WASHINGTON — Rep. Lee Zeldin’s role serving on President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team has put him on the front line of the fight for Trump’s acquittal, drawing him closer into the president’s orbit after weeks spent championing Trump on national TV and Twitter.
The position has also exposed Zeldin (R-Shirley) to criticism from the Democrats back home looking to unseat him in November’s general election. They contend that the time he has devoted to Trump’s defense should have been spent working on district issues.
Zeldin, a three-term incumbent representing New York’s 1st Congressional District, argues that his role as one of Trump’s most public defenders is on behalf of his constituents. The district, covering Suffolk County’s East End, voted for Trump in 2016 by a 12-point margin.
“It’s a very slippery slope that we're going down right now,” Zeldin told Newsday, speaking steps away from Vice President Mike Pence’s office in the U.S. Capitol, where he and other House Republicans named to Trump’s team have been following the trial.
Zeldin contends that Trump’s impeachment last month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress will lead to future “political, partisan impeachments.”
As one of eight House Republicans tapped by Trump earlier this month to serve on his impeachment team, Zeldin and the others have primarily served as Trump’s defenders before the Capitol press corps. The team — which includes Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and Rep. Elise Stefanik of upstate New York — hold multiple briefings a day with reporters camped out in the Capitol building’s basement.
One of those briefings featuring Zeldin went viral on social media Tuesday after he sparred with an NBC News congressional reporter who pressed him on what specific allegations of corruption Trump was concerned about when ordering the temporary suspension of $391 million in military aid to Ukraine.
Zeldin, known for giving lengthy responses, criticized the reporter for trying to cut him off, and later chided the reporters on hand, accusing the media of serving as Lead House Impeachment Manager Adam Schiff’s “shills.”
Zeldin, who attended all the closed-door impeachment inquiry depositions, has since won praise from Trump. At a White House Hanukkah event, Trump described Zeldin as a warrior, and the president frequently retweets Zeldin’s missives to his 71-million Twitter followers.
In the past week, Zeldin attended back to back events at the White House. He was among other Republican lawmakers and Israeli dignitaries on hand in the East Room when Trump unveiled his Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan on Tuesday, and shared the stage with Trump and other GOP allies on Wednesday as the president signed the USMCA trade agreement in the Rose Garden.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has taken notice of Zeldin’s support for Trump. The political arm of the House Democratic caucus issued a statement dubbing Zeldin “Absentee Lee,” for not spending time in the district during Trump’s Senate trial.
“Suffolk County voters will remember his choice to do cable hits defending Trump from DC over showing up for Long Island families and they will reject him come November,” said DCCC spokeswoman Christine Bennett.
Three Suffolk County Democrats who have declared their intent to run against Zeldin have also taken aim at his position on Team Trump.
Perry Gershon, an East Hampton businessman who lost to Zeldin by four percentage points in 2018, tweeted recently: “Instead of fighting for families on Long Island, [Zeldin] seems to think he is there to obscure the facts and protect the president.”
Nancy Goroff, a professor at Stony Brook University, said in a campaign email: “We need members of Congress who will make decisions based on facts and reality, not political expediency of a corrupt president.”
Bridget Fleming, a former Southampton Town council member turned Suffolk County legislator, in a tweet said Zeldin was “too busy scrambling to keep up with what’s best for Trump — the only constituent he cares about.”
Zeldin dismissed criticisms about his work on behalf of the district. He said he was in frequent contact with the Department of Energy, advocating for Brookhaven National Laboratory to be selected for a 10-year, $2 billion project to build an electron-ion collider. The Upton facility was chosen for the project earlier this month after an aggressive push by state and Long Island lawmakers.
Asked if he could work in bipartisan fashion after months spent clashing with Democrats over Trump’s impeachment, Zeldin pointed to a recent bipartisan trip he took with lawmakers to visit troops deployed to the Middle East as one example of his willingness to work across the aisle.
Zeldin added: “Being willing to speak up on an issue that's controversial, that's being debated, is my job … You don't want people who are just going to stay silent and only speak up on issues that 100 percent of the crowds are going to agree with.”