House Republican leaders as well as some rank-and-file members have said that Cheney’s statements in recent weeks about Trump are a distraction and that she should focus on issues that unite the party.
But Cheney (R-Wyo.) brushed aside those warnings Monday after Trump issued a statement attempting to commandeer the term “Big Lie,” commonly used to refer to the false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, by asserting that the term should now refer to President Biden’s election victory.
Cheney quickly condemned Trump’s comment as well as anyone who supports his statements about the election.
“The 2020 presidential election was not stolen,” Cheney tweeted. “Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”
Hours later, Trump released another statement, this time attacking Cheney by calling her a “big-shot warmonger” and claiming that people in Wyoming “never liked her much.”
Cheney has said challenging Trump’s false statements about the election is an issue of principle, but she has increasingly angered her GOP colleagues and faced renewed calls to step down from the No. 3 leadership post in the conference.
“Liz Cheney does not understand the responsibilities of leadership. She claims that I, and 146 other Republicans, violated the U.S. Constitution with our January 6th vote to challenge electors. She’s wrong,” Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) said in a tweet Friday, referring to the 147 Republicans who contested the 2020 presidential election results. “She has now become an obstruction to leadership unity and should step down from her leadership duties as Republican Conference Chair.”
Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump in January on charges that he incited the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol with false claims of a stolen election. Some Republicans demanded she be stripped of her leadership post over that vote, but she beat back an initial challenge overwhelmingly, with 145 members of the conference supporting keeping her in the position. Only 61 voted to remove her during the closed-ballot vote.
But her hold on that position and standing inside the party that her father once helped lead as vice president is now less firm.
Cheney’s detractors argue she should focus on promoting a united GOP front on policy and against the Biden administration as the party seeks to win back the House majority in 2022, instead of taking on Trump and his false election claims. The former president has never offered any evidence to support his claims of widespread voter fraud, and several courts dismissed legal challenges to the election results last year.
Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who chairs the Republican Study Committee made up of 154 members, said that Cheney’s “focus on the past” makes her ineffective as conference chair, a position tasked with keeping the caucus united on messaging and legislative priorities.
Banks, who voted to contest the election results, said a majority of his colleagues believe the way to winning the election is by embracing what they view as Trump’s appealing message to working-class voters.
“Unfortunately, Liz appears to be an anomaly when it comes to that focus, and I think that’s what’s frustrating so many of our members, is that while the rest of us are focused on winning back the majority, she’s focused on proving her point and is focused on the past,” he said in an interview Friday, reflecting on comments Cheney made in recent weeks.
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.”
Cheney, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has previously said that Republicans must focus on policy prescriptions rather than embracing Trump in full to win back voters and must condemn the misinformation that fueled the attack on the Capitol. She has argued that while Trump did appeal strongly to the party’s base, he also hurt it with suburban women, independents and educated voters.
On Monday, Cheney told a closed-door conference hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute at Sea Island, Ga., that the party cannot accept the “poison” that the election was stolen, according to CNN.
“We can’t whitewash what happened on January 6 or perpetuate Trump’s big lie,” she said while being interviewed at the conference by former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), according to the network. “It is a threat to democracy. What he did on January 6 is a line that cannot be crossed.”
Cheney’s few remaining allies were quick to defend her. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), who also voted to impeach Trump, told the Hill newspaper that she “is not the best fit” for the conference if the “prerequisite” to lead House Republicans “is lying to our voters.”
“Rep. Gonzalez’s quote sums things up well,” said Jeremy Adler, Cheney’s communications director.
Cheney is increasingly isolated from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who defended her when her leadership post was challenged earlier this year but is not expected to do so again.
One Republican leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal party thinking, said they “wouldn’t be surprised” if a move against Cheney materializes, but there is no active plan to censure her or introduce a conference resolution to remove her from her leadership post.
Other than Cheney, the handful of GOP leaders who earlier this year also criticized Trump over his role in the Jan. 6 attack and for spreading falsehoods about the election have since backpedaled from those remarks or, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), declined to address the issue again, saying they are focused on the future.
McCarthy, who was one of the congressional Republicans who voted to contest the election results, said in January that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack, but he defended Trump’s response in a recent “Fox News Sunday” interview. At the House Republicans’ annual policy retreat last month, he also pointedly declined to say whether Cheney was still a “good fit” for the party’s leadership team.
“That’s a question for the conference,” McCarthy said, while also saying that anyone criticizing Trump over the Capitol riot, as Cheney had done, was “not being productive.”
The Republican caucus is keeping a watchful eye for any signals from McCarthy about how to approach Cheney. Members and aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations said that the rank and file would fall in line and vote Cheney out of her leadership position if McCarthy were the one who decides such a vote is necessary.
McCarthy’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Ever since McCarthy and Cheney publicly disagreed on whether Trump should make an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, the two have not appeared together at any in-person leadership news conferences.
The chilled relationship was visible ahead of Biden’s late-April address to a joint session of Congress, when members were huddling on the House floor but neither Cheney nor McCarthy approached each other.
Cheney’s fist bump with Biden that night angered some Republicans who pointed at the moment as a signal that Cheney sides more with Democrats than Trump even though she has been a reliable conservative on policy issues.
“Her first fist bump to Joe Biden was when she voted to impeach President Trump. That pictured first bump is just the one that made it public,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said in a statement. The full House voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments earlier this year after a series of extremist comments.
In response to Republican attacks, Cheney tweeted a clarification that while she disagrees “strongly” with Biden’s policies, she does not regret reaching out to the president of the United States “in a civil, respectful & dignified way.”
“We’re different political parties. We’re not sworn enemies. We’re Americans,” she said.