December 7th, 2023

By Annie Karni


Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, arrived at a congressional hearing about antisemitism on college campuses ready for battle.

With the presidents of three prestigious universities to be seated in front of her at the witness table, Ms. Stefanik, the No. 4 Republican, saw an opportunity to put the academic left on the spot at a moment when antisemitic speech has skyrocketed on college campuses across the country.

“Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment?” she demanded of Claudine Gay, the new president of Harvard University.

“It can be, depending on the context,” Dr. Gay responded.

“What’s the context?” Ms. Stefanik shot back.

“Targeted at an individual,” Dr. Gay said.

“It’s targeted at Jewish students, Jewish individuals,” Ms. Stefanik said.

Ms. Stefanik had asked the same question, phrased the same way, of all three university leaders and received similar equivocating responses.

“If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment,” Elizabeth Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, said.

“‘Conduct’ meaning committing the act of genocide?” Ms. Stefanik said, her voice rising with incredulity. “The speech is not harassment? This is unacceptable.”

The moment on Tuesday afternoon went viral, racking up tens of millions of views on social media (the Israeli government even reposted a clip of the hearing) and forcing the presidents to issue statements attempting to clarify their responses amid calls for their resignations. The fallout continued on Thursday, as Penn’s board of trustees spent the day on an emergency conference call with Ms. Magill and public criticism continued to rain down on all three presidents.

For Ms. Stefanik, a 2006 Harvard graduate who has a fraught relationship with her alma mater, that all counted as a win. Once a proud moderate millennial Republican, she has transformed herself into a MAGA warrior styled after and wholly loyal to former President Donald J. Trump. That includes seeking opportunities to stoke the outrage of G.O.P. base voters — especially when it comes to what they characterize as “woke” elitism in academia.

Never one to shrink from a heated political moment, Ms. Stefanik said on Thursday that she planned to open a formal congressional investigation into how all three universities address antisemitism and the aftermath of the presidents’ testimony, including discussions with their boards of trustees.

“I was shocked, and I will tell you I’ve been in a lot of high-profile hearings,” she said in an interview, predicting that it would become “the most viewed congressional testimony in history.”

The moment almost did not happen. It came at the very end of the five-hour hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee, after Ms. Stefanik had already tried four times to pin down the trio of administrators. She repeatedly tried and failed to get them to agree with her that calls for “intifada” and use of slogans such as “from the river to the sea” were appeals for genocide against Jews that should not be tolerated on campuses.

They had parried her grilling with lawyerly answers that, on their own, would not have made international headlines, but then they fell into Ms. Stefanik’s prosecutorial trap.

In an interview, Ms. Stefanik said she prepared for her final, viral round of questioning alone, during a break.

“Those questions were prepared by myself, with a pen and paper, at the end of the hearing,” she said, adding that she had studied the universities’ codes of conduct before the session.

“I thought, ‘How can I drill down on this and ask this question in such a way that the answer is an easy ‘yes?’ And they blew it.”

Ms. Stefanik said she had anticipated a different line of follow-up questions, assuming the answer to her opening salvo would be clear-cut.

“I thought M.I.T. and Penn would answer it ‘yes’ and Harvard would be forced to say ‘yes,’” she said. Ms. Stefanik said she had planned to follow up by asking what disciplinary actions had been taken on campus in response.

“I was so stunned,” she said, calling the responses “pathetic answers.”

She was not alone. Ms. Stefanik’s aggressive appeals to the far right typically delight Republican hard-liners. But in the hearing, Ms. Stefanik achieved the unthinkable, prompting many Democrats and detractors of Mr. Trump to concede that an ideological culture warrior with whom they agree on nothing else was, in this case, right.

Laurence Tribe, the constitutional scholar and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, said on social media that he was “no fan” of Ms. Stefanik. But, he added: “I’m with her here. Claudine Gay’s hesitant, formulaic, and bizarrely evasive answers were deeply troubling to me and many of my colleagues, students, and friends.” (He declined to comment further on Ms. Stefanik.)

Gov. Josh Shapiro, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said that the testimony of Ms. Magill was a “failure of leadership.”

Representatives Seth Moulton and Jake Auchincloss, both Democrats from Massachusetts and Harvard graduates, released a joint statement saying that “Harvard ranks last out of 248 universities for support of free speech. But when it comes to denouncing antisemitism, suddenly the university has anxieties about the First Amendment. It rings hollow.”

That Ms. Stefanik emerged as the voice of reason in the hearing was a sobering thought for many of her detractors. More than any other member of Congress, Ms. Stefanik represents to Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans the worst of what happened to the G.O.P. under the sway of Mr. Trump.

An alumna of the George W. Bush White House and a protégée of former Speaker Paul D. Ryan, the mainstream conservative from Wisconsin, Ms. Stefanik was once seen as a pragmatic and sober-minded Republican. Mr. Ryan described her in 2019 in a Time magazine profile as “the future of hopeful, aspirational politics in America.”

Instead, she made a political calculation to remain the future of her changing party — by unequivocally embracing Mr. Trump, his repeated falsehoods that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and his inflammatory rhetoric that often stokes racial division.

That prompted a break between her and her alma mater. After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol, Harvard’s Institute of Politics removed Ms. Stefanik from its advisory board, citing her “public assertions about voter fraud in November’s presidential election that have no basis in evidence.”

Ms. Stefanik at the time called her removal “a rite of passage and badge of honor.”

Bill Kristol, the prominent anti-Trump Republican whom Ms. Stefanik once worked with, said he was on multiple text chains with fellow Harvard alumni who shared a similar reaction watching clips from the hearing. The overall sentiment, he said, was, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Elise Stefanik is doing a very good job of putting Claudine Gay on the spot.”

The bigger political issue at stake, Mr. Kristol said, was whether the response of university administrators to the antisemitism rearing its head on campuses would alienate centrist Republicans who voted for President Biden in 2020.

“They see this and they think, ‘All my suspicions were confirmed,’” Mr. Kristol said. He said that for Americans concerned about the potential re-election of Mr. Trump, a moment in which Ms. Stefanik sounded reasonable was a cause for concern.

On Thursday, Ms. Stefanik said she was proud to have struck a chord.

“I’m holding my head high,” she said. “On the most moral issue of humanity, the genocide of humanity, there should be no moral equivocation.”

Representative Ritchie Torres, Democrat of New York, was among the Democrats conceding that Ms. Stefanik was right, but he said it did not change his view of her.

“Even a broken clock is right twice a day,” he said. “She continues to be an odious demagogue.”

He said her viral moment was “less about Stefanik and more about the glaring indifference to antisemitism among college university presidents. The cross-examination confirmed what we all know — that our college campuses are lacking in moral common sense. If I were them, I would resign in disgrace.”