Deluded rioters sweeping toward the Capitol on Jan. 6 carried "Stop the Steal" banners and claimed a corrupt election, refusing to accept President-elect Joe Biden’s win.
Belief in this alternate reality had many fathers and factors, but it was stoked by the outrageous undermining of election integrity by President Donald Trump and prominent Republicans, including Lee Zeldin, one of Long Island’s five members of the House of Representatives.
At a moment in history when many Americans refuse to even agree on the facts, it is crucial that our elected officials actually lead and speak hard truths and avoid inflaming conspiracies.
In that, Zeldin failed.
The outspoken, media-savvy Republican who previously served four years in the State Senate was the only member of Long Island’s congressional delegation to object to the certification of Electoral College votes. In a swing district that represents the Twin Forks and most of the Town of Brookhaven, he outperformed Trump in 2020. He has tried to deflect from his election rhetoric by serving up whataboutism, saying Democrats have objected to the count in past presidential elections. But in those cases their numbers were few and the losing presidential candidates had long since conceded. That was not the case in this election, when an incumbent president was trying aggressively to overturn the outcome.
But that shameful vote, hours after the lives of his colleagues were endangered by a riot in the Capitol, was only the culmination of a period of duplicity. Between Nov. 3 and Jan. 6, Zeldin repeatedly elevated misleading statements and inflammatory election material to a hungry national audience.
In an appearance on America First with Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump adviser with extremist leanings, Zeldin raised questions about election integrity by focusing on isolated cases.
"You can’t tell me with a straight face that there aren’t dead people who get absentee ballots and then vote," Zeldin said in one November appearance.
This continued after former Attorney General William Barr, who suffered heavy criticism for being a Trump toady, said in December that even he didn’t believe fraud swayed the election. Top U.S. election infrastructure officials called the election "the most secure in American history." Dozens of lawsuits mounted by the president’s lawyers vaguely alleging fraud were quickly thrown out of court. Republican officials, who control the voting process in Georgia, repeatedly rebuffed Trump’s fraud claims and intimidation. Small irregularities occur in every election, but there was no case to be made that any of them changed the result in 2020.
Yet Zeldin continued to raise challenges with the excuse that any electoral concerns merit discussion.
"The system isn’t tamper proof. It’s not error proof," he said in a Dec. 1 appearance on Fox Business. It was a point he repeatedly emphasized on Twitter, elevating the importance of small irregularities for their own sake.
That included a misleading Pennsylvania claim about fixing technical ballot errors. Zeldin repeatedly complained that the fixes occurred in Democratic strongholds vs. Republican ones. A factcheck from the Annenberg Public Policy Center says the practice didn’t in fact fall entirely on partisan lines.
"Some insist everything President Trump & his supporters claim about the 2020 election is ‘evidence free,’ " Zeldin tweeted on Jan. 2. "That lie may be easy to rattle off, but it’s still a massive, destructive lie that will haunt them on Jan 6th & far into the future."
Instead it is Zeldin who should be haunted by the lies and rhetoric that led to the insurrection in which members of law enforcement working to protect Zeldin’s colleagues were beaten and one killed.
After the riot, Zeldin put out a statement praying for a peaceful transition and saying Biden "will be sworn in as the next President of the United States." It was too little, too late.
The nation is still at a crossroads. Too many still wrongly believe that the 2020 election was rigged. That’s dangerous. Zeldin can still use his sizable platform — bolstered in part through allegiance to Trump — to unambiguously tell those people that the election was not stolen. He must explain that any small irregularities had no chance of changing the outcome. It’s time to disavow the conspiracy theories.
His actions are doubly disappointing for Long Island, because his extreme positions will marginalize him and that will only hurt his constituents. Zeldin is rightly proud of his military service and his continued role as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve but he failed to meet this historic moment and truly lead.
— The editorial board