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Liz Cheney’s effort to turn Republicans from Trump threatens her reelection and ambitions. She says it’s only beginning.

  • Author: Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, Dan Lamothe, The Washington Post
  • Updated: May 8
  • Published May 8

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., is seen during a news conference that followed an impeachment inquiry resolution vote at the U.S. Capitol on Oct. 31, 2019. Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.

WASHINGTON - Rep. Liz Cheney had been arguing for months that Republicans had to face the truth about former president Donald Trump - that he had lied about the 2020 election result and bore responsibility for the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol - when the Wyoming Republican sat down at a party retreat in April to listen to a polling briefing.

The refusal to accept reality, she realized, went much deeper.

When staff from the National Republican Congressional Committee rose to explain the party’s latest polling in core battleground districts, they left out a key finding about Trump’s weakness, declining to divulge the information even when directly questioned about Trump’s support by a member of Congress, according to two people familiar with what transpired.

Trump’s unfavorable ratings were 15 points higher than his favorable ones in the core districts, according to the full polling results, which were later obtained by The Washington Post. Nearly twice as many voters had a strongly unfavorable view of the former president as had a strongly favorable one.

Cheney was alarmed, she later told others, in part because Republican campaign officials had also left out bad Trump polling news at a March retreat for ranking committee chairs. Both instances, she concluded, demonstrated that party leadership was willing to hide information from their own members to avoid the truth about Trump and the possible damage he could do to Republican House members, even though the NRCC denied any such agenda.

Those behind-the-scenes episodes were part of a months-long dispute over Republican principles that has raged among House leaders and across the broader GOP landscape. That dispute is expected to culminate next week with a vote to remove Cheney from her position as the third-ranking House Republican.

At issue: Should the Republican Party continue to defend Trump’s actions and parrot his falsehoods, given his overwhelming support among GOP voters? Or does the party and its leaders need to directly confront the damage he has done?

“She just believes he’s disqualified himself by his conduct, more than it’s any kind of political analysis,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “If you look at a political analysis, there’s no way this party is going to stay together without President Trump and his supporters. There is no construct where the party can be successful without him.”

Cheney and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had come down on opposite sides of the divide, undermining the party’s efforts to put on a united front. Even before the riot, when McCarthy was calling on Republicans to “not back down” after the election, Cheney had quietly organized an essay by 10 former defense secretaries declaring the election results settled and warning the military not to be involved in Trump’s election protest.

She was shocked when McCarthy signed on to an amicus brief in a Texas case seeking to overturn the election, after he’d told her in a private conversation that he did not plan to, according to a person familiar with the conversation. More recently, she has sought to undermine McCarthy’s efforts to dilute the potency of a congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6 riot. McCarthy wants to broaden the inquiry’s scope to include antifa and Black Lives Matter violence, as well as the slaying of a Capitol Hill police officer in April.

McCarthy and many of his House colleagues, who don’t see a clear path to victory without Trump’s support in 2022, reached a breaking point in recent days.

“I’ve had it with her,” McCarthy told a reporter for Fox News on Tuesday, in a remark caught on a live microphone. “You know, I’ve lost confidence.”

• • •

At the root of the collapse in relations, according to interviews with more than a dozen people involved, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, was a fundamental misunderstanding of Cheney’s position. Her determination to name, shame and banish Trump - and her refusal to follow McCarthy’s pleas to move on and display unity - had become fundamental to her political purpose, not just a position she could compartmentalize.

She has been willing to sacrifice her House leadership ambitions and put at risk her reelection hopes, allies say, to try to push the party away from the former president. After McCarthy visited with Trump in January in an effort to broker a truce that he hoped could pave the way for a Republican takeover of the House - and, potentially, McCarthy’s speakership - she called McCarthy out for backing away from earlier saying the former president “bears responsibility” for the riot.

Even if she is cast out of power in the House, she has made clear that she will not stop, promising to take her argument against Trump to the campaign trail in Wyoming, where he garnered 70% of the vote in 2020. She has told others that blocking Trump from leading the party is a fight she sees as just beginning, no matter how Wednesday’s vote goes.

“The Republican Party is at a turning point,” Cheney wrote Wednesday in a Washington Post op-ed, “and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

That is a remarkable statement from a Republican conference chairwoman, whose job description requires her to develop, coordinate and elevate the party’s communications strategy against Democrats, which she has continued to do at times with far less fanfare. Cheney and McCarthy declined to speak for this story.

Even before the Jan. 6 riot, she had been working to stem the threat she saw in Trump.

“She called me and said, ‘You know, I’m really worried about this. What should we do?’ " said former U.S. Ambassador Eric Edelman, who worked with her to write the essay by the former defense secretaries. “Liz was a prime mover of the whole thing, really.”

Working closely with her father, former vice president Dick Cheney, the congresswoman volunteered to recruit Jim Mattis, the former Marine general who had served as Trump’s first defense secretary; Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary in the Obama administration; and Donald Rumsfeld, who was defense secretary while her father was vice president, Edelman said.

The opinion piece also warned the military that any involvement in election disputes was dangerous. Dick Cheney’s role in organizing the defense secretaries soon became public, but the congresswoman’s role was kept quiet at the time.

The backlash to Liz Cheney’s focus on Trump has been fierce. As recently as Monday, Trump met with his advisers in Florida to discuss 2022 endorsements, according to people familiar with the meeting. One of Trump’s major priorities was to pick a single candidate from the ever-expanding ranks of Republican rivals in Wyoming who are seeking to run against her, so the anti-Cheney vote is not divided. Trump political advisers have already begun making calls to officials in Wyoming, circulating polling memos and meeting with potential candidates. Jason Miller, a Trump spokesman, said knocking off Cheney was “one of the highest priorities as far as primary endorsements go.”

Opponents said the relentlessness of Cheney’s criticism after her vote for Trump’s impeachment has aggravated her ideological colleagues.

“When you’re in leadership, you don’t just get to speak for yourself,” said one McCarthy adviser, explaining the exasperation over her approach. “She voted against him, she had her say, and the leader supported her. But now it’s every single day.”

Other Republicans said they felt Cheney was not interested in raising money for candidates who backed Trump - an expectation for someone in leadership - and that her continued comments were forcing Republicans to constantly be ensnared in Republican warfare. They note that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who shares much of Cheney’s views, has largely stayed silent even as he tries to maneuver the party away from Trump.

Just three months ago, McCarthy had expressed optimism that the conflagration could be avoided. At a closed-door Feb. 4 meeting of Republican members, Cheney’s colleagues debated her Trump criticism and then voted 145 to 61 to keep her in position as their top messenger. She emerged from that meeting with a show of unity.

“It was a very resounding acknowledgment that we need to go forward together and we need to go forward in a way that helps us beat back the really dangerous and negative Democrat policies,” she told reporters of the vote to support her.

A beaming McCarthy stood nearby.

“This Republican Party is a very big tent and everybody is invited in,” he said. With Cheney in the leadership team, he promised to win the majority in 2022.

McCarthy at that point had spent weeks resisting pressure from both Trump supporters and antagonists for an internal showdown. Trump himself had pressed McCarthy to remove Cheney from leadership in one of the final conversations of Trump’s presidency, goading McCarthy by saying that she wanted to take his job, said people familiar with the conversation.

At the same time, McCarthy had courted Trump’s favor, traveling weeks after the Capitol riot to meet with him in Mar-a-Lago, the decision Cheney cited as a major error. His goal: To keep Trump from starting a third party, or going against Republican incumbents.

But just days after Republicans voted to keep Cheney in leadership, it became clear that the two sides had not agree on what her forthcoming role would be.

In a Feb. 7 appearance on Fox News Sunday, she leaned into her complaints about Trump’s election denial and role in the riot, even suggesting that he should be investigated by prosecutors for the possibility that he intended to incite an attack against Vice President Mike Pence.

“This is not something that we can simply look past, or pretend didn’t happen, or try to move on [from],” she told host Chris Wallace. “We’ve got to make sure this never happens again.”

Repeatedly, over the following weeks, Cheney highlighted the divisions McCarthy was trying to dampen. At a Feb. 24 news conference by Republican leaders at the Capitol, a reporter asked McCarthy whether Trump should be invited to the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference.

“Yes, he should,” McCarthy replied immediately.

When Cheney followed by saying Trump should have no role in leading the party or the country, the number two in the House, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who was standing next to them, shook his head. McCarthy struggled to maintain a stone face.

“On that high note, thank you all very much,” McCarthy finally ad-libbed, ending the event.

He confronted her privately afterward during a meeting in his office. People whom the two leaders have spoken to about that conversation do not agree on what was said behind closed doors. Some briefed on the exchange have been told that McCarthy told Cheney not to contradict him again. Others said it was a conversation about the threat Trump posed to the Constitution, without any ultimatum. The two have only spoken since in group settings, according to people close to both of them.

Weeks later, Cheney traveled to Orlando for an event designed to showcase the party’s strategy for taking out Democrats in 2022, but the story soon shifted to internal division. Before the conference even began, she announced that she had not invited the former president, even though she did not plan the speaker slates.

• • •

The debate over Trump’s potentially negative impact on swing districts is likely to escalate in the coming months, as vulnerable Republicans try to position themselves for reelection.

The internal NRCC poll partially shared with lawmakers in April found that President Joe Biden was perilously popular in core battleground districts, with 54% favorability. Vice President Harris was also more popular than Trump, the poll showed. Biden’s $1.9 trillion covid stimulus plan and his $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure package both polled higher than the former president’s favorability, which was at 41%, compared to 42% in February.

A person familiar with the polling presentation said many details from the battleground poll did not make it into the NRCC’s 30-minute address in Orlando.

“We gladly share any and all information with the members of our conference, which is evidenced by the unfortunate fact The Washington Post has an internal poll,” NRCC spokesman Michael McAdams said in a statement about the polling results.

McCarthy has never rescinded his statement after the Capitol riot that Trump had responsibility for not quickly calling off the Jan. 6 protesters, although he later watered that down and said the rest of the nation also bore responsibility. But he has been unwilling to dwell on his past criticism as he courts Trump’s cooperation. In March, McCarthy hired Brian Jack, a former senior adviser to Trump, to run his political office.

McCarthy has also continued to speak with Trump, even as Trump grumbles about McCarthy’s leadership to his advisers. Trump has at times threatened to other advisers that he will attack McCarthy for not doing more to sideline Cheney, according to people familiar with the conversations. In public, however, Trump has been more supportive.

“I’m working with everybody, including Kevin McCarthy,” Trump said in an April 19 appearance on Fox News. “I’m taking back the House.”

In late April, around the time of the Orlando event, McCarthy told Trump that Cheney would likely be removed from her position in leadership, according to an adviser with knowledge of the conversation. The former president told others he wasn’t sure it would happen.

For her part, Cheney has continued to maintain that she will win reelection in Wyoming, where she has been censured by the state Republican Party for supporting Trump’s impeachment earlier this year.

Her path forward, however, is becoming less clear. She passed up a campaign for Senate in 2020, choosing to stay as House Conference chair, a job her father had held between working for four Republican presidents in the White House and Defense Department. The goal many assumed she had, Speaker of the House, now appears out of reach in at least the short term.

She has recently told others that she believes the voters of Wyoming will ultimately reelect her, understanding that assaults on constitutional processes like elections cannot be accepted.

But even her reelection, a much lower ambition, may require a transformation in the Republican Party away from its current dependence on and adoration of Trump.

In early February, the last time Republicans gathered to determine her fate, she was the one to demand a formal vote on whether she stayed in her leadership position. She is expected to make the same demand on Wednesday, forcing her Republican colleagues to once again confront the former president’s role in a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol - at least privately.

“The choice is so clear,” said one Cheney ally. “Is it OK to be in leadership and tell the truth? That is what members are going to have to weigh in on.”

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