The unusually sharp internal clash — which took place at the first in-person meeting of the GOP conference in four months due to the coronavirus pandemic — highlights the transformation of the House Republican Conference in the age of Trump: Few House Republicans are comfortable challenging a man popular with their base, and those who do are attacked by their colleagues.
“Liz Cheney has worked behind the scenes (and now in public) against @realDonaldTrump and his agenda. House Republicans deserve better as our Conference Chair. Liz Cheney should step down or be removed,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter Tuesday after the in-person tussle.
The internal dispute, first reported by Politico, grew as the day went on. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., joined Gaetz in calling for Cheney’s ouster, comparing her to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump during the impeachment trial.
However, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) defended Cheney — the highest-ranking GOP woman — during a news conference.
“We’re honored to have her as conference chair,” McCarthy said of the third-ranking Republican in the House. “She does an amazing job.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Cheney dismissed Trump Jr.’s attack, arguing that he isn’t a House Republican and thus his input doesn’t matter. She said she was “honored to serve as House Republican Conference chair,” and takes her “position in leadership very seriously” while defending “a healthy exchange of views.”
She also used her appearance to deliver a full-throated defense of Trump and GOP policies while warning about the Democrats if presumptive nominee Joe Biden wins in November and the party claims majority control of the Senate.
“There’s absolutely no question what’s at stake in this election and how much worse off this nation would be under a Biden-Schumer-Pelosi regime,” Cheney said.
The targeting of Cheney underscores the rising status of former vice president Richard B. Cheney’s daughter, who many believe is carving out a lane for herself in a post-Trump world and plotting an ambitious ascent in the leadership ranks.
Having turned down a chance to run for an open Senate seat, Cheney has been viewed as a future speaker someday, a position her father once aspired to when he was in the House, until he became defense secretary in 1989. That would make her the first female Republican speaker in history.
Unlike other senior House Republicans, who won’t let a cross word about Trump graze their lips, Cheney has not been afraid to push back on the president, albeit on specific issues. In recent weeks she has been openly critical of several Trump foreign policy decisions, including plans to reduce the number of active-duty U.S. troops in Germany, taking a traditional military hawk position that her father embodied as President George W. Bush’s No.2.
She also has defended Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, after some in Trump’s inner circle launched broadsides against his prescriptions for how to handle the pandemic.
On other issues, she consistently backs Trump’s policies and votes with Republicans. Cheney was a top defender of the president during his impeachment and remains critical of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The rebellion against Cheney began Tuesday when Gaetz used the open-microphone portion of the GOP meeting to go after Cheney for supporting Rep. Thomas Massie’s (R-Ky.) primary challenger. Massie had long been considered a thorn in leadership’s side, but Cheney went a step beyond her colleagues by backing his competitor.
Cheney later recanted her endorsement of Massie’s opponent once his racist writings were discovered.
“Your problem is with the president, not me,” Cheney shot back to Massie, according to a Republican who participated in the meeting but spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about the sensitive discussion.
Then, several other of Trump’s most loyal allies joined in the criticism and turned the subject to Cheney’s support of the president — or what they viewed as lack thereof. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, stood up and listed positions she had taken against the president. Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) accused her of putting the GOP’s chance of winning House control in jeopardy by showing disunity.
Jordan credited Cheney with a strong defense during Trump’s impeachment but listed actions that he considered not being a “team player.”
“We’ve got to be supportive of the president,” Jordan said, according to several Republicans in the room.
Cheney replied with a remark that, to those in the room, was a jab at how he had spent years undermining John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) when they were House speakers and the GOP held the majority.
“Jim, I look forward to hearing your comments about being a team player when we’re back in the majority,” she said, according to a GOP participant in the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the session.
The confrontation came months after Cheney had ended in-person GOP Conference meetings in early March after talking to medical experts as the virus began to spread across the nation. Instead of the weekly gatherings, usually held with more than 200 lawmakers and staff in a cramped room in the Capitol basement, Republicans held conference calls that began to frustrate some of the more conservative lawmakers.
Those conservatives, who include many who question the covid-19 science and Fauci’s expertise on the matter, began to press for an in-person meeting, according to a lawmaker and GOP aide familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe private discussions.
After consulting with congressional safety experts, Republicans agreed to meet in the spacious auditorium of the Capitol Visitor Center, with only two-thirds of the more than 190 Republicans allowed to attend to create social distancing.
That set the stage for the Freedom Caucus ambush of Cheney during the open-mic session.
At one point, McCarthy tried to cut in to help Cheney. While neither he nor any other Republican defended her in the room, McCarthy suggested the group should take their disagreement to a smaller, more private meeting. But by then, it was too late. Word of the clash had already leaked out to the media.