Liz Cheney vows to fight on, but her ouster signals Trump's hold on the party
In the end, the vote to remove Representative Liz Cheney from her leadership position Wednesday morning was swift and relatively unceremonious, taking about as long as it would to order a morning cup of coffee, around 15 minutes. But it's far from certain that Republicans will be able to dispense with Cheney entirely as they look toward 2022, set on winning back control in Washington.
Cheney has repeatedly made it clear that while she lost the battle, she is not surrendering the larger fight and will seek public ways to push her message. To that end, she welcomed the chance to talk with reporters right after the vote to remove her.
"We cannot both embrace the 'big lie' and embrace the Constitution. And going forward, the nation needs it," she said. "I am committed and dedicated to ensuring that that's how this party goes forward. And I plan to lead the fight to do that."
And in a sign of how she may now have a broader platform outside of leadership, she sat for an interview with NBC News later on Tuesday to reiterate that she sees herself as "one of the leaders in a fight to help to restore our party."
"This is the opening salvo in that battle, and it is a battle we have to win because it's not just about the Republican party. It's about the country," Cheney said.
But whether there is a meaningful constituency within the party for such an approach remains an open question. Cheney's ouster further signals Mr. Trump's hold over the GOP and served as a warning to Republicans about the pitfalls of criticizing him, even though he's been out of office for four months. Mr. Trump continues to send out weekly statements claiming that the election was rigged, and he has been cheering on the efforts to remove Cheney from leadership.
The Wyoming Republican — who was once seen as a rising party star and passed on a Senate bid in order to ascend the ranks in the House — has spoken out against perpetuating Mr. Trump's falsehoods about the election. Her House colleagues found this to be a distraction. And her likely successor for the leadership role, Representative Elise Stefanik, has seen her own star rise as she has endeared herself to the former president.
Cheney's removal was carried out behind closed doors and by voice vote, intended by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to show unity and to quickly move on. But it also prevented members from having to go on record with their vote for or against Cheney. She spoke briefly at the beginning of the meeting, acknowledging that if the conference wanted a leader who would enable the former president and spread disinformation, she wasn't the woman for the job. Then she led a short prayer, quoting from John 8:32: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."
Cheney and allies see her removal as punishment for such truth telling. "Liz has committed the only sin of being consistent and telling the truth," said Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, who along with Cheney was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump. "The truth is that the election was not stolen. Seventy-four million voters were not disenfranchised, they were just outnumbered and it's important for our party to take inventory of that and go out and win the next election, instead of continuing the 'big lie.'"
A recent CBS News poll shows 70 % of Republicans don't think Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. GOP-led state legislatures across the country are pushing through changes to voting laws in reaction to Trump's loss. The Republican-led state Senate in Arizona is conducting an audit of ballots against the will of local election officials. And Republicans across the country have seen increased energy and unity among the grassroots around an "election integrity" message.
Colorado Republican Representative Ken Buck said Cheney "was canceled today for speaking her mind and disagreeing with the narrative that President Trump has put forth," and suggested there could be consequences for the party in next year's midterms if it drowns out the GOP's policy message.
"There are major issues — the border, spending," Buck said. "But to suggest that the American people in 2022 won't consider the fact that we were unwilling to stand up to a narrative that the election was stolen, I think will be taken into consideration with their vote."
There is a contingent of Republicans who share Cheney's concern about the 2022 consequences of adherence to Mr. Trump, but they're mostly in the Senate.
"I don't think that relitigating the 2020 election is a winning strategy going forward," said John Thune, the second highest ranking Senate Republican. "I think if we're going to win elections in 2022, we have to be talking about the issues the American people care about... I hope that all Republicans can start looking forward, not looking backward."
Republicans who opposed Cheney argued that her removal was necessary to move forward. Cheney, who was charged with House Republicans' messaging in her capacity as conference chair, was increasingly viewed as being out of sync with the rest of House GOP leaders. "It just became too much of a distraction. Our goal right now is to be focused on what's happening in our country," said freshman Congressman Byron Donalds. "We have gas lines all over the place, we have unemployment, we just missed a jobs report by 750,000 jobs in the United States...when you miss like that, but you're focused on what Republicans are going to do with their conference chair? We have a distraction that needs to be resolved."
Donalds is one of several new GOP House members who represent the most diverse class of party freshman yet. Even as Mr. Trump lost the presidency, Republicans gained seats in the House and are within striking distance of winning back the majority next year. McCarthy and others have calculated that keeping Mr. Trump and his supporters in the fold is critical to that effort.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that while Cheney has been a "solid conservative," the congresswoman "has taken a position regarding former President Trump which is out of the mainstream of the Republican Party."
McCarthy, who hopes to become speaker if Republicans win back the House, has developed a reputation for reading and following the political winds that drive his caucus in order to stay in power. He backed Cheney during a previously unsuccessful effort by some House conservatives to remove her from her leadership post in February after she voted to impeach the Mr. Trump.
In a letter to the GOP conference announcing the vote to remove Cheney this week, McCarthy said it was necessary to remove any distractions standing between Republicans and the goal of taking the House next year.
But as Republicans gained House seats with Mr. Trump on the ballot, they lost the U.S. Senate in part because of his false election claims. While campaigning for two Senate seats in Georgia's runoff elections, the former president continued to claim the election was rigged, a message that ultimately suppressed turnout among the base.
House Republicans are set to choose Cheney's replacement on Friday, an expedited timeline. Some conservatives criticized Stefanik as being too far to the left because she voted against some of Mr. Trump's legislative priorities while he was in office, such as the president's $1.9 trillion tax measure.
But she has support from President Trump, McCarthy, and Representative Steve Scalise, the House GOP whip, which make for powerful backers. "I don't think there would be anybody that wants to risk a future chairmanship or a future role in the party to take on Elise Stefanik," said Buck, a Freedom Caucus member who is not supporting her.
Stefanik, the youngest Republican woman ever elected to Congress, came to office on a more moderate platform and in the more traditional mold of the party. But her evolution mirrors that of the party. Her district voted for Barack Obama twice before supporting Trump twice, and has trended in the former president's direction. Stefanik has become a staunch ally of the president, and was one of his most outspoken defenders during the first impeachment trial.
In a letter to colleagues Wednesday, Stefanik said "a unified leadership team is the key foundation as we work to regain the majority."
Rebecca Kaplan, Zak Hudak, Nikole Killion and Jack Turman contributed to this report.
for more features.