not made available for interviews with The Daily Gazette, pumped the plan for “counterprogramming” several days ahead of the event and continued with the messaging on Friday, after Day 1 of the Jan. 6 committee hearings.
“Republicans are ready to provide counterprogramming to the ‘illegitimate’ January 6 Committee hearing,” Stefanik’s team said in a June 4 news release that quickly pivoted to talking points about high inflation, gas prices and border patrol. “Stefanik said the committee is about nothing more than punishing political opponents and targeting ‘patriotic Trump supporters.’ Further, she noted that it does not even address the actual issue — to make sure the U.S. Capitol has adequate security,” the June 4 release states. “It is going to be both a ‘circus’ and ‘political witch hunt.’”
Counterprogramming becomes especially troubling when it presents false information, Mann said.
“Based on facts that we know, the Capitol Police were underprepared and understaffed and undertrained, and they weren’t getting intelligence – those are all legitimate things to look at,” Mann said. “But once we go beyond that by feeding conspiracy theory narratives about what did or didn’t happen, that becomes a different level of problematic. That moves from distraction to actually trying to create ‘alternative facts.’”
Stefanik’s strategy is often to blend facts with fiction, Mann said.
“If you take a kernel of truth and you use that for a launching platform into a fantasy land, and you take all these people who are watching you with it, we just get farther and farther apart,” Mann said. “It’s the blending of the legitimate questions and the conspiracy theories that seems particularly problematic.”
Stefanik has said and amplified provable falsehoods having to do with the 2020 election, and she has supported overturning its results.
For instance, Stefanik questioned the accuracy of Dominion voting software in a December interview on Newsmax, saying “we need to make sure that every vote is counted. But we also need to highlight any of the irregularities. I have concerns about the software, the fact that Dominion software,” before switching trains of thought to suggest members of both parties have concerns.
But a November 12, 2020, statement from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said, “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history,” the statement reads. “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
Thursday’s Select Committee hearing included video of former U.S. Attorney General William Barr dismissing President Donald Trump’s Dominion allegations as “crazy.”
“I saw absolutely zero basis for the allegations, but they were made in such a sensational way that they obviously were influencing a lot of people, members of the public, that there was this systemic corruption in the system and that their votes didn’t count and that these machines controlled by somebody else were actually determining it, which was complete nonsense,” Barr said. “I told him that it was crazy stuff, and they were wasting their time on that.”
In another falsehood, Stefanik made a speech on the House Floor on Jan. 6, 2021, claiming: “In Georgia, there was unconstitutional overreach when the Secretary of State unilaterally and unconstitutionally gutted signature matching for absentee ballots and, in essence, eliminated voter verification required by state election law.”
A Cobb County audit discredits Stefanik’s statement.
“After a hand recount and a subsequent machine recount requested by the Trump campaign, a signature audit has again affirmed the original outcome of the November 2020 presidential race in Georgia,” reads a December 29, 2020, statement from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office. “A signature match audit in Cobb County found ‘no fraudulent absentee ballots’ and found that the Cobb County Elections Department had ‘a 99.99% accuracy rate in performing correct signature verification procedures.’”
In that same Jan. 6 speech, Stefanik claimed in Michigan, “signed affidavits document numerous unconstitutional irregularities — officials physically blocking the legal right of poll watchers to observe vote counts, the illegal counting of late ballots, and hand stamping ballots with the previous day’s date.”
The office of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said improper ballots were not counted.
“In total, 15,300 of 3.3 million absentee ballots were rejected for a variety of reasons recorded by election clerks, compared to 10,600 in the August primary election,” according to the Michigan Department of State. “Notably, the rate of rejection for signature issues fell from August to November, from 0.14% to 0.1%, and the number of ballots that arrived after the deadline of 8 p.m. on Election Day also dropped, from 6,400 in August to 3,300 in November.”
Politicians on both sides of the aisle have warned Republicans against propagating false statements.
“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, in a notably pointed comment during Thursday’s hearing.
Matt Castelli, who is one of Stefanik’s Democratic challengers in New York’s 21st Congressional District, tweeted during Thursday’s proceedings: “After hearing Trump said ‘maybe Mike Pence deserves it,” I wonder what @EliseStefanik is thinking about all this VP talk in 2024.”
Stefanik’s name has been floated as a potential vice presidential candidate, but when asked about whether she would consider being Trump’s running mate at a press conference in Albany last month, Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican, demurred.
“I’m 100% focused on representing New York’s 21st Congressional District,” she said outside the New York State Capitol.
In a Friday statement, Castelli criticized Stefanik for her counterprogramming.
“From the very beginning, Elise Stefanik has led the efforts to hide the truth about the January 6th attack against our country, obstruct the investigation into the details about the crimes committed, and block any attempts to hold accountable those responsible,” Castelli said. “In advance of the Select Committee’s hearing on Thursday, Stefanik intensified her leadership of the coverup to deny the American people the truth about the violent conspiracy to overturn a legitimate presidential election.”
Attempts by leaders to undermine election results are worrying, Mann said. What if Democrats decide elections are no longer legitimate after the 2022 Midterms don’t go their way, Mann posited.
“We’re not going to see Republicans suddenly say that elections are fair in 2022, in part, because it has become so embedded in Republican rhetoric that elections aren’t fair,” Mann said. “When we stop believing in elections, we stop believing in all the core things that make our governance work–from city council to the presidency. That’s not the only thing that holds American society together, but it’s a big thing.”
Mann said such a climate of doubt leads to a country in which people of all political persuasions are potentially angry enough to storm the Capitol.
On Friday morning, Stefanik hit the airwaves again to punch back against the Jan. 6 hearing.
“This is a political distraction,” she said on Fox Business. “And it will do nothing to ensure that the Capitol is safe and secure in the future.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.
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It is a disgraceful shame when a leader promotes lies for her own advancement. It is not surprising so many young mentally ill people are mislead by fools like Stefanik who can’t make it on her own merits she is a disgrace to her office.
And a disgrace to the good name of Albany Academy for Girls.
Imagine if CNN refused to air the Benghazi hearings and Paul Tonko staged counter-programming on MSNBC, and you can begin to imagine what kind of dystopian hellscape us sane people are living in with Fox News and these Republican elected officials.