The Slatest

The Moderately Indefensible Career of Rep. Peter King

Rep. Peter King testifies during a House hearing.
Rep. Peter King testifies on Capitol Hill on June 11.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

New York Rep. Peter King, one of the most prominent members of the House Republican retirement-watch set, made it official today: After 28 years in Congress, he would not be running for reelection.

King, 75, announced his decision in a Monday morning Facebook post, alluding to typical be-closer-to-family reasons. His southern Long Island district, though, had crept toward battleground status, giving him the narrowest reelection margin of his career in 2018. He had also reached his career peak as a congressman, as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, years ago, before term limits ended that assignment. All he has left to accomplish in his congressional career, as he wrote in his Facebook post, is “to vote against President Trump’s impeachment.”

The news of King’s announcement was met, in some quarters, with musings about one of the last remaining “moderates” within the House GOP hanging it up. That was the interpretation that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who has served in the Capitol with King for the entirety of King’s career, ran with this morning in a tweet of effusive praise.

It is correct to note that King’s voting record is moderate relative to those of his colleagues. He supports gun control measures, including a ban on assault weapons, and was a vocal opponent of Republicans’ 2017 tax cut bill, which was built to bring tax hikes to districts like his own. He was often at odds with the ideological crusaders who dominated House Republican majorities over the decades. He said in the 1990s that then-Speaker Newt Gingrich was turning the GOP into “hillbillies at revival meetings,” and he voted against President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. He held a special contempt for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, going back to the Cruz-led 2013 government shutdown. “I hate Ted Cruz, and I think I’ll take cyanide if he ever got the nomination,” King said during the 2016 presidential primaries. The King that Schumer remembers fondly is the one who shared Schumer’s belief that small-government Republican hard-liners made it difficult for government to accomplish its central purpose, securing federal money for New York commuter transit projects.

Admiration for these aspects of King’s relative moderation within the GOP conference, however, is inversely correlated with one’s likelihood to be subject to civil liberties violations. While King may not have shared some of his party’s fanatical opposition to things like refundable tax credits, he went above and beyond many of them in his harassment of minority communities.

When King took back the gavel to the Homeland Security Committee in 2011, one of his first priorities was to hold hearings on “radicalization” within American Muslim communities. Trust in King’s ability to hold such a hearing with anything resembling neutrality was limited, given that this was the same congressman who had claimed in 2007 that there were “too many mosques in this country, too many people that are sympathetic to radical Islam” and had also said that 85 percent of American mosques were controlled by “extremist leadership.” After Trump’s election, King recommended to the president-elect that he establish a federal Muslim surveillance program similar to the shameful, disbanded one run by the New York Police Department following 9/11. (King was unyieldingly defensive of any and every thing that any police officer had ever done, and he once compared NFL players kneeling in protest of police abuse to giving Nazi salutes.)

King’s maximalist approach to terrorism done by Muslims showed none of the nuance he applied in the 1980s to the Troubles. Before he was Longtime GOP Rep. Peter King, he was Long Island Irish Guy Peter King. In that capacity he was a vocal defender of the Irish Republican Army, serving up such spicy moral-relativist takes as: “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.” This history resurfaced in 2011 as King was prepping his Muslim radicalization hearings, and King defended himself by noting that the IRA’s acts of terrorism were over there.

I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel,” he said. “The fact is, the I.R.A. never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

This side of King’s record is why many Americans, even those who share his loathing of Ted Cruz and lax firearms regulations, will be pleased to see this figure who “stood head & shoulders above everyone else” return to the south shore of Long Island without a congressional voting card. To the Baileys of Massapequa, the fictional family to whom Chuck Schumer dedicates his politics, he might have been a common-sense solutions guy. It was what the Baileys were willing to overlook that made him such a fright to others.