The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kevin McCarthy’s and the GOP’s nonsensical justification for ousting Liz Cheney

Lawmakers on May 9 discussed the discord among Republicans in the House of Representatives centered on Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and former president Donald Trump. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Republicans would very much like you to know that they are not punishing Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) because she said mean things about former president Donald Trump. It’s not about that! What it is about is focusing on the future, rather than the past.

Since that became the talking point, though, Republicans including Trump have set about reinforcing its speciousness.

“I think you saw Congresswoman Cheney giving a press conference and talking about the last election when all of us — the vast majority of members — are talking about the next election,” the No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), has said.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the head of the Republican Study Committee, also cited Cheney’s “focus on the past” and said her focus on “proving her point was an unwelcome distraction.”

And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has assured that this isn’t about Cheney having voted to impeach Trump.

Update: McCarthy reportedly released a letter Monday indicating a vote will come Wednesday. Part of his justification? That “each day we spend relitigating the past is one day less we have to seize the future.”

Despite Republicans’ claims to want to stay laser-focused on the future and winning elections, though, we’ve been served repeated reminders in recent days that it’s hardly only Cheney who thinks that past is worth re-litigating.

Trump’s “new communications platform” to combat his bans from Facebook and Twitter has been rightly ridiculed. The platform is, for all intents and purposes, just a blog.

But also have a look at the content of the blog. Trump posted to it 16 times this past week; nine of the posts rehash a 2020 election that is now six months in the past. On Friday morning, Trump promoted long-debunked theories that the votes added to the totals in Michigan in the early-morning hours after the election were suspicious.

“At 6:31 in the morning on November 4th, a dump of 149,772 votes came in to the State of Michigan,” Trump said, six months and three days after that “dump.”

But he’s not the only one. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Cheney’s would-be successor as the party’s No. 3 leader — who now has the support of Trump, McCarthy and Scalise — went on a media tour last week in which she endorsed Arizona Republicans’ shoddy recount of the 2020 results. (The effort even involved checking ballots for traces of bamboo — the idea being that the ballots might have been dumped en masse from Asia.) She also said continuing to scrutinize how states such as Pennsylvania conducted their 2020 elections is an important pursuit.

Separately, the Ohio Republican Party on Friday voted to censure not just its home-state GOP congressman, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, over his vote to impeach Trump but also the nine other House Republicans who don’t hail from Ohio. It separately called for Gonzalez to resign. That follows on numerous sanctions in other states for Republicans who supported either impeachment or voted to remove Trump — a clear sign that, contrary to McCarthy’s claim, for many in the party this is indeed about impeachment and punishing dissent.

Such moves have brought no similar calls from GOP leadership to focus on the future rather than the past. Nobody has called for Trump to be cast aside as the party’s nominal leader because he won’t let them focus on 2022.

Instead, as The Post’s Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey reported, they privately grumble:

Privately, many Republican officials — including some Trump allies — are growing frustrated, worried that the former president is wasting his time on petty rivalries and grievances. They say they wish he was working to protect policies from his term and affirmatively helping Republicans in 2022. “All the 2022 stuff is, ‘Well, what’s in it for me?’ ” said one former senior White House official, summarizing Trump’s thinking.

Stefanik and others have suggested that their particular focus on the past is different, because it has implications for how we conduct elections. If there was indeed fraud, you need to find it to figure out how to combat it. Except the Arizona effort is only reinforcing just how far-flung these efforts have been. At some point, this is just about giving the base what it wants and seeding doubts. And that point was long ago.

And even if you set aside how baseless the efforts are, if it’s important to analyze the past as a means of course-correction in the future, why not as a means of course-correction when it comes to the future of your party or a violent riot at the U.S. Capitol?

This is where Trump’s ongoing commentary, in particular, flies in the face of GOP assurances that this is truly about the future. He’s not just floating debunked theories about what happened in the 2020 election; he’s also using it to settle scores with former vice president Mike Pence and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

He intoned last week: “Had Mike Pence referred the information on six states (only need two) back to State Legislatures, and had gutless and clueless MINORITY Leader Mitch McConnell (he blew two seats in Georgia that should have never been lost) fought to expose all of the corruption that was presented at the time, with more found since, we would have had a far different Presidential result, and our Country would not be turning into a socialist nightmare! Never give up!”

That’s actually quite similar, in some important ways, to the argument Cheney is making about Trump. She’s saying if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have seen things such as the Capitol riot or perhaps even a Democratic president right now. She’s saying Trump continuing to lead the GOP is the wrong thing not just for the party, but for the country. To drive home that point, she cites the past as precursor.

“In public statements again this week, former president Donald Trump has repeated his claims that the 2020 election was a fraud and was stolen,” Cheney wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week, adding: “Trump repeats these words now with full knowledge that exactly this type of language provoked violence on Jan. 6. And, as the Justice Department and multiple federal judges have suggested, there is good reason to believe that Trump’s language can provoke violence again.”

She is, in a lot of ways, more focused on the future than her party. They’re simply trying to salvage the present and pretend the specter of Trump doesn’t loom over the next stage in the party’s evolution. They are, much as they did for the four years of his presidency, simply ignoring a festering problem and hoping it sorts itself out.

Cheney’s biggest sin isn’t focusing on the past; it’s forcing the GOP to account for its future.