How Pete King learned to stop worrying and love the Donald
How Pete King learned to stop worrying and love the Donald
Nothing gets Rep. Pete King’s eyebrows moving like Donald Trump. King’s eyebrows, as often seen on TV, are his most prominent feature. Thick, and shades darker than his silver hair, they’re permanently arched, enhancing whatever mood he’s in. When he’s listening intently, they raise high on his forehead, welcoming questions. When he’s angry – defending police officers on TV, or expounding on national security – they strike down across his face like slashes – the shape of intensity. And when he’s telling a story, like the one about President Donald Trump mentioning him by name in front of all his House Republican colleagues, King’s eyebrows dance, his eyes get a faraway look and his weathered face beams a thousand-watt smile.
“Personally, we’re getting along very well,” King says of Trump. “In fact, when he comes in to speak with Republicans, he’ll sometimes single me out to speak.” King says he supports Trump in some of the areas that have brought Trump the most controversy: his aggressive speaking style, and his stances on immigration and counterterrorism.
That King could be here, proudly backing Trump and touting a personal relationship with the 45th president, would have surprised most political observers and his Long Island constituents just 18 months ago. While some Republicans were on the Trump train all along, and others have always been against him, King went through an evolution. The longest-serving Republican member of Congress in Trump’s home state of New York, King refused to endorse Trump in the primary election and called him morally and intellectually unfit to be president. Today, he offers consistent public support – often glowing – of the president. And King learning to love Trump explains a lot about the Long Island congressman’s South Shore district, his all-consuming love of politics and even the president’s personal touch.
There’s a story King likes to tell about when Trump gave him a shoutout at a House Republican meeting on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. As he tells it, Trump was pitching members of Congress to support legislation that would replace Obamacare when the president got into it with one of the conference’s most conservative members, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
“And then Trump says, ‘If you don’t go the right way, I can always come after you.’ And then I guess he realized he – he saw from the look on the guy’s face that the guy was taking it personally,” King recalls. “(Trump) goes, ‘Wait a minute, we were just kidding around. Ask Pete King, he and I grew up in Queens. That’s the way we talk to each other.’” King laughs at the memory. “But we get along fine,” he concludes.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for King, a hawkish, self-described conservative who’s been in politics for four decades. In many ways, you could expect the career politician to dislike the isolationist candidate who rejected the political class. Like many of his fellow establishment Republicans, he was slow to accept Trump. The congressman shared platitudes about Trump’s entrance to the presidential race in the summer of 2015, saying he’ll “add a lot to the race” and that he “talks like a real person,” but seemed to sour on him as the Republican primary race dragged on. King took offense at Trump blaming President George W. Bush for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and by Super Tuesday, King told the Daily News he may have to get out of politics if Trump were to win the Republican nomination. “Listen, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “Right now I’m just focusing on Marco Rubio becoming the nominee. I’m not going beyond that.”
Rubio dropped out of the race soon after, and by the time the New York primary came along in April, King was a man without a candidate. “I hate Ted Cruz,” he said on “Morning Joe.” “I think I’ll take cyanide if he got the nomination.” But King was so hesitant about Trump that he instead cast his primary vote for the mainstream Republican longshot, Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Trump, he said, “has to show substance” and go beyond the “name-calling and the sound bites.”
On the cable networks, where he thrives as a Long Island everyman who’s quick with a quip, King became an eloquent defender of Trump ahead of the general election, mostly avoiding alternative facts-style doublespeak, but never failing to explain what the candidate really meant. It scored him an invite to Trump’s election night party in Manhattan, where King says Trump thanked him for the support. The appearances have only ramped up since Trump took office, a role he’s happy to play.
“There’s not many Republicans in Congress supporting President Trump on the gut issues,” he says. “How many are out there defending him on Russia? Defending him on the travel ban? So that’s why those issues are gut issues I support him on ... I’ll go against him, but I’m going to put my emphasis on defending him.”
“(Trump) really is basically an outer borough guy. ... Guys I grew up with? They think he’s like one of the guys on the street corner.”
Even some Democrats see this as good strategy. “He wears that mantle of being the safety and security guy,” Jerry Kremer, a former Long Island assemblyman, says of King. “And I think that most people beyond that don’t pay attention to what he does.”
King’s support for Trump certainly goes beyond the screen. He voted for the American Health Care Act and has voted in agreement with the president’s positions 91 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.
He has also embraced Trump on Twitter. Before Trump’s election, King’s feed was a mix of pictures with Scouts and Little Leaguers and tweets about the New York Mets. These days, he insults The New York Times as an “out of touch, liberal rag” and compliments Trump profusely, tweeting support for the ban on travel from a number of Muslim-majority countries, missile strikes in Syria and his speeches in Saudi Arabia and Poland. The only hint of criticism was on March 26, when he encouraged Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to “reach across the aisle” on health care reform.
So how did King change his mind about the man he once called a “feckless pretender” who is “not fit to be president – morally or intellectually”? It could have been from Trump’s personal touch. While comparing Trump to other politicians has become a cottage industry – think Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Adolf Hitler, hell, even Bernie Sanders – King is one of the easiest cases to make. Both were born and raised in Queens: King was born in 1944 and raised in Irish Catholic Sunnyside; Trump born in 1946 and raised in the affluent Jamaica Estates. Both are showmen, drawn by the lure of TV cameras. Both pride themselves on being politically incorrect – King has faced opposition for his comments on Muslim communities and received death threats after calling pop star Michael Jackson a “pervert” and a “lowlife.” Trump flirted with a 2014 run for New York governor and openly considered running for president many times before his successful run. King has flirted with runs for higher office a number of times in his career, including openly mulling a 2016 presidential run. Trump has the hair. King has the eyebrows.
Of all the similarities, the Queens connection matters most to King. The congressman has lived on Long Island since 1967, but he remains a Queens resident at heart. “Your early years have a big impact,” he says, “because you’re stuck there. When you get older you’re running all over the place.”
King sees that same quality in Trump, whether or not the real estate mogul likes it. “I know he’s the big Manhattan guy, but he really is basically an outer borough guy,” King says. “He doesn’t want to admit it, but I mean, that style … I think people on the East Side (of Manhattan), despite what he would like, will never accept him. Even if he’s – that’s just not their style. Guys I grew up with? They think he’s like one of the guys on the street corner. I mean he’s like – with all his billions and jets and hotels and golf courses – he’s very much the guy they hang out with.”
It’s a remarkable change from King, who said during the primaries that “no tough guy ever came out of Jamaica Estates.” Some 18 months later, that same “outer borough guy” that won the votes of the guys King grew up with has won King over too. The congressman mentiones a Capitol Hill Club meeting last summer for House Republicans to meet Trump before the Republican National Convention. King had offered a half-hearted endorsement by this point, but as one of the few faces Trump recognized among the crowd, he apparently felt comfortable calling King out.
As King tells the story, Trump was explaining that in business, you usually know who’s on your side, but you never know in politics. Trump then pointed out King in the crowd and mentioned that he’s donated to the congressman in the past.
“So one night I’m watching television, they say, coming up next is Congressman Pete King,” Trump said, according to King. “I think, wow! I’m looking forward to this. Gets up, boom! He said ‘Trump is no good, Trump is this!’”
At this point in telling the story, King gives a lighthearted sigh. Then, King continues, Trump said, “Now we’re great friends.” King laughs and responds, “Yeah, we’re great friends.”
But was King’s shift from foe to friend driven by political expediency? It’s complicated, says Kremer, who’s known King since the 1970s. “He’s really not reluctant to go against the tide. He’s not a go along to get along guy,” Kremer says. “But on the other hand, he’s still flexible enough. He’s a very smart guy in the sense that he can put his finger to the wind and, even if he’s taken a strong position in one direction, he’s open to changing.”
By October, King was New York-splaining Trump to fellow Republicans. People in the party resent the fact that Trump doesn’t act like a “buttoned-down Republican businessman,” King told WABC radio. Trump is “still too much like the kid on the Queens street corner. He's too New York for them."
By January, it was King who was bringing up the old neighborhood to Trump. After the president gave his first address to a joint session of Congress, King caught him walking out of the chamber. “It’s great to see a Queens guy up there giving that speech,” King told him. “How’d I do?” Trump responded.
King admits it’s flattering to be noticed by the president. “Maybe I’m kidding myself – I think it’s somewhat genuine with him.”
Of course, King’s newfound love for Trump doesn’t just come from an instinctive geographic respect. It comes from his deep love for politics – a love that, ironically, may have been his biggest obstacle to supporting Trump in the first place.
King is New York’s senior House Republican, having taken office with former President Bill Clinton in 1992, but his career in politics started well before that, when he was elected to the Hempstead Town Council in 1977. He served as Nassau County comptroller from 1982 to 1992, but representing the suburban county was never enough for his political appetite. He ran for state attorney general in 1986, and, over the years, gained a measure of international prominence – or notoriety – as a U.S.-based advocate for the Irish Republican Army and its associated political party, Sinn Féin. His full-throated support for what many considered to be a terrorist group has dogged him since, especially when King held a series of controversial hearings on Muslim radicalization in the United States in 2011, when King was accused of hypocrisy and an anti-Muslim bias.
For his part, King has largely left Irish politics behind, swearing off the IRA in 2005 and telling the group to disband. King the politico, though, looks back on his involvement with pride. His Massapequa Park office is filled with memorabilia, including a signed copy of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which he helped negotiate as a congressman, and numerous photos of him smiling with Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
But his office decor is more American than Irish. His political button collection takes up half a wall, with hardware running the gamut from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George H.W. Bush. He even has a button for his opponent in the 1986 attorney general race, Bob Abrams. “Shows how open minded I am,” King says.
His love of politics also colors his side gig as the author of three historical novels, two about the Troubles in Ireland, and one about the Sept. 11 attacks. They star Sean Cross, an Irish-American Long Island congressman and thinly veiled stand-in for King himself. His passion has rubbed off on his kids too. His son, Sean King, works for former Sen. Al D’Amato’s political consulting firm, Park Strategies. His daughter, Erin King Sweeney, is a lawyer and serves on the Hempstead Town Council.
But King’s love of politics isn’t indiscriminate. He seems to favor open, intelligent debate over politically gimmickry. He was one of the few Republicans to vote against Clinton’s impeachment, and has a longstanding dislike of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the charge. King abhors Cruz, and describes his Senate floor filibuster, which included the reading of a Dr. Seuss book, as “the marks of a carnival barker, not the leader of the free world.” Yet King refuses to hold town halls in his district, saying he thinks they would turn disruptive. “I’d just be enabling aberrant behavior,” he says.
Much of our interview is taken up by King talking about the political process. He relishes in considering an issue from every side, explaining how he understands why constituents with pre-existing medical conditions fear losing health care if Obamacare is repealed, even though, “that’s not going to happen in New York,” because of the state’s Democratic control. As King tells it, his repeal vote was measured, and not a cause for celebration.
So how does such a congressman come to love Trump, the reality TV star and political neophyte who led chants of “lock her up”?
Part of it may be his reverence for the office of the president. Photos of King with the past four presidents – Clinton, Bush, Obama, and now Trump – adorn his office walls. He proudly displays photos of his two grandchildren with former first lady Michelle Obama.
King, who once dreamed of holding the office himself, admits it’s flattering to be noticed by the president. “Maybe I’m kidding myself – I think it’s somewhat genuine with him,” King says of winning Trump’s attention.
“Now listen, bottom line is, he’s not going to fall on a sword for me, I don’t mean that, but I think we have, uh, a pretty good relationship,” King says. “I hope I wouldn’t fall for the ego.”
King’s few criticisms of Trump seem to stem from this respect for the office, and a frustration with Trump’s political inexperience, rather than of the man himself or his politics. He argues that Trump should have gotten an early legislative win on an infrastructure bill, instead of getting bogged down by health care. His proposed budget cuts to areas of homeland security, such as the Transportation Security Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, were the result of a singular focus on the bottom line. And he needs to learn not to respond when somebody says something bad about him on television.
“Ignore that shit,” King says. Will that change with time? “No,” he says. “At this stage, we have to learn to work around it.”
There’s the possibility that King’s growing respect for Trump was a political calculation. “If you had asked me last April, I’d say, Trump is going to lose by 10. At least,” King says of his district. Instead, Trump won by nine percentage points. New York’s Second Congressional District was one of only 21 districts in the country where Obama won in 2012 and Trump won in 2016. Obama beat Mitt Romney in King’s district with 52 percent in 2012, but Trump appealed to voters there in a special way, winning the district with 53 percent.
King’s district is right in the middle of Long Island, stretching along the South Shore from Levittown and Jones Beach in the west to Long Island’s MacArthur Airport in the east. It’s almost entirely in Suffolk County, but its far western reaches include the corner of Nassau County where King is most often found – his home, in Seaford, and his office, in Massapequa Park. The district changed quite a bit in the 2012 redistricting, going from a heavily white, affluent Nassau County district to the current borders, which encompass more diversity in race and income. Twenty-two percent of the residents are Latino, many from Central America, and almost 10 percent are black. It has a roughly even split of registered Democratic and Republican voters and The Cook Political Report ranks it as having just a slight Republican lean.
While King had low expectations for Trump in his district after the primary, there were signs of a huge turnaround by summer. King’s internal polling had Trump winning the district by 10 or 11 points. King was shocked, and doubted the accuracy of the polling, but the numbers continued to hold steady.
There were signs all along. King recounted going to a Little League game soon after Trump announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015: “When everyone, including me, was saying, ‘God, he’s saying all these crazy things,’ and being there with parents and grandparents – normal people, not political people, not Archie Bunkers – and they’re saying, ‘Gosh, this guy Trump, he’s the only guy that says what I think.’”
Nationally, many voters have turned on Trump since the election – after a peak 47.8 percent approval rating in January, FiveThirtyEight’s weighted polling average had him at 39.3 percent approval in July. But King’s support seems to be holding steady. Kremer thinks the congressman may just be looking after his South Shore constituents.
“Most members tend to reflect what the political geography is in his district,” Kremer says. “Clearly if Trump ended up doing well, in a sense, he feels it safe, but nobody knows if that formula is going to hold through to next year.”
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center of Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, agreed there’s likely some calculation involved.
“He will do what he believes is the right thing for his district and the right thing for his party and the right thing for himself,” Levy says. “And right now, it’s a balancing act.”
I’m in a conference room at King’s district office while our photographer snaps photos for this story. She got enough standard shots, so I make the ask: “Congressman, would you wear this Make America Great Again hat?” “No,” he says. Is it a step too far for the congressman from the district with so many Democrats? Is the hat, which has been burned at rallies and derided as “a symbol of hate,” too controversial? “No, I mean nothing,” King continues. “I’m just not a hat guy. I’ll hold it, not wear it.”
Holding the hat while the camera flashes, King jokes that his future opponents will use the pictures to campaign against him. Then he considers the numbers. “There are people who will never ever vote for me because I support Trump. And there’s people who would not vote for me if I don’t support him 95 percent of the way,” he says. But he doesn’t think it’ll affect him too much. “I’ve never seen any intensity, for and against.”
Then, as always, King brought it home. “I do think (Trump’s) style – he gets more of a benefit of the doubt in New York. Because people understand that.”