The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After impeachment split, the fight for the soul of the GOP begins in the House

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) chairwoman of the Republican conference, left, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speak with reporters in December 2019 before the House debate on the first articles of impeachment brought against President Trump.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) chairwoman of the Republican conference, left, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) speak with reporters in December 2019 before the House debate on the first articles of impeachment brought against President Trump. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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The front lines in the war over the future of the Republican Party are now set squarely inside the House of Representatives following Wednesday’s impeachment vote, which saw a small but significant GOP faction renounce President Trump and endorse a path forward without him.

With less than a week before Trump leaves office, the initial skirmish is already underway, with a group of presidential loyalists pushing to force out the most senior Republican who backed Trump’s impeachment — Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the No. 3 party leader in the House.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) moved Thursday to forestall a messy internal fight, making clear he did not support calls for Cheney’s ouster as Republican conference chairwoman. But it remained uncertain whether that would be enough to quell anger at Cheney’s dramatic break with Trump.

The reckoning inside the House GOP signals the start of what is expected to be a bruising battle about Trump’s standing in the party during the next four years. Since Trump seized the GOP nomination in 2016, he has dominated the party and remade it in his own brawling, populist image. But many Republicans have long been uncomfortable with Trump’s nationalist politics and abrasive style, and that discomfort turned to disgust last week when the president inspired his loyalists to assault the Capitol.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in three weeks, much less three years, but there is deep soul-searching about who we are as Republicans,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who voted to reject both the electoral challenges and Trump’s impeachment.

McHenry, a nine-term lawmaker deeply shaken by the Jan. 6 riot, said it remained to be seen who will carry the mantle of leadership within the party, but he acknowledged Trump’s standing has diminished.

“The day after the election, that question of leadership was unquestionably in one person’s hands, and each week that has gone past, he has limited himself, sadly, based on his own actions,” he said.

In the House GOP ranks, many are wrestling with internal questions about the party’s role in embracing Trump’s claims of a stolen election as well as the direct actions a handful of Republican members may have taken to encourage the violent riot of Jan. 6, which saw an armed mob storm the Capitol, resulting in five deaths.

Even after the riot was quelled, roughly three-quarters of House Republicans voted to reject some state-certified electoral votes, embracing voter fraud theories that have been promoted by Trump but roundly rejected by courts, election officials of both parties and fact-checkers.

The GOP upheaval inside the House is certain to be more pitched than in the Senate, where members are more insulated from political crosswinds by their six-year terms and the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who delivered a stinging denunciation of Trump’s election attacks just moments before the mob breached the Capitol. The Senate is expected to begin a trial later this month that could result in Trump being barred from holding future office.

McConnell and several other GOP senators have signaled they are open to convicting Trump and potentially barring him from returning to the presidency.

While only 10 of 211 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump, many who were quizzed Wednesday about the reasoning behind those no votes pointed to concerns about national comity or a rushed process rather than defend Trump’s actions.

McCarthy himself went to the House floor and faulted Trump for not acting immediately to stop the violence on Jan. 6, publicly endorsing a censure resolution against Trump — what might have been, in other circumstances, a stunning breach between two leaders that once appeared to share an unbreakable bond.

But, by then, five House Republicans had already announced their intent to impeach Trump — including Cheney, who issued a scathing statement ahead of her impeachment vote: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney, did not speak on the House floor as lawmakers debated the impeachment resolution Wednesday, but her words were very much present — repeated by numerous Democrats, including Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who closed the debate by saying, “I hope others will be honest with themselves and with their constituents as Liz Cheney was.”

Before riot, Trump said ‘we got to get rid’ of Rep. Liz Cheney. Now she supports impeaching him.

The Democratic embrace of Cheney’s words were among the charges made by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and other fervidly pro-Trump lawmakers in a petition they have circulated seeking to oust Cheney. With the agreement of 43 GOP lawmakers, the loyalists could begin the process of forcing an internal party vote that would very well be seen as an referendum on Trump’s continued role in the party.

There is little doubt where GOP voters’ loyalties lie: A Quinnipiac poll taken in the days following the riot found that 71 percent of Republican voters approved of Trump, down from 89 percent in December, but still a high level of approval.

The January poll also found that 70 percent of Republican voters said the GOP members who objected to the formal certification of Biden’s victory were protecting democracy, versus 23 percent who said they were undermining it.

Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), a freshman member of the House Freedom Caucus, alleged that Cheney had “ignored the preferences of Republican voters” and “is unfit to lead.”

Meanwhile, other House Republicans publicly backed her continued service as chairwoman — including several influential members who opposed impeachment. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) publicly vouched for her as “a principled leader with a fierce intellect.”

“She will continue to be a much needed leader in the conference, with my full support,” he said. “We can disagree without tearing each other apart.”

A McCarthy aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal political matters, said Thursday the leader “does not support efforts to remove her as conference chair” — a statement first reported Thursday by the Washington Examiner. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the No. 2 GOP leader, declined to comment Wednesday on the calls for Cheney’s ouster, saying he had not spoken to Cheney about her decision.

Cheney, who passed on a Senate run last year and has been rumored as a potential House speaker, told reporters Wednesday she was “not going anywhere” — calling the Jan. 6 insurrection the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

She told Wyoming reporters Wednesday that her plans moving forward “will very much be focused on policy” as Republicans contend with a new political landscape that has Democrats in control of the White House, plus narrow majorities in both the House and Senate.

“I’m laying out a positive agenda for the future, and it’ll be one that will allow us to get the majority back in two years,” she said. “That’s what I’m focused on, and that’s what I look forward to our conference being able to accomplish.”

The tougher task may belong to McCarthy, who hitched his fortunes to Trump early in the president’s climb to power and saw his political star rise as more Trump-skeptical politicians — including former speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — were cast aside.

McCarthy was bolstered by November’s elections even as Trump lost, defying predictions to shrink the Democratic House majority to a bare handful of seats. But his toleration of Trump’s false stolen election claims has raised questions about his standing as a leader in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol violence — with some suggesting he did too little, too late to rebuke Trump.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who voted against impeachment but expressed grave qualms about Trump’s conduct, declined to comment on McCarthy’s handling of the riot’s aftermath: “He said that the president took responsibility for it, but I sure haven’t heard very much of that.”