PRIMGHAR, Iowa -- U.S. Rep. Steve King held his first public meeting Saturday since becoming the center of a political firestorm over his comments about white supremacy and being stripped of his U.S. House committee assignments.
A few dozen people, mostly King supporters, showed up for a one-hour session at the Primghar Community Building, along with perhaps a dozen or more members of media organizations.
King in recent years has not held public town halls to hear from constituents, but changed course earlier this month, saying he would hold one in each of the 39 counties in Iowa's 4th District in 2019. Most of the attendees were displeased with the national discourse surrounding King.
"I've known Steve for 30 years," said Kelly O'Brien of Sanborn, chair of the O'Brien County Republican Party.
"(The New York Times) took something way out of context. That is not Steve King. I've known too many times he's helped people from other ethnic backgrounds. He doesn't have a racist bone in his body."
The questions were screened and selected before the event began.
Doug Alexander of Arnolds Park said he wanted to ask King about comments the congressman made about immigrants, in particular King's 2017 tweet that America "can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."
"What is it that makes you think that my three sons, being mixed culture, are part of the demise of Western Civilization?" Alexander said.
Alexander said his sons are of half-Chinese descent, and he plans to attend as many of King's town halls as possible to try and ask his question. He said his sons are accomplished academically, musically and athletically, but he doubts they would want to live in the district as adults.
"Why would they want to settle in Iowa? Why would they want to look for opportunities with a representative that thinks they aren't white enough?" he said.
King, for his part, briefly addressed the backlash to his New York Times comments, calling that situation "the elephant in the room."
"It is stunning and astonishing to me that four words in a New York Times quote can outweigh 20-some years of public service, 20-some years of giving you my word every day, and not one soul has stood up and said that I've ever lied to you or misrepresented anything or given it to you with any spin that's anything other than what I believe to be the objective truth," King said.
The call from the New York Times reporter, King said, came at a time when he was not prepared to give an interview: "Well, I talk to people."
He said he didn't tape the conversation and suggested the reporter didn't either. King said the reporter fed him the terms "white supremacy" and "white nationalism" in his questions, and he responded in kind.
Still, King defended his thoughts on Western Civilization.
"They are denigrating Western Civilization today, and if they can break down Western Civilization and turn it into the scourge of history, then our freedom is gone," he said.
King read a quote from George Orwell's "1984," a novel about life in a totalitarian regime that controls most aspects of peoples' lives. He said the book encapsulates his thoughts on society's views of free speech at the moment.
"We've arrived at this place, it might be after 1984, we've maybe gone beyond where George Orwell imagined, but we have the left that's policing our language," King said.
Those who were called on to ask questions were largely supportive of King and his brand of conservatism. Few of the questions had anything to do with the New York Times article, though some did want to know how King's loss of committee assignments would impact his ability to represent the district.
King has experienced a month of controversy, after a Jan. 10 New York Times article, in which was quoted as saying, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?"
In the following days, the House Republican leadership stripped King of his committee positions for the next two years. Additionally, the House approved a resolution designed to rebuke King for the comments. The resolution called for the chamber to reject white nationalism and white supremacy as “hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of the United States.”
While King lamented the loss of his committee assignments, he said he's glad the Farm Bill passed Congress in December. And with Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, he said any bill he might have introduced would've died anyway.
"The reality is, today and for the foreseen future, I won't be seated on Small Business, Agriculture or Judiciary," he said. "If it were going to come at any time, this is about as good a time as it could given that we finally got a Farm Bill done, and it's in the can, and so there'll be dust collecting on the seats in the Ag Committee generally speaking, throughout the next probably three years or so."
The committee King is most concerned about, he said, is the Judiciary Committee, where he has sat for 16 years. He suspects the committee will use its power to investigate the Trump administration or attempt impeachment, and he won't have the power to fight it.
"That's where they will miss me, and I regret that," he said.
O'Brien, the leader of the O'Brien County Republicans, said he was not impressed with how King was treated by his fellow Republican leaders, many of whom distanced themselves from the congressman after the comments became public.
"They don't want to get involved in it, they kind of throw him under the bus," O'Brien said. "I don't respect them for that, from our governor on down. She's the same way, she didn't back him up at all!"
King was also asked about work permits for immigrant farm laborers, the border wall, Iowa's "heartbeat" abortion law and the slow population growth in some Northwest Iowa communities.
He continues to support of the border wall, negotiations over which caused the 35-day government shutdown that ended Friday.
"The president essentially is saying to Congress, 'You've got one more shot at this,' maybe even one more shot after that I would guess, given that he didn't stick with this one the way I thought he had said he would," King said. "I think in the end, the president's not going to give up, he's going to build a wall... He's closer to declaring a state of emergency. I've said to him, 'You have the legal authority to do that, and I will support your efforts to do that.' I'm out of patience with this argument."
In a question, Lori Scroggin of Hartley expressed thoughts similar to King's regarding illegal immigration and said she is very much behind the congressman. She said illegal border crossings are an issue of "disrespect for our country" and of national security.
"We support you, and we love your conservatism, and we pray that they never silence you -- we need you," Scroggin said of King.
After she finished, King responded, "Thanks for that sentiment. I hope the rest of the country hears what you said today."