Representative Lee Zeldin, who for the last four years has demonstrated near-absolute fealty to President Trump, abruptly shifted his tone with a late-night statement on Thursday in which he acknowledged that President-elect Joseph Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be inaugurated on Jan. 20.
His statement came one day after an insurrection encouraged by the president and his associates, including his eldest son and Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal attorney, to overturn the certification of electoral votes that was underway in the Capitol.
“We have big challenges at the moment, real disagreement over important issues, and a precarious future as a republic,” Mr. Zeldin said.
“Right now, I am not going to dwell on any doubt, but to recommit to working towards a vigorous defense of lady liberty at all costs, and the pursuit of unity whenever possible. . . . For this moment, let's take one collective deep breath, recharge and renew our spirit for whatever lies ahead. We are all Americans."
It was an about-face for the congressman, who in the weeks since Mr. Biden’s victory insisted that the election was illegitimate because state officials illegally changed election rules to enable voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, Mr. Zeldin supported a Supreme Court challenge to the certified election results from four states won by Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris.
A group called Progressive East End Reformers has urged people to sign a petition calling on the Suffolk County Legislature to condemn Mr. Zeldin and the Setauket Patriots, a group that apparently participated in Wednesday’s insurrection, advertising on Facebook “4 Buses of Patriots Going to Washington DC on 1/6 to be a part of History.”
Mr. Zeldin, according to an email from the progressive group, is “is a radical extremist, a traitor, a disgrace.” It called on him to resign.
Wednesday’s insurrection left five people dead including a Capitol Police officer. It abruptly halted the joint session of the House and Senate, during which the certification of the electoral count is usually a formality. As the nearly all-white mob ransacked the building, looting and destroying property, lawmakers were rushed into hiding.
When the count resumed about nine hours later, several Republican senators abandoned their previous pledges to support challenges to vote certifications. This ended their House colleagues’ hopes of overturning the election result. The mood shifted dramatically, with some House Republicans expressing a sudden spirit of bipartisanship.
No so Mr. Zeldin. The congressman, who often touts his rank of 12th most bipartisan member of the House as bestowed by the Lugar Center and McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, resumed his effort to overturn Americans’ votes. “This debate is necessary, because rogue election officials circumvented state election laws,” he said in objecting to the certification of Arizona’s electoral votes for Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris. “They made massive changes to how their state's election would be run. These acts, among other issues, were unlawful and unconstitutional.”
His efforts drew a harsh rebuke from former Representative Tim Bishop, whom Mr. Zeldin defeated in 2014. “What happened was an armed insurrection fomented by the president of the United States,” Mr. Bishop said on Thursday, “and the anger that was demonstrated by those rioters was anger rooted in a lie, the lie being that the president’s re-election had been stolen from him, that he had won in a landslide, we just need to ‘stop the steal,’ and Mike Pence just needs to reject the electors and voila, we’d have four more years. That’s the lie, and the lie has been repeated over and over and over and over again since the seventh of November,”
“And by objecting to the electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania, any member of Congress, House or Senate, that objected to accepting those electors was perpetuating the lie. They were giving credence to the lie. So even after all of the destruction, even after the death, even after seeing what happens when angry people are encouraged to act out by the President of the United States -- again, based on a lie -- members of Congress including Lee Zeldin validated that posture on the part of the president. They said to them, in the case of these two states, the election was in fact stolen. That, to me, is an outrage. If there was any evidence -- any evidence -- we would have seen it by now. . . . The reason we haven’t seen it is because it simply doesn’t exist.”
Nancy Goroff, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Zeldin in the November election, said that she was “really disturbed by the fundamental dishonesty” of Mr. Zeldin’s speech objecting to the Arizona vote. “He is very careful to say things which in some very literal ways, very narrowly defined, may be true, but are so distorted with cases that are completely misleading, but the overall effect is completely dishonest.”
Mr. Zeldin “owns responsibility for this, like the president does, because they have purposely misled people,” Ms. Goroff said of the insurrection. “Their argument, Zeldin and his Republican colleagues, for why they needed to file these objections was because there are voters who don’t trust the results. The reason they don’t is because they’ve been misled by Zeldin, by Trump, and by the others. The correct way to deal with the fact that they don’t trust the results is to tell them the truth, not to pretend that there’s validity to these specious arguments. . . . The results are as trustworthy as any election we’ve had, but the people have been misled by Zeldin and his colleagues, and they own responsibility for this, including what happened on Wednesday. . . . This district deserves much better.”
“To the extent that Trumpism has a coherent policy basis, and I’m not entirely sure it does,” it is populism, said Mr. Bishop. “What is populism? At its core it’s an aversion to elitism, a rejection of elitism. So tell me, what could possibly be more elitist than a collection of people in Washington telling all of the people of Arizona and Pennsylvania that ‘We know better than you. Yes, you cast votes, but they were cast erroneously. We know who really won the state. We know how the election should have gone.’ That’s explicitly what is being said when you reject the electors.” Well over 100 representatives and a handful of senators “did that yesterday,” he said. “Lee Zeldin was one of those members, and I find that to be thoroughly, thoroughly disturbing.”
“One of the criticisms was that they extended the deadline for registration to vote in Arizona,” Ms. Goroff said. “How that’s counter to democracy, I’m not sure. . . . I find it really disturbing that we have a Congressional representative who, even after the horror of the day, of having a mob overrun the Capitol, would be eager to be so dishonest in defense of an indefensible president.”
“I don’t know what he stands for,” she said of Mr. Zeldin, “because he certainly doesn’t stand for law and order, for democracy. He stands for the opportunity to get up and make a speech on the House floor, and he’s willing to be dishonest to do it.”
Perry Gershon, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Zeldin in 2018, said on Thursday,“I’ve been saying for a long time there’s only one place Trump should be at the end of all this: behind bars,”
“If we don’t do that, there’s going to be no controlling this. You have to stop it because he won’t shut up, and he has the ability to incite people, as he demonstrated yesterday.”
“My thoughts about Zeldin and any of the challengers to the fair and free 2020 election,” said Cate Rogers, chairwoman of the East Hampton Democratic Committee, “is one of the worst things about their act is that they know better. They know they’re lying -- they’re lawyers.” Mr. Zeldin “knows how diligent and nonpartisan boards of election are because he’s experienced it firsthand” as a candidate, she said. “Above the folks being tricked into believing this garbage, I find Mr. Zeldin on a higher level of culpability. He is well aware it’s a lie.”
Ms. Rogers said her mood turned from “being absolutely thrilled with the voter turnout and the result in Georgia," where two Democratic candidates unseated two incumbent Republican senators in Tuesday’s runoff elections, “and just joy for our democratic process, to revulsion, watching the insurrection and mob rule. My heart breaks for the policeman who lost his life. I don’t know how you can claim to be pro-police,” she said of Mr. Zeldin, “and then back this.”
Mr. Zeldin and his colleagues must choose a side, Ms. Rogers said, “to uphold the Constitution and our democracy, or turn us into an autocracy.” Mr. Trump’s allies, including Mr. Zeldin and Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, “educated men who know better, are carrying these lies that dupe the people who are believing it. It amplifies their belief. They’re worse than Trump. And he’s despicable.”
Manny Vilar, chairman of the East Hampton Town Republican Committee, defended the challenge to the election results. In a statement on Wednesday, he said that “After four years of investigation and vicious persecution of fabricated disproven allegations of President Trump the American people deserve and should have a thorough investigation of the many reported irregularities and possible criminal activities in several states."
"We cannot allow several bad actors in today's protest that may or may not have been part of the protest detract from the need to thoroughly investigate systemic voter fraud,” he said. “Never in our lifetimes did we ever imagine we would be seeing what is playing out in our nation’s Capital today."