SALT LAKE CITY — In an extraordinary rebuke, the Republican National Committee on Friday voted to condemn Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), the two Republican members of a House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
The resolution accused the two of participating in a “Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse” as the committee investigates the insurrection in which a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building, injured 140 members of law enforcement and vandalized the Capitol to stop the affirmation of Joe Biden’s electoral college win. The attack led to the deaths of five people.
In a statement Friday afternoon, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel sought to clarify the resolution’s language, saying it was meant to refer to “ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.”
In addition to Friday’s formal censure at the party’s winter meeting in Salt Lake City, the RNC also made plans to fund a primary challenge against Cheney in Wyoming — after state Republican leaders passed a special rule to recognize Harriet Hageman, her challenger, as the party’s presumptive nominee.
David Bossie, a top Trump ally who led the censure effort, called it a “one-two punch” against Cheney that signaled a message from the GOP at the state and national levels. McDaniel defended the move Thursday in an interview with The Washington Post.
“This has gone beyond their original intent. They are not sticking up for hard-working Republicans,” she said, using the phrase “legitimate political discourse.”
McDaniel said she was not aware of the party ever censuring an incumbent member of Congress, and party officials said they were not aware of another occasion when the party had used the special “Rule 11” to fund a challenger against an incumbent Republican.
A Cheney representative decried the party’s position, reiterating a statement she made last week that said Republicans were “hostage” to former president Donald Trump.
“The leaders of the Republican Party have made themselves willing hostages to a man who admits he tried to overturn a presidential election and suggests he would pardon Jan. 6 defendants, some of whom have been charged with seditious conspiracy. I’m a constitutional conservative and I do not recognize those in my party who have abandoned the Constitution to embrace Donald Trump. History will be their judge. I will never stop fighting for our constitutional republic. No matter what,” Cheney said.
In response to the party passing the “Rule 11” resolution that could fund Cheney’s challenger, Jeremy Adler, a spokesman for Cheney said: “Wyoming Party Chairman Frank Eathorne and the Republican National Committee are trying to assert their will and take away the voice of the people of Wyoming before a single vote has even been cast.”
In a party that continues to embrace Trump, Cheney and Kinzinger have stood out as being among the few congressional Republicans to criticize denounce the former president’s actions. Joining them on Friday was Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who criticized the actions of the RNC in a tweet, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican.
“Shame falls on a party that would censure persons of conscience, who seek truth in the face of vitriol,” Romney, the uncle of Ronna McDaniel, said. “Honor attaches to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for seeking truth even when doing so comes at great personal cost.”
Only a few members voted against the resolution. Bill Palatucci, a committeeman from New Jersey, and Henry Barbour, a committeeman from Mississippi, both said after the meeting they voted not to censure the lawmakers.
“Why are we being dragged into a primary in Wyoming?” asked Palatucci.
Some inside the party said the resolution was a waste of time when the GOP should be focusing on President Biden’s agenda and sagging popularity. They believe it was a mistake to focus the public attention on the meeting by attacking their own members.
Several members said their colleagues were uninterested in reckoning with Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack, and his false rhetoric that the election was stolen. “They want to put their head in the sand,” one committee member said.
Michael Steele, the former Republican Party chairman, said they were censuring Cheney for “protecting the country from a maniac.”
“This is not about her conservative bona fides. This is clearly not about her commitment to public service. It’s all about, unlike the other members, she won’t kiss Donald Trump’s a--,” Steele said. “It sets an ugly precedent where the party sits in judgment of someone.”
In a joint interview before the resolution passed, Bossie and McDaniel both said they were not doing this at the behest of Trump, and McDaniel said she had not spoken to the former president about it. However, Trump has signaled support for the resolution, said a person close to him who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.
Both spoke privately in favor of the resolution throughout the week. “This isn’t a top-down situation,” McDaniel said, adding members cheered in the room when the resolutions committee passed it. “The members have shown tremendous support for this.”
The chairwoman said she had not spoken to Cheney about the committee or the party’s moves to punish her. “And she hasn’t reached out to me,” she said.
McDaniel said she was particularly upset when an elderly, recently widowed friend of hers was subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 committee after it was reported the friend was an alternate elector at the campaign’s behest. She declined to name the friend.
The censure is a more ceremonial move, while the rule change could lead to broader ramifications in the race. Cheney has far outraised Hageman, with almost $5 million on hand, while Hageman has less than $500,000.
McDaniel declined to say what the party would actually do in Wyoming because she said no decisions had yet been made. The national party could send money, volunteers, data and other things to the Wyoming GOP, now the rule has passed, and the state party could then send the resources to use against Cheney.
McDaniel also declined to say whether she would campaign personally against Cheney. “No decision has been made,” she said.
Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican Party, said he could not remember a recent precedent for the party censuring a member and working against an incumbent. Several other former chairpersons and officials said they also were unaware of such a move.
“The rule allows them to send money, which would not be insignificant,” Heye said. “Everything else is fairly insignificant besides the money.”
Cheney faces a difficult primary in Wyoming, where Trump has backed her primary opponent and former aides of his are working for her rival. Cheney, daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney, has largely voted with Republicans and has long held conservative views but has been vociferous and relentless in her attacks on Trump since Jan. 6.
Cheney has said before she will do whatever it takes to keep Trump out of the Oval Office again, and she has taken a particularly aggressive role on the committee, according to people involved, who praise her intellect and tenacity.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Cheney, and several of his allies are running the campaign of her challenger. Donald Trump Jr. and tech billionaire Peter Thiel, among others, have held fundraisers against her. The former president plans to campaign in the state against her.
Party officials say they are poised to win the majority in the House in November’s midterm elections, but there is internal fear among some party strategists and prominent Republicans that the Jan. 6 committee and its findings could be an albatross.
McDaniel and Bossie both said that Cheney and Kinzinger were helping Democrats keep the House of Representatives. “They are propping up Nancy Pelosi,” Bossie said.
Bossie, a committeeman from Maryland and a two-time campaign aide for Trump, originally wrote the resolution, but McDaniel became involved in drafting and editing the final version, along with other members. The resolution changed from an original draft Bossie sent to others, where he called for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to expel Cheney and Kinzinger from the conference. In the final draft, the RNC did not call for McCarthy to expel Cheney but said the party would no longer support her.
McCarthy repeatedly declined to comment on Friday when approached by reporters on Capitol Hill.
Sonmez reported from Washington.