“I’m not sure what he’s been up to,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the minority whip and man in charge of knowing what other Republicans are up to.
“I don’t see him as much as I did before. That’s one of the things I miss,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), a friend of King’s who is best known for the rambling speeches (“Terror babies!” “Bestiality!” “Barack Hussein Obama!”) he gives from the otherwise-empty House floor.
In January, House Republicans decided that King — a longtime promoter of white supremacy — had finally gone too far. “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” he asked in a cringe-filled interview with the New York Times. Those words brought punishment and King was stripped of his committee assignments; making him a congressman minus responsibility.
“From my point of view, he used to be contributing negatively — but at least he was contributing,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, one of King’s former committee assignments.
Today, King has less goodwill and more free time than ever. One thing he’s doing today is avoiding discussing what he’s doing.
“I’m done talking,” King said, waiting for an elevator outside his Capitol Hill office, after this reporter stuck a recorder in his face. King tapped his foot impatiently and scratched at his comb-over. He looked up with his glacial blue eyes to watch the floor numbers change, the air gently whistling through his nose hairs.
A silent Steve King was once a rare thing. He’s known to speak his mind, and to do so with just about anyone who will listen. The gabbing used to be a big part of his schedule, but now he’s operating under what he called “new rules.”
“Let’s just end this so you don’t have to go through any more frustration,” he said. “And I can pay attention to what I’m doing.”
Which, again, is what, exactly?
To spend the better part of a week figuring out what Steve King does all day is to be confronted with a bigger, existential question: What do any of these people do all day?
For the most part, the successful members of Congress wake up early for some fundraising over breakfast, commute to work (while fundraising), meet with some lobbyists and constituents in their office, yuk it up with colleagues during votes on bills that rarely become laws, then it’s off to happy hour for some quick fundraising before finally settling down with some of their closest donors for dinner, dessert and fundraising. (Or, as King was spotted doing on a cold evening this past winter, visiting a Capitol Hill liquor store in a suit and sandals and talking about how the Irish make the best booze.)
Oh, yes, and for almost all members of Congress, some time needs to be set aside for crafting legislation and preparing for (and attending) committee hearings. Almost all members, that is, other than King and two compatriots, Rep. Chris Collins of New York and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter of California, both of whom are under federal indictment and were booted from their committees.
“It sucks,” said Collins, who noted that he plans to fill his time with caucus meetings — caucuses that include: the Toy Caucus, the Propane Caucus, the Battery Storage Caucus, and, for some reason, the Morocco Caucus.
Last week the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties held a hearing on presidential pardon power. It was a heady conversation about a topical issue. (“The possibility of the pardon power being used for corrupt purposes is no longer a mere academic exercise,” one witness testified.) King used to chair this subcommittee.
But now that he’s barred from participating, he had other meetings to attend.
Meetings like this one:
“His grandmother is my aunt,” said Ray Harm after exiting King’s office. Harm was in from California to see the cherry blossoms and had decided that he would call the office of his distant relative and see whether the congressman might have some time to catch up. He did.
“We were trying to remember all of my aunts and uncles and my brother and where they fit in,” Harm said. They spoke for more than half an hour.
King met with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, even though he no longer sits on the Agriculture Committee. He met with a woman representing Easterseals, a nonprofit organization that provides services to disabled Americans, and later representatives from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, where they talked about efforts to save the bald eagle. He was “warm and welcoming” to the Save the Children Action Network, telling them he would look over and be supportive of early-childhood education but couldn’t offer specifically what he could do for them.
Those who sat with him described him as chatty and in high spirits — though one attendee of a meeting said this before King launched into a “tirade” about how silly it is that his critics are “perpetually offended” by everything he says.
Those critics, however, have been bipartisan. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, said King should “find another line of work”; Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-most-powerful Republican in the House, called King’s comments “absolutely abhorrent”; and just last week Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, had this to say: “I have no idea what Steve King does all day. I just know that every now and then he makes a very racist statement.”
Over the years, King has had plenty of time for such statements. There was the time he compared immigrants to "bird dogs," or warned about the ones with "calves the size of cantaloupes" who bring marijuana "across the desert." Even after being stripped of his committees, King hasn't fully put the lid on it: tweeting out a meme about how Southern states, with all their stockpiled bullets, would win if there were to be a second Civil War or disparaging Hurricane Katrina victims as overly government-dependent at a recent town hall.
In the meantime, King has drawn competitive Republican primary opponents back home. His fundraising — never the most pressing concern in his ruby-red district — has been down every cycle since 2012. He faced his closest reelection campaign of his career last year, and because of that has made himself much more visible at home: hosting more town halls than ever, sitting in on more constituent meetings than he used to. But in Washington, many Republicans don’t seem all that concerned about his prospects.
“Congressman Steve King’s recent comments, actions, and retweets are completely inappropriate,” Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, then the eader of the National Republican Congressional Committee, wrote shortly after King’s interview with the Times. “We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn this behavior.”
So, Steve King has been shunned. But, really, it’s a light shunning.
He’s still allowed to attend the weekly Republican conference meeting, which he does, though quietly.
“There are a few people who are always at the microphones, and he isn’t one of them,” said Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla). “Not that that’s a bad thing.”
He hasn’t been disinvited from the semiregular Iowa delegation breakfast that Sen. Joni Ernst organizes (though he did skip the last one), and he’s the host of his own breakfast series, the Conservative Opportunity Society breakfast, featuring guest speakers such as former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka. And at a recent vote series, while King stood in the back of the chamber, texting and muttering quietly to himself, he was approached by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), and the two laughed and laughed about who knows what.
“Oh, Steve’s doing good,” Yoho said, coming off the House floor. “He’s resilient. I think he’ll get put back on committees.”
Yoho, a large-animal veterinarian by training, once said he would not be intimidated by Congress because: “Intimidating is going up to a growling Rottweiler and having to squeeze his anal glands. . . . I think I can handle Congress.”
But now, he’s frustrated by the place, and the King situation hasn’t helped. It’s “hypocrisy” at its finest, he said, that King would be punished for his comments by Republicans when, say, Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, has been able to maintain her committee assignments despite comments perceived as anti-Semitic.
“It’s like raising kids,” he said. “You can’t treat them separately for doing something bad.”
It was the end of the day, back in the waiting room of King's congressional office. A shelf near the ceiling overflowed with eagle busts, hard hats and elephant statues.
“It’s bearable, we’re getting through it,” said Garrett Elmy, King’s staff assistant. In the other room, King meets with his communications director, John Kennedy, explaining how he had eschewed the media for another day.
“I told him, John Kennedy is my gatekeeper,” King said, his voice sounding particularly nasal from behind a closed door. “That’s all I said.”
He seemed content on avoiding the media and seeing whether he could wait out the outrage. In a post-shame society, it has seemed to work for plenty of other politicians (see: Northam, Ralph and Trump, President). King’s days may be numbered in Congress, but who knows how big that number is?
Moments later King emerged into the hallway to scurry to the last votes of the evening. He stepped into an elevator designated “members only” and disappeared into the bowels of Congress. Where, apparently, he still belongs.
Mike DeBonis and Travis Andrews contributed to this report.