Cheney’s Choice Will Sting No Matter What the GOP Does

Around the world, both friends and foes will watch this week as the daughter of a former two-term vice president is likely ejected from her leadership role in the Republican Party for calling out former President Trump’s corrosive lie about last year’s election. Enemies and allies overseas, Republican and Democratic congressmen and senators at home all know 50 states certified his loss, 60 courts rejected his claims of fraud, and Donald Trump’s own FBI and DHS found no widespread fraud existed that would alter the outcome. But Rep. Liz Cheney will be punished for trying to stop his continued attack on democracy as he repeats the Big Lie.

Cheney not only survived a previous no-confidence vote against her in February for voting to impeach Trump weeks before, but won a resounding 145-61 secret ballot vote. Yet when she faces a second vote to vacate her position as House GOP Conference chair this Wednesday, Rep. Elise Stefanik — chosen by leadership — is expected to prevail.

Cheney isn’t the only Republican being purged from her position within the party for calling out Trump’s lie, but as the most powerful, high-profile official to be rejected for standing on this principle she has become the face of all those Republicans all across the country whom Trump is working to exile. He has leaned on Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for months to get rid of her as scores of state and local party officials lose their posts, and those members and senators who voted for impeachment face censure resolutions and primary challengers.

In February, when McCarthy still supported Cheney, he spoke of the House GOP conference as a “big tent.” And it surely is large enough to tolerate Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s embrace of conspiracy theories and a federal investigation into Rep. Matt Gaetz for potential sex trafficking. As Stefanik burns up the phones for votes, Gaetz and Green are on an “America First Roadshow” promoting the Big Lie and promising future Trump appearances. It launched this weekend at The Villages in Florida with a call and response where Greene said, “Tell me who’s your president!” And the crowd rapturously screamed, “Donald Trump!” Gaetz snickered: “If Liz Cheney could even find Wyoming on a map and get there, she would find a lot of very angry cowboys.”

Republicans privately acknowledge the election wasn’t stolen and what Cheney says is true, but they have decided it’s too troublesome to say so. A Wall Street Journal editorial noted, “Mr. McCarthy knows Ms. Cheney is right. The election wasn’t stolen, yet Mr. Trump wants an endorsement of his stolen claim to be a litmus test for every Republican candidate.”

Members chafing at Cheney claim her speaking out against Trump is now getting in the way of crafting and selling a unifying message the party can run on to win the 2022 midterms. But if they had recalled the memo she circulated on Jan. 3, warning them of how dangerous Trump’s election lie was before he was urging Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results on Jan. 6, they might have realized Cheney chose to elevate this issue as the most important one for her party many months ago. Whether she is conference chairwoman or not, Cheney sees Trump’s lie — and the millions of voters now believing it — as an existential threat to the GOP and to the country, and she will not stay quiet.

As one GOP member told me: “If we vote her out we will be answering that question anyway — that we chose a liar over someone who was telling the truth. It’s only going to reinforce the Democrats’ message.”

Cheney is also alarmed by her party’s willingness to move on from the Jan. 6 insurrection she blames Trump for inciting, and is urging her party to step back from the dark forces behind it. Her statements are not reactions to press questions; they are deliberate and purposeful, and she chooses her words carefully. Since January she has said Republicans must be “the party of truth,” and that they must “make clear that we aren’t the party of white supremacy.” Noting symbols of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism and Confederate flags during the Capitol riot, she said, “We, as Republicans in particular, have a duty and an obligation to stand against that, to stand against insurrection.”

Cheney is concerned not only that Republicans aren’t telling voters the truth about the election or Jan. 6, but that leadership isn’t telling fellow members the truth about Trump. The 54-year-old veteran of the Beltway, raised by one of the nation’s most experienced politicians, is making sure we know that.

On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that GOP leaders didn’t share internal polling on Trump’s unpopularity in battleground districts with the rank and file at their April retreat. The story contained this passage: “Cheney was alarmed, she later told others, in part because Republican campaign officials had also left out bad Trump polling news at a March retreat for ranking committee chairs. Both instances, she concluded, demonstrated that party leadership was willing to hide information from their own members to avoid the truth about Trump and the possible damage he could do to Republican House members, even though the NRCC denied any such agenda.”

In addition, just this week a critical revelation was leaked to both the New Yorker and the Post that it was Cheney — before Jan. 6 — who organized the writing of a letter from all 10 living former secretaries of defense to warn that the president could not use the military for political purposes. She did so because of her fear of what Trump would incite on Jan. 6 when Congress gathered to certify the election results.  In an op-ed published Jan. 3 in the Post, the former officials warned: “Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”

Stefanik, who received Trump’s endorsement for her challenge to Cheney, feeds the Big Lie. When she voted to decertify Joe Biden’s election, she said:  “Tens of millions of Americans are concerned that the 2020 election featured unconstitutional overreach by unelected state officials and judges.”

Stefanik cut her teeth in the old guard of the GOP, with Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and George W. Bush. She only voted with Trump 77% of the time, compared to Cheney’s 92%. She opposed Trump in 2016 and supported former Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Before evolving into a fiery Trump loyalist in 2019, Stefanik once criticized him for being insulting to women, attacking Gold Star families, and said his Muslim ban was “not who we are as a country.” She took the same hawkish stands against Trump’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan that Cheney did, and her moderate record on immigration and other issues has stirred some tension in MAGA world, as one right-wing outlet dubbed her a “neocon establishment twit.” But it is no longer policy or principle that qualifies her for leadership. Stefanik’s fundraising prowess, appearances on Sean Hannity’s show, and constant defense of Trump are the priority right now.

Cheney published a swan song last week as soon as it was clear she would likely be defeated within days. In a Washington Post op-ed she bluntly stated Trump’s lie can produce future violence and that he is “seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law.” She reminded her colleagues not only that they swore an oath before God to the Constitution but that “the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law.”

She also quoted Ronald Reagan describing our peaceful transfer of power among political opponents as the American “miracle.” As she urged her colleagues to “steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality,” she stated, “In our hearts we are devoted to the American miracle.”

If Cheney’s colleagues are “devoted” in their hearts to the miraculous peaceful transfer of power, and their oath to defend the constitutional order, they won’t vote to oust her this week.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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