The move to kick Cheney out of leadership will most likely officially occur next week, when the House returns from a recess. Tensions between Cheney and fellow Republicans have been building for weeks over her continued criticism of Trump for his false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him through voter fraud and for the role he played in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
House Republicans have said they wanted Cheney to move on from her differences with Trump, arguing they served as a distraction for the party and that the sole focus should be on winning the House majority in the 2022 midterm elections.
On Wednesday, Cheney made clear that will not happen and that she is ready to lose her leadership position rather than condone or stay quiet about Trump’s actions, warning they are a threat to democracy.
“History is watching. Our children are watching,” Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney, wrote in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post. “We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”
Cheney has served as an avatar for the period before Trump’s ascension to power when hawkish military views and a close relationship with corporate America were the foundation of the party during the George W. Bush administration and when Mitt Romney and Paul D. Ryan headed its presidential ticket in 2012.
And while that wing of the Republican Party had lost much of its influence in the years since Trump’s 2016 victory, Cheney’s place in leadership meant it still had a faint pulse. With her departure, reviving that part of the GOP will be more akin to raising the dead than jump-starting its heart. Allegiance to Trump and backing his brand of nationalist populism has increasingly become the lifeblood of the party.
Cheney was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump on charges that he incited the attack on the Capitol. Two others in that group, Reps. Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) and Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio), have defended Cheney and are expected to support her position in leadership along with one other Republican, according to an aide familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal party politics.
But other Republican House lawmakers who voted to impeach Trump have stayed quiet, a sign they are siding with the majority of their colleagues in arguing that it’s time to move on and focus on the midterms.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been feuding with Cheney for weeks over her public fight with Trump — he was caught on a hot mic Tuesday saying he has “had it with her” — but he has sought to keep some of the other members who voted to impeach the former president in the fold. McCarthy has provided money for their campaigns and has not taken any steps to punish them despite Trump’s anger at the group.
McCarthy has been focused on retaining the strong support of his conference with the goal of securing the votes to be speaker if Republicans take over the House in 2023, and he argued publicly that Cheney was hurting party unity.
Trump ramped up his attacks on Cheney on Wednesday and repeated his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Cheney, Trump said in a statement, “continues to unknowingly and foolishly say that there was no Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election.” There is no evidence that widespread election fraud occurred.
Cheney survived a challenge to her leadership post early this year but now seems resigned to being ousted and has not been actively whipping support to keep the job.
She has told members and allies that it’s not worth holding on to the position if lying to the public remains a requirement for the role.
“This moment is about much more than a House leadership fight,” Cheney spokesman Jeremy Adler said after Scalise became the first member of the GOP leadership to publicly endorse Stefanik.
With Stefanik the clear choice of leaders to replace Cheney, the intrigue on Capitol Hill has turned to who will officially call for a vote to oust the Wyoming Republican.
Leaders are urging Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), a respected senior member of the caucus, to make the request, but other members are also eager to do so, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Stefanik celebrated Trump’s endorsement Wednesday after spending recent days calling colleagues to gauge their support for her move to replace Cheney.
“Thank you President Trump for your 100% support for House GOP Conference Chair. We are unified and focused on FIRING PELOSI & WINNING in 2022!” she tweeted.
Stefanik represents an Upstate New York district that has grown increasingly conservative in recent elections. She was at one time an ally of Ryan, the former Republican House speaker from Wisconsin, and presented herself as a moderate who voted less often with Trump’s policies than most members of the conference. She opposed his signature 2017 tax cuts because they limited the state and local tax deductions that benefited homeowners in many Northeast states.
But she become a top supporter of Trump when she emerged as one of his most strident defenders during his first impeachment trial, in which he was accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine until its leader announced an investigation into then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter over the latter’s job with an energy company in the country.
There could still be some speed bumps in her way to House leadership, although none is expected to be serious enough to hurt her candidacy.
Some House GOP aides and strategists said Stefanik’s bid for the No. 3 spot has long been in the making, and they criticized her aggressive tactics to ascend the ranks.
The Club for Growth, which has traditionally backed candidates with a conservative record on tax and spending issues, criticized her Wednesday.
“Elise Stefanik is NOT a good spokesperson for the House Republican Conference. She is a liberal with a 35% CFGF lifetime rating, 4th worst in the House GOP” the group wrote in a tweet. “House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House Majority.”
Biden weighed in Wednesday on the turmoil in the House GOP ranks, telling reporters during a stop at a D.C. restaurant: “I don’t understand the Republicans.”
Later, the president elaborated during an exchange with reporters at the White House after delivering remarks on the coronavirus pandemic. Biden called the situation facing the Republican Party a “significant mini-revolution” and said that while Democrats have often had “internal fights and disagreements,” he can’t remember “any like this” taking place within his party.
“And so, as one of you said . . . on national television last night, we badly need a Republican Party,” Biden told reporters, without naming the person who made the statement. “We need a two-party system. It’s not healthy to have a one-party system. And I think the Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for than I thought they would be at this point.”
Trump’s success at getting House Republicans to turn on Cheney could serve as a warning to other GOP leaders who have been critical of the former president or who ponder doing so.
Trump on Wednesday once again attacked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), calling him “gutless and clueless.”
McConnell voted against impeaching Trump in January after the Capitol attack, citing a constitutional concern, but he lashed out at him after the vote and said Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for provoking the mob.
Since then, however, McConnell has avoided discussing the former president or whether he still has problems with the role he is playing in the party.
“One-hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell said during an appearance in Georgetown, Ky., sidestepping a question about the GOP infighting over Cheney.
John Wagner and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.