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Trump's defender: How a little-known GOP lawmaker became a point man on impeachment

In the transcripts made public, no Republican has spoken more than Rep. Lee Zeldin, who appears more than 550 times.
Image: Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York speaks during a press conference on the impeachment process at the Capitol.
Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York speaks during a press conference on the impeachment process at the Capitol on Oct. 31, 2019.Mandel Ngan N / AFP - Getty Images

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., has called the impeachment probe into President Donald Trump a "charade," a "clown show," and a "cocktail that is" House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff's "favorite drink to get America drunk on."

Naturally, there's an occupant in the Oval Office who's taken notice of his strong words. And, in turn, a once little-known, 39-year-old lawmaker representing eastern Long Island has become one of the president's point men in battling impeachment, teaming up with fellow anti-impeachment crusaders such as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

"For me, it's just about getting facts out there and getting the rest of the story out there. Adam Schiff isn't going to do that for my constituents," Zeldin told NBC News in an interview when asked about the risk of going all in on Trump's defense. "And I have a lot of constituents who oppose this impeachment inquiry. Most of the calls my office receives are from people who are opposed to this impeachment inquiry. This isn't an issue, obviously, that's going to unite a country."

"As a matter of fact, an impeachment inquiry like this rips the country in half," he continued. "So I'm not expecting unanimous calls to come into my office in opposition to the impeachment inquiry. We hear from people who oppose the president. And quite frankly, many of those people have opposed the president since the day he was elected and sworn into office."

Donald Trump and Lee Zeldin
President Donald Trump is greeted on the tarmac by Zeldin and Maria Moore, Mayor of Westhampton Beach, N.Y., at Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton in 2018.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

In the seven impeachment deposition transcripts released so far, no Republican has spoken more than Zeldin, who is referenced more than 550 times, according to an NBC News tally. His attempts to steer the depositions away from Trump's conduct and toward a host of tangential matters— including the Biden family, a conspiracy theory about the 2016 election, and even the witnesses' own credibility — have driven counsel for multiple witnesses to their wit's end.

"With all respect, congressman, we've now been here for eight and a half hours and Ambassador Sondland has not declined to answer a single question posed by any member or any counsel member," Robert Luskin, the attorney for the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, told Zeldin last month after the Long Island lawmaker asked over and over about the merits of asking Ukraine to probe the Bidens' ties to a Ukrainian gas company. "You've asked this question now three different times. I know you're unhappy with his answer, but if we stay until 7:30, he's not going to change his answer."

Zeldin was indefatigable. He pressed Sondland again on why it would have been okay for Trump to want Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, tearing into the ambassador over his earlier answers.

"[M]ore questions I don't think are going to assist you any further," Luskin said. "I think you've asked it about as many times as you can."

In return for Zeldin's pertinacity, Trump has shown appreciation by tweeting or retweeting the New York lawmaker's commentary on the investigation nearly two dozen times since the inquiry was launched in late September, including nine times in the early morning hours Saturday. Previously, the president had promoted Zeldin on Twitter only once to endorse his 2018 re-election bid.

Image: Zeldin's district spans from working-class central Long Island to the wealthy enclaves like Ponquogue Beach in the Hamptons.
Zeldin's district spans from working-class central Long Island to wealthy enclaves like Ponquogue Beach in the Hamptons.John Taggart / for NBC News

Unlike his counterparts Jordan and Meadows, Zeldin doesn't reside in an uber-safe Republican district. While Trump won New York's 1st congressional district by 12 points in 2016, Zeldin won re-election in 2018 by just 4 percentage points, and 2020 could feature another hotly contested race.

Zeldin's loyalty to Trump, as well as his attacks on the impeachment process, has been met with much chagrin from Democrats. One House Democratic aide said Zeldin was "maybe the best instance I’ve seen of someone using emulating Trump as a pathway to relevance."

But Zeldin, who served in the military, wasn't a Trump acolyte from the get-go. The congressman only endorsed Trump after the former reality TV star cleared the 2016 Republican field and even in the years that followed, he was not averse to criticizing the president and those close to him.

"I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed, but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no," Zeldin tweeted in July 2017 after president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., acknowledged his role in arranging a 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer in the hopes of landing dirt on then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Asked if he similarly saw anything wrong with the president's conduct toward Ukraine, Zeldin declined to answer, telling NBC News instead that, "I, too, am concerned with corruption in Ukraine."

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., who represents the Long Island district next door to Zeldin's, said he hasn't been all that surprised that Zeldin, who sits on one of the three committees able to take part in the impeachment probe, has become one of Trump's staunchest impeachment defenders.

"Well, I know that he feels strongly about it," King said of Zeldin's thoughts on the investigation. "I know that he and the president get along. I think this could be just the first time he's really had an opportunity because he's on one of the committees. Once you're in it, it's hard to go halfway."

Meanwhile, since Zeldin's earlier criticism of Trump Jr.'s emails, the two men have become "close," as a source close to both Trump Jr. and Zeldin told NBC News. Trump Jr. headlined a fundraiser for Zeldin last year and is slated to headline another event for the Long Island congressman later this month.

"I know Don appreciates the fact that Lee is a fighter," this person said, adding that what makes Zeldin "so fascinating is he's the rare guy ... who works closely with both the Freedom Caucus" and moderate Republicans.

In Zeldin's district, which spans from working-class central Long Island to the wealthy enclave of the Hamptons, voters expressed mixed thoughts on his newfound prominence.

Rob Mauro, a 64-year-old construction manager and self-identified Republican, said that Zeldin is doing "as best he can" on a "nonsense" impeachment probe. But Mauro said he was at least a little surprised to see Zeldin featured so prominently.

Image: Rob Mauro, a construction manager, at Eckart's Luncheonette in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., on Nov. 6, 2019.
Rob Mauro, a construction manager and Republican, at Eckart's Luncheonette in Westhampton Beach. John Taggart / for NBC News

"I don't think a lot of people would stick their neck out at this point because it could go either way," he said. "Obviously, it's trying times."

It wasn't as surprising to Heather and Colin Bester. Heather, 51, said she felt Zeldin has "done a good job" while Colin, 57, said the congressman has "been leading up to" his starring role "for a while."

Peter Ames, a massage therapist, felt differently.

"Well, I don't like that he's a big Trump supporter because I hate Trump, so that alone is enough to be unhappy with about him," he said, adding however that he respected Zeldin's efforts aimed at helping veterans.

Image: "Most of the calls my office receives are from people who are opposed to this impeachment inquiry," Zeldin said, who's district re-elected him by only 4-points in 2018.
"Most of the calls my office receives are from people who are opposed to this impeachment inquiry," Zeldin said, who's district re-elected him by only 4-points in 2018.John Taggart / for NBC News

King acknowledged there was some political risk in Zeldin — whom he called a "serious player in Washington" — going big on the president's defense.

"Yeah, there is always risks," he said. "But generally you are not going to achieve a lot unless you are willing to take risks."

But Zeldin's time in the impeachment spotlight could soon be coming to an end. Public hearings, which are slated to start this week, will be heard in front of solely the House Intelligence Committee. That sparked Republican leadership to swap a staunch Trump ally in Jordan onto the panel. Zeldin remains on the outside.

He'd "be happy to" join, though he said it's "a decision to be made above my pay grade."

"I'd be able to contribute to the process of the American public getting the entire story and not just the parts of it," he said.