Trump endorsed Stefanik in a statement Wednesday, joining Scalise in openly supporting a successor to Cheney, essentially because of her public opposition to and criticism of Trump. And while the talk is all about Cheney and her job as conference chair, Cheney is effectively forcing a larger discussion in the GOP about the future of Trumpism and the party’s willingness to go along with the former president’s false claims of election fraud even months after he left office.
Here’s how we got here, and where things head now — including the process for removing Cheney.
A lonely anti-Trump voice in the GOP
Cheney survived an initial challenge to her leadership position in January, after she was one of just 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump’s second impeachment. But the calls for her removal got a lot louder after she responded to Trump’s ongoing, baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 election in a tweet Monday.
The tweet was a direct response to a statement from Trump, about an hour earlier, suggesting it was in fact Democrats who had perpetrated the big lie. It was arguably Cheney’s most proactive anti-Trump move since Jan. 6 — a contrast to other Republicans who might have deigned to criticize Trump, but generally gently and only when asked about his comments. And she took it a step farther in a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday.
“The question before us now is whether we will join Trump’s crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election, with all the consequences that might have,” Cheney wrote. “We Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”
That isn’t just challenging Trump on the election — it’s an indictment of the entire party.
Cheney is one of just a few GOP legislators who has proven willing to take Trump on. And she’s persisting even in the face of mounting criticism from her party’s base and fellow Republican lawmakers. If the GOP does eventually move on from Trumpism, though, Cheney will find herself well positioned to emerge the better for it.
Cheney isn’t completely alone. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump in both of the former president’s impeachment trials, backed her up in a tweet on Tuesday.
Romney seems to have made a similar calculation that Trump’s false election claims — and Trumpism more broadly — is the wrong path forward for his party, and that something must be done about it. He also knows what the blowback for speaking out against Trump looks like; he was booed and called a traitor at the Utah Republican convention last weekend, before a vote to censure him failed, 798 to 711.
Romney isn’t on GOP Senate leadership team, and he has the safety of a term that lasts until 2024. Like Cheney, he’s staking his political future on trying to move his party on from Trump — and looks pretty isolated in doing so. But she has arguably gambled the most of anybody on trying to steer her party in a different direction.
What other GOP leaders are saying
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has seemed reluctant to be the one to call for Cheney’s ouster himself. He’s so far avoided publicly weighing in on Stefanik’s bid to replace her — but has been less willing to defend Cheney as time as gone on.
“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.”
As notable as McCarthy’s suggestive comments were what he and others avoid claiming: That Cheney is wrong about Trump. Cheney and her detractors in the GOP are almost having two entirely separate arguments — Cheney about Trump and what the party is willing to tolerate from its leaders, and her detractors about the need for a unified caucus and to focus on the future (nevermind that Trump also seems fixated on the past).
Scalise’s office echoed that argument in announcing his support for Stefanik.
“House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s radical socialist agenda,” a Scalise spokesperson said in a statement first reported by Punchbowl News. Sound familiar? In this argument, removing Cheney is about a unified message, not her opposition to Trump.
What’s the actual procedure for changing caucus leaders?
Each party makes its own decisions about how and when to elect or change caucus leaders. Cheney could, in theory, be removed as soon as next week, when lawmakers return to Washington. And while GOP leaders could quickly call for a vote, McCarthy signaled in comments reported by Axios, made on a hot microphone to Fox News host Steve Doocey before a Tuesday interview, that he might not be the one to officially call for the change.
“Well, someone just has to bring a motion, but I assume that will probably take place,” McCarthy reportedly said.
Who that “someone” is could actually matter. House Republican rules require a two-thirds majority for removal if the motion to remove a leader comes from a rank-and-file member of the House.
But as CNN reported Wednesday, Republicans could choose to use a different process to remove her, that would only require a simple majority vote.
The caucus can essentially modify its own rules whenever it wants, and the simple majority vote would make it a lot easier to remove her. The vote would take place by secret ballot — meaning members wouldn’t publicly be on record as voting to remove her unless they said so publicly. Every Republican in the House would get a vote.
If they vote to remove Cheney, members could then nominate her replacement, with a three-minute nominating speech (plus one-minute speeches from members seconding the nomination). So far, Stefanik appears to be facing a clear field.
Add in an endorsement from Trump, and Stefanik looks set up for a quick rise up the party ranks.