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Trump backs Stefanik to replace Cheney as GOP conference chair

Rep. Liz Cheney urges GOP to break with Trump
Rep. Liz Cheney urges GOP to break with Trump amid growing effort to oust her from leadership 03:03

Washington — Former President Donald Trump on Wednesday publicly called for the removal of GOP conference chair Liz Cheney, who has repeatedly criticized him for spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election and seeking to downplay the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters. Mr. Trump said that he would back New York Representative Elise Stefanik to replace Cheney.

"Liz Cheney is a warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership. We want leaders who believe in the Make America Great Again movement, and prioritize the values of America First. Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair. Elise is a tough and smart communicator!" the former president said in a statement.

Stefanik, who is 36, is seen as a rising star in the party, in large part because of her vocal support for Mr. Trump and her efforts to recruit Republican women as candidates.

"Thank you President Trump for your 100% support for House GOP Conference Chair. We are unified and focused on FIRING PELOSI & WINNING in 2022!" Stefanik wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

Cheney responded to criticism against her in an op-ed in the Washington Post on Wednesday, saying "history is watching us."

"The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution," Cheney wrote. "The question before us now is whether we will join Trump's crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election, with all the consequences that might have."

Cheney said that Republicans must support a Justice Department investigation of the events of January 6, as well as a bipartisan, independent commission focusing specifically on the attack. She also argued that "we Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality."

"History is watching. Our children are watching. We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be," Cheney said, alluding to the effort to replace her.

Mr. Trump's announcement on Wednesday came after a spokesperson for Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-highest ranking Republican in the House, also supported replacing Cheney with Stefanik.

"House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden's radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair," Lauren Fine, Scalise's communications director, said in a statement to CBS News.

Scalise's statement is the first explicit call from GOP House leadership for Cheney's removal, although Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday that House Republicans were losing confidence in the current conference chair.

House Republican Conference
Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise speak to reporters in the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

"I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message," McCarthy said in an interview with "Fox & Friends" on Tuesday. Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Mr. Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection in January. She fended off an effort by some conservatives to oust her from her leadership position in early February, with support from McCarthy.

Cheney has repeatedly pushed back against Mr. Trump's false claim that the election was stolen. Cheney said Monday that Republicans could not accept the "poison" of this claim or "whitewash" the January 6 attack by Mr. Trump's supporters, CNN reported.

"We can't embrace the notion the election is stolen. It's a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy," Cheney said in remarks at a conference in Georgia. "We can't whitewash what happened on January 6 or perpetuate Trump's big lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on January 6 is a line that cannot be crossed."

Cheney is the highest ranking woman in Republican leadership, so replacing her with Stefanik would seek to sidestep the negative optics of pushing out a woman from her position.

Stefanik emerged as one of Mr. Trump's staunchest supporters during impeachment hearings against him in 2019, leveraging her position on the Intelligence Committee to grill witnesses. This garnered attention from Mr. Trump, who tweeted at the time that "a new Republican Star is born."

Stefanik also backed Mr. Trump's false claims that the election was stolen, and voted against certifying Mr. Biden's Electoral College victory in several states. In a statement defending her votes, she falsely said that 140,000 votes in Fulton County, Georgia, were illegal.

Along with her support for Mr. Trump, Stefanik is known for her efforts to help Republican women enter politics. Stefanik's political action committee supporting Republican women was involved in several races in the last election cycle, supporting 18 freshmen women who won in 2020.

Few Republicans have come out in support of Cheney. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had previously expressed support for Cheney after she fended off the leadership challenge in February, declined to weigh in, telling reporters Wednesday that "100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration."

GOP Senator Mitt Romney tweeted his support for Cheney on Tuesday, saying that she "refuses to lie." GOP Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of the other House Republicans to vote to impeach Mr. Trump, expressed his support for Cheney on Wednesday.

"On January 6th, both @GOPLeader and @RepLizCheney condemned the former guy's words. @RepLizCheney hasn't changed her tune like @GOPLeader quickly did. They are trying to remove Liz for telling you the truth, consistently," Kinzinger tweeted. He later said that he believes "every GOP member of Congress needs to go on the record" for their vote to oust Cheney. She received overwhelming support from the conference in the vote on whether to remove her in February, although that vote was by secret ballot.

McCarthy was critical of Mr. Trump in the immediate aftermath of the attack on January 6, saying on January 13 that the former president bore "responsibility" for the incident and arguing in favor of censuring him. But McCarthy has since changed his tune and sought to tie himself closer to Mr. Trump. Republicans have the chance to retake the House in 2022, with McCarthy in line to become speaker. As Mr. Trump is still very popular among GOP voters, some congressional Republicans have continued to defend the president and his falsehoods about the election to ensure their support.

In her op-ed on Wednesday, Cheney acknowledged the political calculations by McCarthy and other Republicans, saying that "while embracing or ignoring Trump's statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country."

A spokesperson for Cheney responded to McCarthy's comments in the "Fox & Friends" interview, saying that Cheney would not promote falsehoods about the election or downplay the attack on the Capitol.

"This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on January 6. Liz will not do that. That is the issue," spokesperson Jeremy Adler said in a statement to CBS News on Tuesday.

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