And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who defended Cheney the last time around, sounds as though he’s about finished with her.
“I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message,” McCarthy said Tuesday morning on Fox News. “We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority.”
McCarthy specified repeatedly that it’s not about her impeachment vote, but rather about deciding “what’s our best step forward, that we can all work together instead of attacking one another.”
He didn’t take a position on Cheney’s continued role in leadership, but the rift between the two has been clear for a while, and his comments are certainly suggestive of the direction in which he sees this heading.
But there was one telling omission from the case against Cheney that McCarthy enunciated — and indeed from much of the GOP criticism of her: that she’s wrong.
Congressional Republicans have long walked a tightrope on Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. They’ve supported various efforts to question and even overturn the result, but few of them went nearly as far as Trump. He talked about massive fraud and dead people voting, and made baseless claims about voting machines; they talked more broadly about supposed “irregularities” and states allegedly not following their own election laws. It’s clear that most of them knew what Trump was saying was bunk, so they watered it down in the name of at least appearing as though they were on his side. Even Trump’s impeachment lawyers did this.
And just as they walked a fine line on vouching for Trump’s claims, they’re now walking a fine line on Cheney — suggesting that she should be pushed out, often without disputing what she says.
Steve Scalise (La.), the No. 2-ranking House Republican, said this weekend: “This idea that you just disregard President Trump is not where we are and, frankly, he has a lot to offer still.”
Rep. Jim Banks (Ind.), who heads the Republican Study Committee and appears to be the early favorite to replace Cheney if she’s pushed out, said that her comments distracted from GOP efforts to reclaim the House.
“Her lack of focus on that, while being focused on other things, and proving her point, was an unwelcome distraction,” Banks said. He added: “The sort of sideline distractions at the GOP retreat will only serve to hold us back from being focused on that nearly unanimous goal we have as a conference.”
In more recent comments, Banks criticized Cheney’s “focus on the past.”
What none of them are saying here, though, is that Cheney’s point is invalid. They just think what she’s saying is hurting the party because it should be focused on other things. Again, they’re defending Trump without really defending him.
Banks was pressed on that point a bit, as The Washington Post’s Marianna Sotomayor, Colby Itkowitz and Mike DeBonis report:
When pressed on whether Cheney’s argument that embracing Trump’s policies also includes spreading misinformation about election fraud, Banks said the goal of winning back the majority “has nothing to do with the insurrection.”
That’s pretty much a case in point. The GOP’s watered-down argument about the validity of the election results, although not totally echoing Trump, has led a strong majority of Republicans to falsely believe that the election was indeed stolen. That’s a pretty big deal. It’s harmful to democracy for people to falsely believe such things. But to Banks and others, it’s neither here nor there; Cheney needs to be on the team and stop dwelling on whether the team may have very recently participated in undermining our system of government, because there are future elections to win.
To be clear, some Republicans are arguing that Cheney is actually wrong in what she’s doing. Rep. John Rutherford (Fla.) tweeted that Cheney “claims that I, and 146 other Republicans, violated the U.S. Constitution with our January 6th vote to challenge electors. She’s wrong.”
Cheney has said that the idea that Congress would overturn an election was “directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans.” But this is a case enunciated in part by plenty in the party — up to and including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). Rutherford’s argument may be oversimplified, but at least he’s saying that Cheney is wrong and that the things she’s saying don’t have merit.
Even in that tweet, though, Rutherford continued: “She has now become an obstruction to leadership unity and should step down from her leadership duties as Republican Conference Chair.”
Again, the unity thing. The problem is that Cheney is saying things that force the GOP to relive its role in letting Trump say things that were untrue and allowing the “Big Lie” to take hold.
It’s certainly an argument. But it’s also one that reinforces that Republicans have no real desire to account for what happened before, during and after the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by Trump supporters. It’s undoubtedly true that Cheney is rocking the boat in a way that is probably unhelpful for the party ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, given how close they are to a House majority.
But the episode only reinforces just how much the goal is power, rather than accountability, democracy and self-reflection. If Cheney is wrong that Trump’s claims amounted to a Big Lie, maybe her critics should say that. They’re not. They’re just saying that it’s counterproductive for them politically.