The walls at the Capitol have closed in on Rep. Steve King (R-IA) over his latest racist remarks, but a growing number of Democrats are wondering why any walls are still standing around King at all, let alone the president who they see as the race-baiter-in-chief.
On Tuesday, the House overwhelmingly voted to reject white supremacy and white nationalism after King publicly questioned how those terms ever became offensive. That vote came a day after Republican leaders in the House stripped him of his committee assignments (where lawmakers do the serious work of legislating for their constituents’ interests while on Capitol Hill).
The move appeared to have rendered King, normally one of the most talkative lawmakers on the Hill when he wants to be, temporarily speechless; he emerged from his office Tuesday only to refuse to answer any questions from a crowd of film crews gathered outside.
That momentary flash of remorse gave way. Within hours he was back to trying to sell his folksy brand, and in the process being the old defiant Steve King that has now become a thorn in the side for the GOP.
So while mere days ago he openly questioned why white supremacy is considered a bad thing, on the House floor he turned, gave a speech denouncing racism and voted with his colleagues to condemn the very thing he’d been accused of exhibiting days earlier.
That’s why what the House has currently done doesn't go nearly far enough for many who have watched King make a name for himself by garnering headlines for other outlandish comments or even for retweeting neo-Nazis (and then refusing to delete those after being told of their hate-filled affiliations) over his career, especially now that the GOP has steadily moved from the right to the alt-right in the past few years.
“Steve King has gotten worse under Trump,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) told The Daily Beast. “Trump kind of sets the tone, sets the atmosphere that maybe King feels, as I do think a lot of white supremacists, feel very emboldened now.”
Like every Democrat, Bass applauds Republican leaders for taking the unusual step of stripping King from his coveted committee assignments and for endorsing the resolution aimed at King that decried white racism. But she’s wondering why he’s still being welcomed into the Republican Party at all.
“I think this was fine, but it’s not enough and what I think needs to happen now is they need to take care of their own member,” Bass said. “I really think the onus should be on them.”
While King, who after nine terms has gained a lot of seniority, won’t have committee assignments this term, that doesn’t mean he isn’t still embraced by many in the GOP.
When one of King’s closest buds on the Hill, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), walked past his office—and the large yellow ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag hanging outside that the tea party made its de facto symbol—The Daily Beast asked him if King was being mischaracterized for his racist comments.
“Yes, I do,” Gohmert responded. “I’ve seen him all over the world. I’ve never seen him do anything that indicated he was a white supremacist.”
Gohmert was more soft-spoken, even somber, and so was another Republican, Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who is known for holding such outlandish positions that even his six siblings infamously endorsed his opponent in the midterms.
“I think it was a sad state of affairs—that’s what it represents,” Gosar told The Daily Beast before he likened King’s committee removal to how he feels his own family members abandoned him in November. “This is coming from a guy who had six siblings doing that against him; I think it’s just a sad state of affairs.”
While Gosar refused to expound, other Republicans embraced the drastic moves their party leaders made to punish King this week.
“It’s a sad situation and I’m sorry for it, but I think our leader made the right call,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told The Daily Beast. “It’s meant to set a standard. I don’t think white nationalism, let alone white supremacy, are values to be espousing.”
When asked if this King episode should make the party rethink how they deal with President Donald Trump and his long list of inflammatory statements, he demurred.
“This is something we have to address as a conference because it was a member of our conference, so I don’t want to get dug into discussing what other people do or don’t do,” Cole continued.
Those sentiments have many in the Democratic Party questioning why the GOP still continues to give Trump a pass.
“Trump is the leader of all of it. If you look at his continuous racist statements—he’s the leader,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) told reporters.
Meeks then ticked off a quick—and un-comprehensive—list of Trump’s race-tinged rhetoric, including when he questioned former-President Barack Obama’s citizenship, claimed the DNA evidence that exonerated the Central Park Five was bunk or his numerous derogatory remarks against Latinos or other nationalities. “So on and on and on—if Trump were in this body, then he should be censured also.”
Meeks and many others are now asking House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to go even further and boot King out of their GOP conference in order to send a signal that reverberates down the street at the White House.
“They should do it,” Meeks said. “They should be the ones to say we can’t tolerate this within our party, that this will eat up at us like a cancer.”
King is now facing a primary challenge from Iowa State Senator Randy Feenstra. Sen. Mitt Romney and his fellow Utah Republican, Rep. Chris Stewart, have called on him to resign.
But the GOP already had its chance to oppose King, when recently retired Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) called for it during his primary in the last election, and nothing came of it.
“I wish my party had taken action during the King race,” Flake emailed The Daily Beast. “We could have supported King's Republican challenger, and failing that, should have supported his Democratic challenger. I was certainly pulling for his Democratic opponent, just as I supported Doug Jones over Roy Moore.”
For now, King and Trump seem to both fit perfectly within today’s Republican Party. While the president claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” at the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville and while he’s called out two female African American House members by name, he hasn’t made any public mention of King.
“We have not heard one word from the largest bully pulpit, not only in the United States, but in the world,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) told The Daily Beast. “It baffles me that the president has not been able to hear about the circumstances.”
So while now there’s a debate simmering in the Democratic Party over whether to go further and actually censure King, for others this is a moment to sound the alarm over what they see as the president’s own dog whistles to the alt-right. Only this time around, critics say those silent whistles are still being heard loud and clear by their intended audience.
“I think what is most disturbing is that there’s been no pronouncement from the White House,” Jackson Lee continued. “I think there is a deafening silence that is not reflecting well on the stature of this country.”