From Inside Role, Zeldin Rises To Fore Of GOP Defense Of President

U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin with President Donald Trump in 2018. DANA SHAW

As the U.S. House of Representatives has been embroiled in the debate over whether to impeach President Donald Trump, the East End’s congressman, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, has emerged as one of the Republican Party’s leading voices trying to derail the inquiry and defend Mr. Trump from accusations of abuse of power.

Mr. Zeldin has been a regular guest on televised political talk shows, particularly those on the Fox News network, where he has leveled withering criticisms at his Democratic counterparts. He has been spotlighted in numerous news articles about the impeachment as among the most aggressive defenders of the president, with his focus mostly on the depositions of witnesses in the inquiry being kept secret, until this weekend.

With the inquiry now headed toward a more public phase — and with his name coming up as a possible Republican addition to the House Oversight and Reform Committee — Mr. Zeldin has said that he does not think the accusations against Mr. Trump, even if true, rise to the level of warranting impeachment by the House of Representatives.
Last week, he voted against the measure to launch a formal and more public investigation of the president’s actions.

“The Democrats don’t care what the articles of impeachment say, they don’t care what the evidence supports — they just want the president removed from office,” Mr. Zeldin said. “This has always just been about removing the president. They have been calling for the president’s removal from office since he was sworn in.”

As the senior Republican on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Mr. Zeldin has throughout been one of the handful of Republicans in the room for the closed-door depositions of current and former federal officials who were privy to the events surrounding the now famous July phone call by Mr. Trump to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In a recent interview, Mr. Zeldin reiterated his censure of the Democratic effort to explore whether Mr. Trump sought to use hundreds of millions in aid to Ukraine as leverage for getting officials from that country to launch an investigation focused on the son of one of the top candidates to challenge Mr. Trump in next year’s election, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Lee Zeldin

“I have a lot of thoughts on both the process and the substance,” Mr. Zeldin said. “If there is to be an official impeachment inquiry, as [U.S. Representative Adam Schiff] calls it, then they should be granting the same rights to the president and Republicans that they would demand if it were the other way around. [Congressman Schiff] has said this is analogous to a grand jury proceeding — but he’s made himself the prosecutor, judge and grand jury.”

The congressman said that the Democratic effort is lost somewhere between its constitutional oversight role and what he sees as the grounds for impeachment of a president.

While he acknowledged that the initial stages of the impeachment proceedings against former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton more or less paralleled how House Democrats have proceeded thus far, both were preceded by months- or years-long investigations into the president’s conduct before the House took up its impeachment inquiry.

“The Ken Starr investigation was not a rush job,” he said. “I just see this as lacking transparency, accountability and fairness.”

A number of political observers have noted that Mr. Zeldin’s front-and-center defense of Mr. Trump is most remarkable in that he is the only one of the Republicans who have stood so outwardly in Mr. Trump’s corner who is not from a reliably Republican congressional district.
Having been held by Democrats for 11 out of the 15 terms prior to Mr. Zeldin’s election, the 1st Congressional District is seen as a “swing” district, with the possibility of being won by either the Republican or Democratic candidates in nearly every election.

But Mr. Zeldin rode the wave of Trump support in the western reaches of the district to a broad victory in 2016 and says he is confident that, come the 2020 election, eastern Suffolk County’s voters will once again be firmly on the side of the president and his allies in Congress.

In 2016, Mr. Zeldin defeated his Democratic challenger, Anna Throne-Holst, by more than 53,000 votes and 16 percentage points. In 2018, his margin of victory over Perry Gershon, who is running for the 2020 Democratic nomination again, was just over 4 percentage points and 11,000 votes, with a third-party candidate, Mr. Gershon’s Democratic primary challenger Kate Browning, taking another 2,000 votes.

“The 2020 election will be more like 2016 than 2018,” Mr. Zeldin said, adding that he’s unconcerned that his defense of the president would cost him at local polls next fall. “In 2018, the president’s name was on the ballot for Democrats — but not for Republicans.”