WASHINGTON — Just over 20 years ago, Rep. Pete King, a New York Republican, broke from his party and voted against impeaching President Bill Clinton. King, now 75, plans to vote no on another impeachment right before he exits Congress.
On Wednesday morning, King was waiting in his office for the live impeachment hearings to start, tilting his head to look past me at the big-screen TV every now and then. King, who said he’s supporting President Donald Trump’s reelection and voting against impeachment, thinks he’s on the side of the general public.
“I think the average person thinks it was wrong to impeach Bill Clinton,” he said. “And I think that — unless something dramatic comes out or President Trump does something else — they’re going to say this was an overreach by the Democrats.”
Flanked by photos of his daughter standing with former president Richard Nixon and dozens of other framed photos of Democratic and Republican politicians, King partially blamed a climate of peak partisanship for his decision to retire next year.
“That’s a good example of how people started getting crazy then,” King told BuzzFeed News, pointing to a 1997 photo of him and then-president Clinton. “He invited me to a Super Bowl party at the White House. The right wing went crazy. Talk radio was attacking me. I was a traitor. How could I be in the same room as Bill Clinton? I mean, if President Obama invited me to a Kwanzaa party, I’d go. I mean, you just do it, you know?”
The way he tells it, things have gotten worse.
Two days earlier, King announced he wouldn’t run for reelection after serving 28 years in the House of Representatives. Hours later, Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, put out a tribute in honor of the outgoing representative and praised his bipartisanship. The statement was met with backlash from the left, urging the senator to “delete this, Schumer” and quote tweets that said, "SERIOUSLY SCHUMER?"
“It means that we are much more divided than we ever were as a country,” King said. And even though he acknowledges increased partisanship, he’s not blaming Trump.
He added, “I wouldn’t blame it on Trump. I mean, it was there, and many of those people support President Trump now, but they were there before. I think more of the resurgence on the left is due to President Trump.”
King said he’s worked well with Trump and that the two “have a good relationship,” adding, “So, I’m not leaving at all because of President Trump.”
He noted that he told the president he plans to vote no on impeachment “based on everything [he's] seen so far.”
Last year, King faced his most ardent Democrat rival when Liuba Grechen Shirley came within 15,000 votes of defeating the incumbent — his closest general election ever. The election came months after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset former representative Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary, adding to a statewide effort to flip state and congressional seats away from incumbents, especially those belonging to moderate Republicans. And even though he admits there's a growing resistance against Trump, he thinks his New York seat will remain red.
“Who knows which way it’ll go?” he said. “I think with the right candidate, it should go Republican. I think the Democrats reached their high-water mark last year, but we’ll see.”
At the same time, he spoke to the uphill battle his own party faces when it comes to staving off the extinction of what he calls blue-collar conservatives. “It’s going to be a tough fight,” he said, noting that Republicans have to "make room" for his leg of the party.
"You can’t give up the fight; you can’t just sit back and complain," he said. "But it’s going to be tougher because the average voter in a primary really doesn’t want that type of compromise. It’s disappointing in a way.”
While King has crossed the aisle multiple times, most recently to oppose Trump’s 2017 tax bill, his most controversial moment in Congress came when he chaired the Homeland Security Committee and held a series of anti-Muslim hearings that focused on surveillance. Years later, he’s not backing down on his decision to hold the hearings or his controversial claims about Muslims.
“I stand by everything I said and did,” King said. Without prompting, he pivoted to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s social media statement about his retirement. The first-term lawmaker tweeted “Good riddance” and called King an Islamophobe who held “McCarthyite hearings.”
“What I said is that there were too many mosques in America that weren’t cooperating with law enforcement,” King told BuzzFeed News. “I was showing that the threat was there. It was all taken out of context.”
King doesn’t seem surprised by the vitriol that has welcomed his retirement announcement.
“Members of Congress are afraid of losing their primaries because the bases of their parties don’t want compromise," he said. "The general public say that they want to compromise, that they want bipartisanship — but when you do it, you’re called a traitor, you’re called a sellout.”
King stopped to read aloud a letter to the editor he saw in Newsday. “Here’s what one guy says: ‘I believe his retirement is 22 years too late. He was one of the few Republicans who voted against Bill Clinton’s impeachment.’ The guy’s hated me for 22 years,” he added, laughing heartedly.