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Inside Liz Cheney’s plan to take on former president Donald Trump

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) speaks on Capitol Hill on May 12 after being voted out as chair of the House Republican Conference by fellow Republicans in the chamber. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Rep. Liz Cheney lost her House leadership position Wednesday, but she aims to become an even more influential political figure capable of weakening former president Trump’s hold on their party — and continuing to push for his purge.

Rather than focusing on whipping votes to save her job as conference chair, the Wyoming Republican has drafted plans for increased travel and media appearances, such as an interview Wednesday on NBC’s “Today” show, meant to drive home her case that Trump is unfit for a role in the Republican Party or as the nation’s leader were he to run in 2024, according to a person briefed on the plans.

She also is considering an expanded political operation that would allow her to endorse and financially support other Republican candidates who share her view of the danger she thinks Trump poses to the Republican Party and the country, the person said.

Cheney has told allies that she is determined to run for reelection, despite a recent censure resolution from her state’s Republican Party, and plans to debate all comers across Wyoming about Trump’s denial of the 2020 election results and role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. She described her removal from leadership Wednesday as “the opening salvo” in a battle for the soul of the party and the country.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said during a speech on the House floor on May 11 that "remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar." (Video: The Washington Post)

“We must go forward based on truth. We cannot both embrace the ‘big lie’ and embrace the Constitution,” Cheney said after the vote to remove her from her post of chair of the House Republican Conference. “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.”

Despite her hopes for a roll call vote at Wednesday’s meeting of House Republicans that would have put more pressure on individual members, Cheney was removed from her post by acclamation, banishing her from leadership after months of rising acrimony.

Cheney has told allies she realizes her effort to challenge Trump’s hold on the party could take years and cost her donors and even her seat in Congress. Those aware of her plans, like others for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Cheney is unlikely initially to join with other groups of current or former Republicans who oppose Trump’s role in the party. But she is decidedly against following the path of other Republican Trump critics who have bowed out of public life rather than confront his power over their party, and she has signaled that she is unwilling to moderate her conservative ideological approach.

“She is, I think, the leader of the non-Trump Republicans, and I don’t know how big that group is,” said Bill Kristol, a prominent conservative critic of Trump who chairs the Republican Accountability Project. “It could be 10 to 15 percent of the party, though, and that is a lot of people. It is a fair number of donors, and it has the potential to grow.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has repeatedly warned colleagues that exacerbating divisions over the 2020 election result and the Jan. 6 riot could undermine the party’s fortunes in the 2022 midterm elections, though his pleas have not stemmed Trump’s focus on both issues. McCarthy wrote a letter to his Republican colleagues Monday warning them that “each day spent re-litigating the past is one less day we have to seize the future.”

“If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved so as not to detract from the efforts of our collective team,” McCarthy wrote.

He sought Wednesday to avoid dwelling on Cheney’s ouster or Trump, focusing instead on Republican concerns about rising prices for goods such as gasoline and lumber, and the possibility that Democrats raise taxes.

“I think that is all over with,” McCarthy said after a White House meeting, when asked about Republicans, including Trump, who question the legitimacy of President Biden’s election. “We are sitting here with the president today.”

Cheney has argued, to the contrary, that rejecting the continued belief that Biden’s election was improper is a central challenge for the country and her party. She has said that refusing to honestly confront Trump’s actions serves to condone an attack on democracy and the Constitution.

The challenge facing Cheney and other Trump antagonists is steep, with Trump having largely solidified his support among the roughly 1 in 4 American adults who identify as Republicans. A February poll by Quinnipiac University found that 7 percent of GOP voters viewed Cheney favorably, compared with 36 percent who had an unfavorable view of her.

But Trump’s foes within the party and the conservative movement think there may be an opportunity in the coming months to further reduce Trump’s support before the 2024 presidential nominating cycle.

They note that his standing has faded somewhat among Republican voters and that he remains politically vulnerable, according to polls, in districts Republicans are targeting to take over the House next year. They also say that Trump’s bully pulpit is weaker now that he has no access to his social media accounts and that his relevance could simply fade over time.

Thus far, the anti-Trump efforts have been modest — with few surprising or marquee names that are likely to move Republican voters. Many of the president’s critics have struggled to gain traction against him, and many of those critical of Trump after the Jan. 6 riot, including McCarthy, have returned to his fold.

One new project, by a group of about 120 activists, including formerly elected or appointed Republicans, is to be launched Thursday. The effort, which will endorse and fundraise for candidates, is led by Evan McMullin, a former intelligence officer who ran for president in 2016 as an independent, and Miles Taylor, a chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump who anonymously wrote in 2018 that he was part of the “resistance” inside the administration.

“We are going to articulate an alternative, principles-based vision for the Republican Party,” McMullin said of the effort, which he said eventually could grow into a third party. “Our big message is that the Republican Party has to be reformed or replaced. That is a big departure for a lot of people who are with us.”

Taylor and McMullin, who have each founded separate groups opposing Trump, declined to reveal the names of the signatories before Thursday.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), like Cheney one of the 10 GOP members of the House to vote this year to impeach Trump, also has started a group, called Country First, aimed at recruiting and supporting candidates who oppose Trump in the Republican Party. Kinzinger endorsed a long-shot candidate in a recent congressional special election in Texas who came in ninth among 23 candidates. The Trump-endorsed candidate came in first, with 19 percent of the vote.

Hundreds of people joined a virtual “Rally for Liz” on Tuesday night organized by another Trump-resisting grass-roots group called Principles First, where Kinzinger joined former representatives David Jolly (R-Fla.), Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) and Denver Riggleman (R-Va.) to voice support for Cheney.

Kinzinger has praised Cheney as shifting the conversation within the party.

“If you want to hide because you don’t want to tick off the base and tell the truth about January 6, you don’t want to admit that Joe Biden won the election, Cheney makes you uncomfortable,” Kinzinger said Monday at a National Press Club event. Kinzinger did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Some of the organizations arrayed against Trump have been active far before Cheney’s relentless assault on his falsehoods about the election and his actions before the Jan. 6 insurrection. Leaders of the Lincoln Project, which taunted Trump throughout the campaign but has maintained a lower profile since allegations of sexual harassment were made against one of its principals, also voiced support for Cheney.

“I think courage is contagious and cowardice is contagious. It is the story of life, the story of war, the story of social movements,” said Stuart Stevens — a campaign adviser to President George W. Bush and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah — who works with the group. “I think Liz Cheney will become a historic figure that people will regard with admiration.”

Trump also is hoping to escalate the clash. He did not twist arms to secure Cheney’s ouster Wednesday because he had been told the votes were already there, the adviser said.

“Liz Cheney is a bitter, horrible human being,” Trump said in a statement after the vote that was rife with personal insults. He also called her “bad” for the Republican Party and “a talking point for Democrats.” He said he looked forward to seeing her working as a paid commenter on cable news.

He is expected to continue to attack her publicly, as his advisers scramble to find a single candidate in Wyoming to elevate as her endorsed opponent in next year’s primary. So far, they have struggled, with different factions of Trump advisers preferring different candidates. Jason Miller, a spokesman for the former president, said the goal was to solidify behind one “America First” candidate.

“What Liz Cheney fails to realize is President Trump’s election in 2016 showed that there is no place in the Republican Party for permanent warmongers who believe that we should be world cops,” Miller said Tuesday, referring to her more hawkish views on military action. “Liz Cheney will now be relegated to the ash heap of history, having the same lack of influence as other military-industrial complex has-beens like John Bolton.”

Trump’s approval rating has taken a hit, even within the party, since the Jan. 6 riot. An Economist-YouGov poll in May found 78 percent of Republicans held a favorable view of him, with 58 percent having a very favorable view. His favorability in December among the same group was 91 percent, with 74 percent holding a very favorable view.

But in other ways, he has tightened his hold on the party. State and county parties have passed statements of censure against elected leaders who voted for his impeachment. Trump was welcomed as the party’s leader at a recent Republican National Committee meeting, which staged an event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., and at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.

Cheney intends to distinguish herself from other anti-Trump Republican officials who have fallen out of favor, like former senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who left office rather than face a difficult primary campaign. She has also ruled out the route favored by people like Kristol, who supported Biden in the last election.

“She is absolutely a die-hard conservative,” said one Cheney ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss her plans. “No one is going to get to the right of her on the issues. No one is going to confuse her with a mushy Northeastern moderate.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.