This story has been updated.
When conservative magazine the Weekly Standard announced Friday that it was shutting down, writers from across the political spectrum bemoaned the loss. But two Republicans who recently found themselves in the Standard’s crosshairs weren’t waxing poetic about its demise.
After President Trump slammed the Standard as “pathetic and dishonest,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) jumped in on Sunday, writing on Twitter that Trump was “right” and that “if the articles targeting me were redacted until only truth remained, there would not be much left to read,” an apparent reference to a recent Weekly Standard report that the congressman had compared immigrants to “dirt.”
King had claimed the quotes in that piece were misconstrued, but the magazine later produced audio of the exchange.
“The problem with this tweet is that you are a foul, disgusting liar and a stain on American public life,” John Podhoretz, a Weekly Standard contributing editor and one of the magazine’s co-founders, wrote in response to King’s tweet. “The stench of your deceit and your views pollutes your district, your state, your party, and the United States.”
The vituperative battle was the latest proof of the echoing divide between “never-Trump” Republicans, whose mantle the Weekly Standard had come to represent, and Trump loyalists like King, who loudly celebrated the magazine’s closure — and the implicit consolidation of conservative power under the president.
Founded in 1995 by Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, and Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard became the de facto voice of the neoconservative movement under President George W. Bush as its writers lustily cheered on the Iraq War. But as Kristol emerged as one of the loudest conservative voices against Trump, the magazine he edited until 2016 likewise became a harsh critic of the populist president and his allies.
That’s what brought Adam Rubenstein, the Weekly Standard’s assistant opinion editor, to northwestern Iowa this fall to follow King before he was narrowly reelected to Congress. His piece, headlined “King of the Low Road,” recounted the congressman’s many recent controversies, like meeting with an Austrian party with historical ties to the Nazis and disparaging Hispanic immigrants as drug smugglers.
The story’s most headline-grabbing claim, though, was that King had “obliquely referred” to Mexican migrants as “dirt.” King and his staff furiously attacked the story, with the Iowa Republican tweeting that the magazine was “at the bottom of the lying journalistic gutter.”
But the Weekly Standard released audio of King’s exchange with supporters at a restaurant, which began with King joking about wanting some “dirt from Mexico” to make his homegrown peppers spicier and a supporter responding, “Trust me, it’s already on its way” — seemingly a reference to the migrant caravan moving across Mexico.
King played along, the audio showed, responding, “Well, yeah, there’s plenty of dirt. It’s coming from the West Coast, too. And a lot of other places, besides. This is the most dirt we’ve ever seen.”
After the audio was released, King’s staff continued to insist he’d been misquoted. His chief of staff told The Washington Post at the time that he believed the supporter was referring to “leftist media” as dirt, not immigrants.
Now, King’s tweet on Sunday reignited the controversy, even if it wasn’t totally clear which Weekly Standard stories he was referencing. Asked about the tweet, John Kennedy, a spokesman from King’s office, said in an emailed statement that King’s "comments regarding the failure of the Weekly Standard need no clarification as conservatives in the marketplace (their supposed target audience, after all) have already had an opportunity to weigh in on the now defunct Never Trump magazine’s credibility, and the marketplace’s conservatives joined the Congressman in bidding ‘Ahoy!’ and ‘Bon Voyage’ to the Standard’s entire crew.”
To Rubenstein, though, King’s intent was clear. And the writer quickly defended his work:
The Standard’s closure left 35 people on the editorial staff without a job. Clarity Media Group, which also owns the Washington Examiner, blamed falling circulation and called the move a “business decision.”
Writers on both sides of the political divide lamented the Weekly Standard’s loss, with many noting the magazine’s full-throated critiques of Trump just before its demise, even if insiders like Podhoretz insisted that ideological stance wasn’t behind declining fortunes at the magazine.
“I devoutly hope a new Standard will arise to lead the Republican Party out of the moral and political oblivion to which the president is consigning it,” wrote Washington Post columnist Max Boot, who was also a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard.
“The magazine has been critical of Trump, and so this is another example of the gradual hegemony of Trumpism over the conservative world,” wrote conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, who nonetheless laid most of the blame for the magazine’s closure on “the commercial forces trying to dumb down the American media.”
Added Franklin Foer, an Atlantic staff writer, the magazine was shuttered “at the very moment it was enjoying newfound relevance as the house organ of the Never Trump wing of the Republican Party.”
That “newfound relevance” is why it surprised few when Trump jumped on Twitter to gleefully celebrate the Weekly Standard’s demise.
After first telling Trump to “get a grip,” Rubenstein offered a wider response to the president and his allies, like King, who are dancing on the Standard’s grave.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the part of Iowa that King represents.