House Republicans began Wednesday by quickly ousting Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) from her leadership post because she continues to challenge former president Donald Trump over his false claim that the presidential election was stolen.
Taken together, the events Wednesday offered the clearest sign yet of how far Republicans are willing to go to support or tolerate Trump’s lies about the election as well the degree to which many members are trying to rewrite the history of Jan. 6 to erase the former president’s culpability.
“It’s official- Liz Cheney has been fired from House Leadership and I was proud to vote against her,” Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Tex.) wrote on Twitter.
Cheney, 54, has called her decision to publicly fight Trump a matter of principle, warning that allowing him to falsely claim that the election was stolen amounts to an attack on democracy and is destructive to the GOP and its values.
“If you want leaders who will enable and spread his destructive lies, I’m not your person; you have plenty of others to choose from. That will be their legacy,” Cheney told her colleagues Wednesday morning before ending her remarks with a prayer, according to a person familiar with her remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks. “But I promise you this, after today, I will be leading the fight to restore our party and our nation to conservative principles, to defeating socialism, to defending our republic, to making the GOP worthy again of being the party of Lincoln.”
House Republicans, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), have said that her fights with the former president have become a distraction and that she should not serve in a leadership position in which the job is to unify the party as it seeks to combat Biden’s agenda and win back the House in the 2022 midterms.
“We, as a conference, must remain focused on stopping Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s socialist agenda. We stand with hard-working Americans,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) wrote to colleagues Wednesday. “I want each of you to take a leadership role in exposing the magnitude and devastating details of the Democrats’ socialist plan.”
The day also produced a muddled message about what moving on will mean for the party and to what degree Trump will be willing to forget the past and embrace GOP leaders’ plan of winning over voters with a focus on the future.
Trump publicly reveled in Cheney’s ouster.
“Liz Cheney is a bitter, horrible human being. I watched her yesterday and realized how bad she is for the Republican Party. She has no personality or anything good having to do with politics or our Country,” he said in a statement.
And despite Trump’s repeated claims that the election was stolen from him and the vote earlier in the day to remove Cheney, McCarthy said that no one is questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s win.
“I think that is all over with,” McCarthy told reporters following a meeting at the White House with the president and congressional leaders. “We’re sitting here with the president today.”
McCarthy voted to contest the certification of Biden’s victory and signed on to a Texas lawsuit seeking unprecedented judicial intervention in disallowing millions of votes and the election results from four key swing states that went for Biden.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leading member of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus, said that while he recognizes Biden as president, he still cast doubt on the vote that landed him the White House.
“Under our system and the way it works, he’s the president,” he said. “I do think we should look at the election results, but yeah, he’s the president of the United States. I’ve said that all along.”
Shortly after disposing of Cheney, several House Republicans appeared at a hearing examining the events of Jan. 6 and accused Democrats of unfairly blaming Trump.
Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) said what took place that day was not an insurrection and compared it to a normal day on Capitol Hill.
“There was an undisciplined mob. There were some rioters and some who committed acts of vandalism. But let me be clear, there was no insurrection. And to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a boldfaced lie,” he said. “Watching the TV footage of those who entered the capital and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and robes, taking videos, pictures. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think that was a normal tourist visit.”
The attack on the Capitol followed a rally in the District where Trump exhorted his supporters to give Republicans “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country” before concluding his remarks with “so let’s walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Trump didn’t make the trip, but his supporters did. He returned to the White House, where he tweeted angrily about Republicans not doing enough to stop the certification of the election. He then remained silent for hours as the violence at the Capitol unfolded and officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, were rushed to secure locations as the mob made its way through the halls of the building.
Several Republican leaders earlier this year, including McCarthy, said Trump bore at least some responsibility for the attack. But most have walked back those comments or declined to discuss the issue any further, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has.
Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney, is expected to be replaced by Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), 36, a onetime moderate turned Trump loyalist. Trump and Republican leaders have endorsed her candidacy for conference chair. A vote is expected Friday.
“I know firsthand the discipline and message it takes to fight back against the biased national media and the entire Democrat and Far-Left infrastructure,” Stefanik said Wednesday in a letter to colleagues officially announcing her candidacy.
But Stefanik’s expected ascension has brought its own set of problems with some conservative members arguing her moderate voting record makes her a poor fit for leadership. Stefanik opposed Trump’s signature 2017 tax cuts as well as some of his environmental policies.
“I think she’s liberal,” said Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), who does not plan to support her candidacy.
In recent days, Stefanik has done interviews with conservative news outlets to promote herself as an ally of the former president who is laser-focused on the 2022 election. On Wednesday, she doubled down on embracing the Trump falsehood that 140,000 ballots were improperly cast in Fulton County, Ga., as part of her evolution toward fully supporting the former president.
“I stand by my statement on the House floor in January, and I stand by my statement that there are serious issues related to election irregularities in the state of Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin,” she said.
Some in the conference said the party should not rush to vote on Cheney’s successor and are promoting the idea of Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) challenging Stefanik, a move his office said he had not ruled out.
“While not ruling anything out, Congressman Roy has never sought a position in conference leadership,” a Roy spokesman said. “But if the position must be filled, then this must be a contested race — not a coronation.”
Democrats, who have almost nothing in common with Cheney on policy issues, praised her stand and portrayed her removal as a defining moment for the two parties on telling the truth to the American people and whether Trump bears responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack.
“There are but two parties now: patriots and traitors,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, referring to a quote from Ulysses S. Grant regarding the Civil War.
Democrats also noted that Republicans have made a political issue out of “cancel culture,” a loosely defined term regarding someone losing a job or audience because they said something controversial or offensive to liberals, but booted Cheney for making them feel uncomfortable with her statements about Trump. Some Republicans noted the hypocrisy as well.
“Liz Cheney was canceled today for speaking her mind,” Buck said.
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 Capitol with false claims of a stolen election. Some Republicans demanded that 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 standing inside the party that her father once helped lead as vice president quickly fell because of her continued clashes with Trump.
There was no roll call vote Wednesday after McCarthy said he wanted a voice vote to show “unity.” Once the 18-minute meeting was over, Cheney walked up the middle aisle past her colleagues and left the room, according to a person familiar with the meeting who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private gathering.
Cheney’s few remaining allies in the conference bemoaned the decision to remove her and said there was no real debate during Wednesday’s meeting and that the day’s business was dispatched with quickly.
“It’s a sad day,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).
Some of Cheney’s opponents disagreed and instead chose to taunt the former party leader.
“Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye Liz Cheney,” tweeted freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.), who was a featured speaker during the Republican National Convention last summer.