Through eight House hearings about the Jan. 6 insurrection, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) was calm, unflappable and plain-spoken. She did not grandstand or gloat. She did not apologize to her fellow Republicans for her leading role in the hearings. She did not try to use her position as a campaign ad for her next election. Her demeanor was less that of a politician than a game warden who has encountered a dying animal in the woods and now must club it out of its misery.
In short, Liz Cheney understood the assignment.
The assignment of the select committee was to lay out — particularly for Americans who have been unconvinced by news articles, an impeachment trial, presidential tweets, witness accounts, participant accounts, delusional MAGA shamans and hair-raising video footage that citizens could watch with their own dang eyes — that Donald Trump had not only recognized the possibility of violence at the Capitol, he had essentially willed it into existence. The assignment was to create a thorough historical record. It couldn’t change the past but it might ensure that all Americans vaguely understood the same version of it.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) was no less accomplished in his role as chair of the House select committee on the Jan. 6 attack. He, too, was as thorough and somber as the occasion required. But Cheney’s role as vice chair was a narrower tightrope. Those who still believed that Trump had been wronged, railroaded, bamboozled and generally done dirty were not going to believe otherwise because a Democrat told them so. But it’s possible they might believe a Cheney.
“There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,” she had warned her fellow Republicans in the first hearing, with her trademark bluntness. “We must remember that we cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation,” she said during the Thursday night hearing.
I saw more than one pontificator position Cheney’s performance in the hearings as “Liz Cheney’s revenge on Donald Trump — and her own party,” to cite the specific framing by the New Yorker.
It was a jaded look at the whole affair, but boy howdy, would Cheney have deserved that revenge. Back home in Wyoming, she has been trailing a Trump-backed candidate in her primary election and stands a fair shot of losing her seat. In Washington, her party has already censured her once for participating in the hearings at all.
In a closed-door Republican meeting last year described by the New York Times, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) reportedly said that Cheney’s failure to support Trump after the insurrection was like looking up in the stands to “see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side.” The sexism was breathtaking: The idea that the third-highest ranking Republican in the House would be thought of not as a senior member of the party but as a groupie whose loyalty could be thrown on and off like a letterman jacket.
I wondered if Kelly was watching the hearings and, if so, whether his weird teenage metaphor was holding up okay: There was the girlfriend, up in the stands, revealing the Capitol rioters to be violent stooges puppeteered by a china-throwing president-baby.
The key thing is that she is not on the opposition’s side, she is on America’s side. What the majority of Republicans struggled to understand, Cheney never lost sight of: The hearings aren’t about spanking a former president. They’re about saving the country.
On Thursday night, she hinted for the first time that she understood what role sexism might have played in the hearings, and she wasn’t thinking of herself at all.
“She sat here alone, took the oath, and testified before millions of Americans,” Cheney said, referencing former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. “She knew all along that she would be attacked by President Trump, and by the 50, 60 and 70-year-old men who hide themselves behind executive privilege.” She then mentioned other female witnesses, including poll worker Ruby Freeman and Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards, calling them “an inspiration to American women and American girls.”
Cheney wore a white blazer to the hearing. It might have been a coincidence, but white was the signature color of suffragists, and Cheney evoked them, too.
“In this room, in 1918, the Committee on Women’s Suffrage convened to discuss and debate whether women should be granted the right to vote,” she said in her closing statement. “This room is full of history, and we on this committee know we have a solemn obligation not to idly squander what so many Americans have fought and died for.”
Liz Cheney understood the assignment. She would not remain silent. She would not hide herself behind her party. She would not do the easy thing, even when doing the hard thing cost her dearly, and the only reward was knowing that the job she’d been tasked with was gruesome. But she’d done it the best she could.