Amid a week of the most intense media scrutiny he’s ever faced, the air of inevitability about his re-election Tuesday dissipating in dramatic fashion and for the first time in years, Steve King visited Des Moines Thursday to speak at a candidate forum hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a business coalition group that touts the city’s “diverse, vibrant, and inclusive regional economy.”
The forum drew the Partnership’s otherwise uneventful 2018 series to a close under a cloud of controversy and national media attention thanks to the congressman’s mid-October endorsement of a white genocide conspiracy theorist running for mayor in Toronto named Faith Goldy, ties to Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, and recent trip to the country at the tail-end of a tour of Jewish historical sites in Poland, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, that was funded by From the Depths, an international Holocaust memorial nonprofit.
Between questions on topics like Alzheimer’s awareness and a Des Moines airport expansion project that are par for the course at business community forums with area representatives, King was quizzed repeatedly about his outspoken racist and xenophobic views by members of the public who paid a $15 admission fee to get in the room. In response, he threatened to leave if a constituent who challenged him on the similarity of his rhetoric to that of the gunman who murdered 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in late October was not kicked out, spoke at length about the Freedom Party’s Nazi roots in a strained effort to defend it against allegations of anti-Semitism, and waved around a printed copy of an article about his trip to Austria from the Washington Post that he denounced as completely false while simultaneously corroborating several of its details.
Outside, a protest organized by the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, the direct-action arm of the prominent progressive advocacy group, drew dozens of people. Many of them entered the building early in an effort to get seats in the room where King would speak but were escorted back out by police. Only Partnership members and investors, people who paid admission, and journalists — who were not allowed to ask any questions — could go in.
In the days leading up to the forum, the Action Fund demanded its cancellation. “Steve King’s white supremacist worldview is not new and it is not a secret,” the group wrote in an open letter that referenced the Pittsburgh shooting and was addressed to the Partnership’s leadership, who include executives at Principal Financial Group, MidAmerican Energy, and Hy-Vee. “As Iowans we have become accustomed to writing King off as an embarrassment to our state. But King’s comments are not merely offensive. His worldview is dangerous, and he is trying to make it a reality.”
“There are Jewish people in his district right now threatened by the people emboldened by Steve King,” the letter continued with an implicit reference to the “anti-Semitic rhetoric” that two Jewish leaders in King’s 4th District, one of them from Ames, accused him of after the shooting. “Religious minorities — in Iowa and across the country — are terrified to practice their religion. Steve King is one of the chief architects of this climate.”
Kaleb Van Fosson, an ICCI member and Ames resident who attends Iowa State University in the relatively liberal eastern bookend of King’s district, paid the $15 entry fee to ask King his question about Robert Bowers, who carried out the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue.
“The terrorist who committed this crime, he was quoted as saying, ‘They bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit back and watch our people get slaughtered,’” Van Fosson read from a prepared statement displayed on his phone. “You, Steve King, have been quoted as saying, ‘We can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.’ You and the shooter both share an ideology that is vehemently anti-immigration.”
“No!” King interrupted, thrusting his finger at him in visible irritation. “Do not associate me with that shooter. I knew you were an ambusher when you walked in the room, but there is no basis for that and you get no question and you get no answer.” King likely recognized Van Fosson because the congressman’s son, Jeff, booted him from a public forum in Akron on the day of the shooting.
“I was about to ask you about what distinguishes your ideology—”
“No, you’re done,” King cut in again. “We don’t play these games here in Iowa. You crossed the line. It’s not tolerable to accuse me of being associated with a guy that shot 11 people in Pittsburgh. I am a person who has stood up for Israel from the beginning, and the link to that nation is a link to my life, and I’ve been with them all along and I will not answer your question and I’ll not listen to another word from you.”
Turning to Tim Coonan, an attorney at the Davis Brown Law Firm who moderated the forum and chairs the Partnership’s public policy committee, King said, “This is over if he keeps talking.”
Van Fosson calmly tested him. “It you don’t have a white supremacist worldview, then why did you travel to Austria to meet with a white supremacist organization?”
“This is over if you don’t stop talking,” King repeated as he glared back at the activist. “I’m leaving if—”
Coonan interjected in an effort to prevent the forum from derailing. “I think he’s given his answer. I think that… that his answer is… his answer.”
“But do you identify as a white supremacist?”
Pointing at Van Fosson, his voice cracking mid-sentence, King demanded, “Sir, stop it.”
“Then why did you meet with a white supremacist organization in Austria?”
“You’re done!” King barked, then, gesturing once again, directed “whoever’s guarding this door to lead this man out of the room.” Although Van Fosson had made an accurate statement — both King and the shooter have endorsed versions of the white genocide conspiracy theory, the belief that Jews, Muslims, or other foreigners are destroying Western culture and the white race through immigration — the Partnership complied with the congressman’s demand.
Leftist Media Lies have reached Peak Insanity and compared me to the evil Pittsburgh murderer of 11 Jews! Here is my reaction. https://t.co/ocOlnS0Zbg
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) November 1, 2018
As soon as Van Fosson left the room, Michael Johnson, a local businessman from Boone who also paid to get in, brought up Ohio Congressman Steve Stivers, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee and recently said it would not support King in the final days of his campaign, although it never planned to spend money in the deep-red district anyway. “Congressman Steve King’s recent comments, actions, and retweets are completely inappropriate,” Stivers tweeted on Tuesday. “We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn this behavior.”
“If you are re-elected, how are you going to address your seemingly shrinking range of influence in Washington?” Johnson asked.
“There’s a question that I don’t favor, but it was offered respectfully,” King replied. “Thank you. First, I will say that Stivers’ behavior has befuddled every Republican that I’ve talked to and everyone I know, including our leadership.”
King’s rhetoric has long been a thorn in the side of fellow Republicans, although most have been unwilling to openly confront him. In 2014, then-House Speaker John Boehner called him an “asshole” after his comment about undocumented immigrants with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” He was primaried in 2016 by Rick Bertrand, a conservative state senator from Sioux City, who said King was ineffective and “polarizing” (but also challenged him over his endorsement of Ted Cruz, an opponent of the Renewable Fuel Standard, for president). After King retweeted British neo-Nazi Mark Collett in June for the second time in as many months, a spokesperson for Paul Ryan offered an indirect rebuke, saying the current Speaker “has said many times that Nazis have no place in our politics, and clearly members should not engage with anyone promoting hate.” In recent days, King has been denounced by the conservative Weekly Standard and National Review as well as high-profile Republicans including Karl Rove and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who said he hopes King’s opponent, J.D. Scholten, defeats the congressman. After years of turning a blind eye, six corporate donors supportive of GOP policies have finally dropped King.
King held up the copy of the Washington Post article about his most recent trip to Austria and told the audience, “I can read you what’s on the front of this, and I can tell you it’s all false.” And for the next seven minutes, that’s what he did, annotating it at length with ostensible corrections to its lies that led to what he deemed the “fiasco” that has befallen him.
“Headline: ‘King met with far-right Austrians on trip funded by Holocaust memorial group,’” he started. “That whole headline’s false.”
King said he accepted From the Depths’ invitation to take him “over to see the Holocaust” with his wife, Marilyn, where he was “profoundly moved” as he toured the site of an “industrialized slaughter of a people that I do not understand why anyone would dislike any of them.” The two were accompanied by concentration camp survivor Ed Mosberg, who was born in Krakow in 1926 and now lives in New Jersey.
“From there, I bought my own plane ticket and I flew over to Vienna,” King continued. “I was invited to sit down and talk to some business leaders.” There were about a half-dozen of them around the table, he said, and he only knew the person who invited him. “And the rest of them, they’ve been characterized as being Nazis or Nazi sympathizers or anti-Semites, because it’s alleged they were members of the Freedom Party.” But only one was a party member, King claimed. He did not identify any of them by name, although he said another “self-identified as Jewish” and the rest were “random, successful businesspeople.”
Later, King added that the Austria trip “had to do with business interests that are there and people that wanted to know about the politics of the United States of America.” He portrayed himself as the victim of a vicious smear but at times seemed more focused on his selective interpretation of the article’s headline than attempting to debunk any particular facts within it. “And I won’t tell you who they are,” King said of the mysterious business leaders, “because they don’t deserve to be drug through this, either. But they’re respectable people.”
King made several false implications about the article. The first was that its author, Mike DeBonis, reported that From the Depths specifically financed his airfare to go meet with Austria’s far right. To the contrary, the article corroborates King’s account, quoting the organization’s president, Jonny Daniels, who said, “We didn’t pay for any other travel or anything of the kind.” It also links to a PDF of ethics disclosure forms King filed clearly indicating that the group covered travel expenses including round-trip flights to and from Europe. Flights to Vienna from Poland are far cheaper, sometimes going for under $100. “King paid his way from Poland to Austria and back,” DeBonis tweeted in response to the accusation that his reporting was false. “But he was in a position to do so because a Holocaust memorial nonprofit paid his $2,800 business-class airfare from Omaha to Europe.”
“He had been not only an officer in the SS, to be fair, but also he was the minister of agriculture for Austria.”
DeBonis did write that King met with Freedom Party members but never claimed they were the people at the business meeting as the congressman suggested. Regardless, the article’s focus was an interview King gave in Austria to a website associated with the party called Unzensuriert (which translates to “uncensored”). He did not mention this activity Thursday, likely for good reason: It went unnoticed in the US until the Huffington Post discovered it on Oct. 19, describing it as a conversation “in which he spelled out, in clearer and more shocking terms than he ever has before, his white nationalist worldview.”
It was in this interview that the congressman embraced a version of the white genocide conspiracy theory known as the Great Replacement, which served as the basis for Van Fosson’s question. This theory warns that mass migration from Muslim-majority countries will lead to the extinction of the culture and identity of white Europeans. King described this as a “slow-motion cultural suicide” that he blamed in part on George Soros, the Jewish Hungarian-American and billionaire progressive philanthropist who has become a frequent target of far-right attacks in the US and across Western Europe with anti-Semitic overtones. The Great Replacement is a theory commonly mentioned on the far-right, anti-migrant websites King is known to read and promote on Twitter. They include Defend Europa, a site that devotes an entire category to the theory and is associated with the Adolf Hitler-praising white supremacist Jason Bergkamp, a writer based in the Netherlands who gained notoriety stateside when Donald Trump retweeted him during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Proceeding with his fact-check at the forum series where candidates previously fielded predictable questions about their campaigns and local business affairs with scant media attention in the non-presidential election year, King offered a history lesson on the Nazi roots of the Freedom Party, Partnership members looking on as if nothing was amiss.
“At the end of the Second World War in Austria, if you were involved in government, you had Nazi ties,” King said. “It was kind of like being in the Ba’ath Party in Iraq in the time we went in there. So, the person that started the Freedom Party in 1956, he had been not only an officer in the SS, to be fair, but also he was the minister of agriculture for Austria.”
He was talking about Anton Reinthaller, who became a Nazi in 1928 and rose to the top of the party’s apparatus in Austria as a relative moderate. He was skeptical of the use of political violence, initially opposed the Anschluss — Nazi Germany’s plan to annex Austria — and was pressured out of his leadership position as a result. Afterward, he continued to speak out against annexation as well as anti-Semitism, but on the grounds that it damaged the party’s reputation with the international community.
Those disagreements, however, were not a deal-breaker for Reinthaller, who regained a powerful role in the party when the Anschluss was carried out in 1938, becoming a member of the Reichstag legislative chamber and, as King noted, serving as the country’s agriculture minister. Reinthaller also joined the SS, the paramilitary organization that Hitler transformed into a secret police force. The SS ran the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp King visited on his trip and was responsible for most of the genocide in the Holocaust. “Although there’s no clear evidence that Reinthaller was directly involved in the shooting, gassing, and torture of millions of Jews, Roma, communists, gay people, and others,” the Huffington Post reported in 2016, “he served in the government that carried it out and did nothing to stop it.”
“They took him out of there in about two years and replaced him with another individual that had some ties that weren’t very pretty either,” King went on, referring to Friedrich Peter, another former SS officer who sought to distance the Freedom Party from its extremist factions. “They began purging out of that party, and by 1967, everybody that had any Nazi history, except for a little youthful affiliation with one of them, had been purged from the party.” This was partly accurate. That year, hardliners split away to form the National Democratic Party, which was ultimately banned by the government in 1988 for violating a 1947 law prohibiting Nazism.
But King’s next statement about the Freedom Party was more of a stretch: “They have lined themselves up to be against anti-Semites there,” he claimed, adding, “There’s no party that’s stronger, pushing back against anti-Semites in Austria, than the Freedom Party that’s there.” The latter is true in much the same way that one could argue King does not hold white supremacist views because he has denied the accusations — which is to say, not at all.
Over the decades, the party has made several efforts to moderate its public image but also drifted back toward overtly embracing its far-right roots repeatedly. Allegations of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism have dogged it throughout.
In November 2016, with the real possibility that its presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, would be elected as “the first far-right head of state in Western Europe since the demise of Nazi Germany,” according to the Washington Post, the Freedom Party hosted the “New Anti-Semitism Conference” in Vienna. Attempting to find common cause with Israel over their shared aversion to Muslim migration, event attendees insisted the party was among the strongest supporters of the country in Europe.
“I have identified them and counted them as friends and allies well before they were winning elections.”
Hofer lost the election to center-left economics professor Alexander Van der Bellen, but the Freedom Party made major gains in parliament, enough to join Austria’s new coalition government. This didn’t sit well with Israel, whose leaders remain wary of the party’s historical reputation as being a refuge for anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. In 2000, the only other time that the party entered into a coalition government, Israel sparked a diplomatic crisis when it reacted by withdrawing its ambassador from Vienna. The Freedom Party’s standing was hindered by then-Chairman Jörg Haider, who made some efforts to moderate the party yet had a long history of making comments perceived as anti-Semitic and sympathetic to the Nazis. He once spoke of Hitler’s “orderly employment policies,” called former members of the SS “decent people,” referred to concentration camps as “punishment camps,” and was condemned by Austrian-born actor Arnold Schwarzenegger for his “anti-immigrant statements.”
When the Freedom Party returned to power in 2017, Israel effectively boycotted it by refusing to communicate with Austria Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, a party affiliate, or anyone else connected to the party outside of civil service branches. Leaders of Austria’s Jewish community have also boycotted the party. Heinz-Christian Strache, the country’s vice-chancellor and party’s current chairman who was a neo-Nazi in his youth, has sought to ease tensions by vowing to be “an essential partner in Europe´s fight against anti-Semitism.”
But so far, there are few signs that’s anything more than lip service. In 2016, another publication affiliated with the Freedom Party called Aula dismissed prisoners held at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where the Nazis slaughtered thousands of Jews, as criminals. Last year, party members refused to join their parliamentary colleagues in standing to commemorate the victims of Kristallnacht.
And in the first four months of 2018 alone, Freedom Party members were responsible for a series of so-called “Nazi scandals” that included lawmakers expelled for sharing photos and quotes supportive of Hitler on WhatsApp, a candidate who exited a state race after news came out that his student fraternity had published a songbook with lyrics about gassing Jews, an attaché in Israel forced back to Austria after posting a Facebook photo of himself in a shirt with a Nazi reference, and the country’s interior minister — a party member — criticized for suggesting the implementation of a program to “concentrate asylum seekers in one place.” In July, the Mauthausen Committee, an anti-fascist human rights group named for the concentration camp, released a report alleging 38 incidents of “extreme-right activity” within the Freedom Party in its first nine months in power. That same month, the party proposed a law that would require Jews and Muslims to register with the government in order to purchase kosher and halal meats, a suggestion that swiftly drew comparisons to Jews forced by Nazis to wear yellow Star of David badges.
Despite King’s indignant contention earlier at the forum that he had stood with Israel “all along,” he has also enjoyed close ties with Freedom Party leaders for several years, ignoring the overwhelming evidence that the party hasn’t come anywhere close to purging its Nazi past. “I have identified them and counted them as friends and allies well before they were winning elections,” he told DeBonis for the article he was presently trashing. “But that’s a good thing to build those relationships before they come to power.” King took four official trips to Austria from December 2013 to February 2017, according to congressional records, more than any other country during that time. He also met with members of the Freedom Party in the US shortly before the 2016 election and again for Trump’s inauguration the following January.
In early October 2016, King gave a speech in Vienna and met with Hofer, the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate, whose campaign he endorsed. Citing translated comments from the Austria Press Agency, the Associated Press reported that King said after meeting Hofer “that Western civilization has to be defended and that Hofer speaks moderately but very clearly on this issue.” However, Hofer has Nazi problems of his own. In 2011, he was tasked with rewriting the party’s manifesto and ramped up its nationalistic rhetoric. He reintroduced one particularly dark term, Volksgemeinschaft, that Hitler once used as a propaganda device to describe his utopian vision of a racially unified German society. (King himself has tweeted links to anti-immigration articles published by the New Observer, a website that has promoted Holocaust denialism.)
In Des Moines Thursday, King concluded his rebuttal in defense of the Freedom Party by saying, “That’s the greatest answer that could ever be delivered on this. I didn’t come here planning on giving it, but it needs to be said on what happened.”
Under the mistaken impression that a previous question came from a reporter, I raised my hand hoping to ask a follow-up about the congressman’s promotion of like-minded figures like Lana Lokteff, a white nationalist who hosts an anti-Semitic YouTube news channel, and Collett, the self-described “Nazi sympathizer” from Britain who wrote a book about the decline of Western culture that was praised by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. But I was stopped by Joe Murphy, the Partnership’s senior vice president of government relations and public policy, who walked over to quietly inform me that questions were open only to members and paid guests but that the press would have a chance to speak with King at the conclusion of the forum.
Instead, flanked by staffers after delivering closing remarks, King darted out the door and down a back hallway of the building. I started to follow him to ask a question but another Partnership employee would not allow it, suggesting the congressman was probably late for another event. He left the forum half an hour before it was scheduled to end.
Sam Hoyle, the Partnership’s media relations manager, told me after the forum that he would be emailing reporters who attended it a statement addressing the criticism the organization received for allowing King to speak. In a nutshell, he told me, it would say that the Partnership always invites all candidates to its forum series regardless of ideology or political affiliation. (The Ames Chamber of Commerce has taken a similar position to justify inviting King to legislative meet-and-greets despite its recent adoption of an inclusivity statement at direct odds with the congressman’s views.)
“It felt like it was Steve King kind of just calling the shots.”
The email never arrived, but on Facebook, the Partnership posted the statement Hoyle was likely referring to, which stressed the importance of civility and that the organization was nonpartisan but said nothing about the controversy surrounding King’s forum attendance.
“Election Day is Nov. 6, and it’s important we keep civility top of mind. The Greater Des Moines Partnership is part of a coalition of organizations that make up the Show Some Respect campaign,” the statement said, promoting a wishy-washy effort it’s collaborated on with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and Drake University’s Robert D. and Billie Ray Center, named for the former moderate Republican governor and his wife.
“The Partnership is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical organization that does not have a PAC or endorse candidates. Each election cycle we host the Candidate Forum Series that provides a civil and open forum for our Investors and Members and others interested to hear from the candidates in advance of the elections. In 2018, The Partnership invited all Democratic and Republican party candidates for federal office and the governor’s race to participate in the series.
“We encourage Iowans to be civil in their discussions on issues and in support of their candidates. We hope that others, including candidates, will follow our lead.”
Later that day, I spoke with Van Fosson by phone shortly before he appeared on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes to discuss his encounter with King. “I think it indicates that he does not actually care about representing his constituents,” he said of the congressman’s angry reaction, which began to go viral online before the forum even ended. “I think it indicates that he feels entitled to his position in Congress, and that he’s pretty detached from the needs and wants of his constituents here in the 4th District. And that, like everyone’s been saying for a long time, he really does hold those odious, bigoted beliefs. Because if he didn’t, he would have provided a rational response to the question, but instead he just lashed out.”
The Partnership should never have given King a platform, Van Fosson argued, reiterating the ICCI Action Fund’s position. The forum, he said, seemed “kind of closed-off” with the required $15 admission, which the organization did not refund Thursday after kicking him out. (Murphy, the senior VP who told me I’d have a chance to question King after the forum, tried to reassure another protester outside before the event that the Partnership was, in her words, “allowing people through this forum to ask King questions and hold him accountable.”)
“When I got in there, it felt like it was Steve King kind of just calling the shots,” Van Fosson said. “It felt like the people organizing it were all on his side. It didn’t feel like a nonpartisan event.”
During his closing remarks, King exploited the Partnership’s hollow appeals to civility. Expressing his relief that Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama were no longer in charge, he claimed the high road, saying, “You never heard me say a thing, a personal criticism — policy criticism of Barack Obama, yes, but not personal.” In 2008, King warned that al-Qaeda “would be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11” if Obama was elected president. At a tele-town hall meeting four years later, he argued that birth notices in two Hawaii newspapers didn’t prove the president was born in the US because his parents “might’ve announced that by telegram from Kenya.” He’s also tweeted a racist cartoon depicting Obama in a turban.
Later, King pushed back against his long-held reputation as one of Congress’ least-effective members by explaining how he inherited the chairmanship of the Conservative Opportunity Society, whose stated aim “is to be the full-spectrum, Constitutional, conservative conscience of the House,” from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “My leverage in there is quiet, and once the attorney general said that he’d never seen anybody get so much done and get so little credit,” King said, touting his success in drawing keynote speakers including Sean Hannity, the conspiratorial Fox News host who has a direct line to President Trump.
In Austria, the Freedom Party was emboldened by Trump’s election. “Bit by bit, the political left and the out-of-touch and corrupt establishment is being punished by voters and driven from the seats of power,” its chairman, Strache, cheered. “That’s a good thing, because the law comes from the people.”
Likewise, since Trump came to power, King has been increasingly vocal and explicit about his views, which commonly borrow directly from white nationalist and supremacist rhetoric. “There are two ideologies competing in this election,” the congressman said. “You all know what mine is, I don’t have to remind you of that.” Once relegated to the fringes, King met with Trump in early October for a private Oval Office meeting that lasted for more than an hour. “Trump Has Remade the World in Steve King’s Image,” a recent headline from the Daily Beast blared.
“I’ve worked a lifetime to be in this position,” King said.
He ended by encouraging his audience to “reflect Iowa values in the ballot box” Tuesday. “And if you’ve got issues that you want me to push on, you know the framework of my convictions,” he added. “They haven’t changed. They haven’t changed in 22 years of my public life. They’re not going to change, and I still have a lot of energy and a lot of conviction.
“I’ve got a whole bag of things that are poised to move through and get to the president’s desk for his signature. And we can hold it together because we have a Supreme Court that believes in the Constitution.”
The audience applauded. Coonan, the forum’s moderator, shook King’s hand and thanked him for his civility before the congressman quickly departed.
Featured image: MSNBC Screenshot via YouTube
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Kaleb Van Fosson.