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As GOP censures Cheney and Kinzinger, Pence says: ‘President Trump is wrong’

The battle for the future of the Republican Party played out in elite rooms in Florida and Utah, with remarkable moves supporting and opposing the former president

Former vice president Mike Pence said Feb. 4 that he had no constitutional right to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (Video: CNN)

SALT LAKE CITY — The ongoing battle over the future of the Republican Party erupted into open view Friday as former vice president Mike Pence said it would have been “un-American” for him to overturn the election at Donald Trump’s insistence and the party’s grass-roots members overwhelmingly voted to censure two Republicans for investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Trump loomed over the day’s action, though he was absent as the party’s top activists and donors huddled in Utah and a prominent conservative legal group hosted Pence and some of the party’s top figures in Florida.

In both cases, grappling with Trump’s repeated false attacks on the 2020 election results — and the pro-Trump mob that ransacked the Capitol one year ago — was the source of discord at a time when the party is trying to remain united ahead of the midterm elections.

In Utah, where activists and donors gathered for the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting, the party took the unprecedented step of formally condemning two Republican lawmakers, Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, for their work on the House Jan. 6 committee — and made moves that would allow the party to send money and political help to Cheney’s primary opponent.

The censure was pushed by RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and the vote was overwhelming, passing without any public debate. It took all of one minute.

RNC votes to condemn Cheney, Kinzinger for serving on House Jan. 6 committee

There was no pretense that the punishment was about anything other than the investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection — the most serious attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812 — and what happened before and after the riot.

In Florida, Pence, Trump’s ever-loyal vice president, took his most explicit shots at the former president, saying “President Trump is wrong” when he called for Pence to overturn the election by rejecting electors from several states who supported Joe Biden when Congress gathered on Jan. 6 to certify the election. He drew raucous applause from the crowd of conservative lawyers at the Federalist Society conference.

Christopher Krebs, a former top cybersecurity official in the Trump administration who was fired by Trump, said: “Broadly speaking, I think Trump’s influence is waning, particularly among the reasonable people. But it’s really crystallizing in the most malignant way. It’s consolidating and getting much more intense — and more dangerous — among the die-hard supporters.”

The moves, playing out in luxury hotels, led to unusual schisms, with a former vice president criticizing the former president he was often obsequious to in a way he had never been before and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, harshly criticizing the party his niece runs for its treatment of Cheney and Kinzinger.

“Shame falls on a party that would censure persons of conscience, who seek truth in the face of vitriol,” he tweeted. “Honor attaches to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for seeking truth even when doing so comes at great personal cost.”

The day showed that Trump’s efforts to overturn the election and his continuing focus on his false insistence that he won continue to dominate the party, even as its leaders say they want to focus on President Biden’s policies as his polling numbers lag and Republicans argue they are poised to make major gains in November’s midterm elections.

Trump remains the most popular figure in the GOP, according to most public and private polling. His political committee has $122 million — more than any other major political party committee — with much of it raised off his false claims that the election was stolen. Many of the party’s members are unwilling to criticize him, even for his role in the Jan. 6 attack, and even some Pence allies expected a sharp rebuke from Trump on Friday that could be politically painful for the former vice president. Trump still draws a bigger crowd than any other Republican.

But some of the former president’s advisers fear he is losing steam politically as he continues to talk about the election, multiple federal and state investigations circle him and polls show his support among Republicans has lagged some in recent months. Trump’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the day’s affairs.

Trump responded late Friday with a statement about Pence’s speech but did not mention the RNC censure.

“Just saw Mike Pence’s statement on the fact that he had no right to do anything with respect to the Electoral Vote Count, other than being an automatic conveyor belt for the Old Crow Mitch McConnell to get Biden elected President as quickly as possible. Well, the Vice President’s position is not an automatic conveyor if obvious signs of voter fraud or irregularities exist. That’s why the Democrats and RINOs are working feverishly together to change the very law that Mike Pence and his unwitting advisors used on January 6 to say he had no choice,” Trump said, including false statements about the election and the law.

Trump did not call into the RNC meeting or attend the Federalist Society conference. He was said to be at his Florida club, golfing and attending parties this weekend, and a reporter for the New York Times posted a note sent to Mar-a-Lago Club members that advertised he would be playing the role of DJ on Friday and Saturday nights.

Trump has continued to talk about the election being stolen, ramping up some of his claims in recent weeks by suggesting he might pardon some of the rioters if he is reelected and criticizing Pence for not “overturning” the results.

Trump says congressional investigators should examine why Pence didn’t reject electoral college results

What appears to be the smaller faction of the party, but one that could swell as Trump continues to re-litigate the 2020 election, called the RNC motion regrettable and praised Pence for his remarks at the Federalist Society conference outside Orlando.

Previously, Pence had remained steadfast in his decision to resist Trump’s demands ahead of Jan. 6 that he reject certain states’ electors, but Friday was his most vociferous rejection of the former president’s claims. In June, Pence acknowledged the two still do not “see eye to eye” about the insurrection on Jan. 6.

During his speech Friday, Pence again called Jan. 6 a “dark day in the history of the United States Capitol” and said the only role Congress has with respect to the electoral college “is to open and count votes submitted and certified by the states.”

Pence said a vice president should play no role disrupting that process.

“Frankly there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president,” Pence said.

Pence said he remained firm in his commitment to the Constitution, “even when it would be politically expedient to do otherwise.”

Some Pence allies, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said they viewed Trump’s grip on the party as weakening and his actions more erratic — and that Pence had to speak after repeated attacks from Trump.

“It’s an extremely important moment, and I think Mike Pence must believe that, too,” said Robert Kelner, a prominent Republican lawyer who does not support Trump. “He’s a careful and savvy politician, and I think he chose this time for a reason. I think it sends a message to every Federalist Society lawyer that this is a time to reflect and take stock of the values of the Federalist Society, which have been in hiding for the last five years or so.”

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Kelner said Pence was speaking to an elite audience of lawyers that don’t “necessarily reflect what the base of the Republican Party thinks.”

“A shift of the elite opinion in the party is significant, even if it doesn’t have immediate consequences,” he said. “The coming days and weeks will deliver the answer to that question. Either Pence is going to be excoriated and excommunicated or there will be a surprising level of acceptance for what he said. I tend to think it will be more the latter. … I am curious to see if we see a succession of others doing their own thing.”

Krebs praised Pence but said he was likely to face a storm of pain. “INCOMING!!!!” he posted on Twitter, with an image of a bloodied man saying, “Brace for impact!”

Underneath chandeliers in a Grand America Hotel ballroom, a different scene played out in Salt Lake City as the party met for largely ceremonial business. Between a video montage mocking Biden, lengthy tributes to Richard Walters, the party’s outgoing and longest-serving chief of staff, and mundane updates on the budget, the party passed its buzziest resolution without even a second of public debate.

The resolution was written by a top Trump ally and pushed and edited by McDaniel. It said that Cheney and Kinzinger, by participating on the Jan. 6 committee, had engaged in “destructive” behavior and would no longer be supported by the party.

The move was supported by Trump, an adviser to the president said, though he did not order it to happen.

A few members in the room loudly shouted “No!” when McDaniel called the vote. Among them: Henry Barbour, a Republican from Mississippi, and Bill Palatucci, a close ally of Chris Christie’s from New Jersey. “Terrible action by the RNC, but there were too few of us there willing to object and stop it,” Palatucci said after the vote.

But most yelled “Yes!” and defended the resolution, which said the committee was investigating people engaged in “legitimate political discourse.”

In a video posted to social media before the vote, Arizona committee member Tyler Bowyer described “establishment” members of the party “actually writing some of the strongest language” in Thursday’s closed-door resolution meeting, saying it was proof that the censure was unifying Republicans.

“In Arizona, we have some of the best local activists that were involved,” Bowyer said. “They’re now basically under attack, thanks to Liz and Adam.”

South Carolina committeeman Glenn McCall said that he had left the room during the resolution vote and that the party should only do resolutions “that are going to advance the party.” But McCall also said that Cheney and Kinzinger had earned the condemnation by agreeing to join the special committee.

“I just hate to see them work with that commission,” McCall said of the committee. “I don’t think the commission is being fair and open and transparent with their work.”

Kinzinger and Cheney both blasted the move.

“My fellow Republicans have chosen to censure two lifelong members of their party for simply upholding their oaths of office,” Kinzinger said in a statement. “They’ve allowed conspiracies and toxic tribalism [to] hinder their ability to see clear-eyed.”

Washington state GOP chair Caleb Heimlich voted for the resolution once it was bundled with four others but distanced himself from any defense of what happened on Jan. 6. He did not, he said, see the last-minute language that referred to “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse” before voting. After the resolution, McDaniel issued a statement saying that she meant only to refer to those not involved in violence at the Capitol.

But Heimlich — who said he condemned the violence at the Capitol — and others said that the Jan. 6 committee had overreached by investigating Republicans who were not at the Capitol that day.

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Last week, the committee issued subpoenas to 14 Republicans who had falsely claimed to be the legitimate electors in states Trump had lost. That included RNC members from Michigan. “Now they have to lawyer up because this committee is going after them,” Heimlich said.

Republican members of Congress who supported the resolution made the same distinction, changing the focus from the violence that unfolded at the Capitol to argue that the Jan. 6 investigation was indicting the entire party and its grass-roots activists.

McDaniel said the probe was a “witch hunt.” In her presentation to members, she talked about the party’s expanded efforts on “election integrity” and the dozens of lawsuits the party planned to file over voting rules.

“There is tremendous support for this resolution,” she said.