The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Liz Cheney chose courage; Tucker Carlson chose cowardice

Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), left, and Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) during a House Jan. 6 committee hearing on June 28. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson faced the same choice after the 2020 presidential election: Tell the truth and risk the consequences to their careers, or bow to a constituency that feeds on dangerous lies.

Guess who took the easy way out.

On Tuesday, Cheney faces off against Wyoming lawyer Harriet Hageman in a primary challenge over her House seat. Numerous polls, including one last week from the University of Wyoming showing a nearly 30-point gap, put Hageman, a former member of the Republican National Committee, well ahead of Cheney — a development that’s rooted in a critical divergence between the candidates: Hageman, who has secured former president Donald Trump’s endorsement, says that the 2020 election was rigged; Cheney has denounced Trump’s efforts to overturn American democracy and proudly serves as vice chair of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.

In a July interview, CNN host Jake Tapper asked Cheney whether it was worth perhaps sacrificing her seat for her work on the Jan. 6 committee. “There’s no question,” responded Cheney. “I believe that my work on this committee is the single most important thing I have ever done professionally.”

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Many of Cheney’s Republican peers have made the opposite calculation, steering a safer course to reelection by seeking to appease Trump’s followers or otherwise shrinking from candor regarding his coup attempt. Yet the most poignant Cheney counterexample may come not from the world of politics but from that of media: Carlson.

On his nightly Fox program over the past year and a half, Carlson has bashed Cheney for her work regarding Jan. 6 and for her interventionist foreign policy leanings. Carlson being Carlson, the sniping has gotten bitter at times. A casual viewer might conclude that Carlson and Cheney have always been on opposite sides of this issue.

That’s not the case: For one critical spell in November 2020, these two were sending out compatible messages about the grand fraud that was just then gathering steam, behind the lies and fantasies of Trump and his attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, among others. Yet Cheney and Carlson had opposite responses to the backlashes that came their way.

On Nov. 19, 2020, Powell and Giuliani appeared at a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters. They repeated their baseless case for massive voter fraud, with Powell declaring that “everybody’s against us, except President Trump.”

The nonsense was too much even for Carlson, who rebutted Powell on his program that night. “We invited Sidney Powell on the show. We would have given her the whole hour. We would have given her the entire week, actually, and listened quietly the whole time at rapt attention. That’s a big story,” said Carlson. “But she never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of requests, polite requests, not a page. When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her.”

The next day, Cheney released a statement that aligned with Carlson’s commentary: “The President and his lawyers have made claims of criminality and widespread fraud, which they allege could impact election results. If they have genuine evidence of this, they are obligated to present it immediately in court and to the American people,” she said. The statement went on to demand that if Trump couldn’t prove the claims, he should respect the election results.

Both made news with their pleas for evidence, and for good reason: Carlson had done exceptional work on the Trump agenda, establishing himself as the foremost anti-anti-Trump pundit. Cheney had been a reliable Trump ally in the House, where she voted with his agenda nearly 93 percent of the time.

Grief came their way, too. For her transgressions against Trump orthodoxy, Cheney endured the scorn of her colleagues in the Republican conference, who ultimately stripped her of her House leadership position in May 2021. She responded by staying the course — denouncing the “big lie” and sinking her time into the Jan. 6 committee.

Rep. Liz Cheney tells Americans why Jan. 6 should terrify them

Now look at Carlson’s trajectory. The backlash over his November 2020 excursion into honest election reporting roared on social media and beyond. “The response was immediate, and hostile,” the New York Times reported that month.

And effective: Carlson circled back to the voter-fraud theme the following night. “In the last 24 hours since we did that, we’ve heard from a lot of people about that segment, including people in the White House and people close to the president,” Carlson said on Nov. 20, 2020. “Like us, they have concluded that this election was not fair. Like us, they are willing to believe any explanation for what happened. Like us, they have not seen a single piece of evidence showing that software change votes.”

After noting that Powell had pledged to produce evidence of widespread voter fraud, Carlson said such an outcome would be “great news.” Just in case his far-right audience didn’t get the hint that he was walking back his previous refutation of Powell, he declared, “Voter fraud is something that is real that just took place two weeks ago. Our media class doesn’t want to talk about it.”

And that was it for Carlson’s brush with the reality of the 2020 election. From that point onward, he has avoided risking the alienation of his disinformation-addicted MAGA constituency. To keep them tuning in, he has downplayed the idea that the Jan. 6 rioters presented a threat to democracy (they did); posited that a man named Ray Epps, who has become central to right-wing theories regarding Jan. 6, was a federal informant who egged on the rioters (not true); reported that the rioters weren’t carrying firearms (wrong); and promoted other absurdities.

One prong of this audience-retention strategy is to blast away at Cheney. In May, for instance, Carlson described her as a “smart person who is very troubled and motivated by hate in a way that’s disfiguring her, I would say. Sad.” Although some of Carlson’s derision targets Cheney’s foreign policy views, the more topical slams relate to Cheney’s headline-fetching work on the House Jan. 6 committee. For instance, Carlson last October promoted “Patriot Purge” — his debunked “investigative documentary” on Jan. 6 — and drew this tweet from Cheney:

In his defense, Carlson insisted that Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had been “lying” about the events of Jan. 6. “What we found in the end bore no resemblance whatsoever to the story that you have heard repeatedly from Liz Cheney and from Nancy Pelosi, as well as from their many obedient mouthpieces in the media,” said Carlson, who called Cheney a “coward” for not appearing on his show.

Someone close to Cheney tells the Erik Wemple Blog that whenever Carlson attacks her over Jan. 6, threats received by her office “spike considerably.” As for why Cheney declines invitations to appear on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” here’s the rationale: “Tucker has had countless opportunities to explain to his viewers that the election was not stolen. Instead, he continues to promote dangerous conspiracies using the language that provoked violence against law enforcement and our Capitol on January 6th. Liz will not participate in that,” reads a statement that Cheney’s office shared with the Erik Wemple Blog and that the office has sent to Carlson’s staff.

The Erik Wemple Blog sent a detailed list of questions to Carlson about his commentary, including why he appeared to root for voter fraud and why he has veered away from puncturing the “big lie.”

Instead of addressing those matters, Carlson went ad hominem in an email: “My gosh this is stupid. You’re getting old. Please find something you’re good at before it’s too late.”