On Wednesday morning, House Republicans voted to strip Liz Cheney of her No. 3 position in party leadership over her continued criticism of former President Donald Trump. The Wyoming representative has long had a complicated relationship with other Republicans, but her refusal to fall in line behind Trump’s election lies galvanized that resistance and cost her the support of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Eliana Johnson, editor in chief of the conservative Washington Free Beacon, about how Cheney got here and what her ouster says about the future of the Republican Party. This conversation, recorded Tuesday morning, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eliana Johnson: I think what’s changed is something that’s a little more tactical than principled, in that the Kevin McCarthys of the world and the Mitch McConnells of the world think that Trump out of office, his influence has already diminished and will continue to diminish. For Cheney, I think, the Jan. 6 riot was a defining moment, and she viewed that as a real threat to democracy. She believes that Trump sitting on a beach chair at Mar-a-Lago is as much of a threat to the republic as he was when he was tapping out tweets from the Oval Office.
Cheney was one of 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment in the second impeachment trial. And even lawmakers who share her view on that and voted for impeachment have turned against her because they are in contested races coming up and they don’t want to be talking about their impeachment vote anymore.
Cheney was never shy about speaking up about her disagreements with Trump, and I think part of the animosity between her and other members is due to her views on foreign policy. She favors a more muscular and interventionist foreign policy than Trump and a lot of other members. But part of it also was that she aired her disagreements with Trump all through the Trump administration. And Cheney was never a Trump toady, yet she held her leadership position through this.
Mary Harris: Back in February, Cheney faced a battle over her chairmanship and she managed to hang on to her seat. What was different then from now?
A couple of things. The first is I think McCarthy came under a lot of pressure from Cheney allies who believe she’s a really important voice in the Republican Party on foreign policy. And I think the assumption was that if McCarthy saved her skin, she would mute her criticisms of Trump and pivot in the way that somebody like Mitch McConnell has. You remember McConnell, when he voted to certify the election in January, said it was the most important vote he had ever taken in a political career. He has since traded insults with Trump, who has described him in terms not suitable for a family podcast. But it’s very clear to people where McConnell stands on this and that there’s no love lost between Trump and McConnell. Yet when McConnell is asked a question about Trump, he doesn’t take the bait. And I think that the incorrect assumption was that she would follow in McConnell’s footsteps.
How did Cheney take the bait?
There was a tremendous amount of frustration at the Republican conference retreat down in Florida when the majority of the headlines out of that conference retreat were about Cheney slamming Trump. And suffice it to say, this is politics. Those are not the headlines that Republicans want right now. They want their focus to be on the Biden administration.
Now many House Republicans are looking to replace Cheney with Elise Stefanik, a representative from New York who originally wasn’t on the Trump train either.
Elise Stefanik comes from an upstate rural New York district that was in Democratic hands for two decades and that she flipped. And Stefanik, I think, has been able to straddle, better than Cheney, the establishment world of Republicans and the Trump world, in that she was in a contested primary in 2014 and it was the support of top-dollar Republican donors that helped propel her out of that primary. She worked in the George W. Bush administration. She was Paul Ryan’s debate coach when he was the vice presidential nominee. She very much comes from the establishment mold, but she’s migrated.
Is there really a line between establishment folks and the Trump wing anymore? It seems like those establishment figures have simply aligned themselves with Trump.
I think that’s a good point and largely true. Yes. So she’s someone who’s come from that establishment wing, was propelled out of her primary, made it to the general election, thanks to them. And it’s true, I think that wing is not openly hostile to Trump and is eager to move beyond him.
The Republican Party doesn’t have an official platform right now, so we’re looking at these characters to try to understand what it means to be a Republican. And a few years ago, you would say Liz Cheney very much fit that mold—very conservative, hawkish, deep family ties to politics. And then you look at someone like Stefanik who came in, was quite liberal, and has gotten some pushback from conservative groups as basically being liberal. But when you talk about what conservative enough is or what Republican enough is, I think it very much is Elise Stefanik, because she’s made this move to just ally herself more and more closely with Trump and whatever his beliefs seem to be and is willing to just keep going down that path.
I’m not sure I agree with that, in that parties out of power by nature squabble, and I don’t think there is any agreement on what it means to be a Republican. I think there are two important debates taking place. One is on economics and whether the GOP will continue to embrace free market economics. And the other is on foreign policy, whether the GOP will continue to be the party of hawks. And I don’t think we have answers to either of those questions.
What I do think the party is united on, basically, is many of them want to move beyond Trump. The Trump years were exhausting. They were exhausting for conservatives and Republicans and lawmakers and donors. And I think there’s a lot of eagerness simply to move beyond him and to have these more substantive debates.
But Stefanik voted not to certify the vote in Pennsylvania, so it’s not quite moving beyond Trump. It’s not clean like that, I don’t think.
I think that’s right. And I think Stefanik’s strategy has been never to say anything that’s obviously false, but to lend the Trumpies the impression that she agrees with them, without drifting into blatant falsehood territory. Moving beyond might be the wrong word, but I think it’s just to minimize opposition, minimize that internal friction, somewhat in the same way that Democrats are trying to minimize friction with progressives.
Back in February, the last time Cheney was in the hot seat like this, she had the support of party leaders. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stood by her. This time, not so much. Recently, he was caught on a hot mic saying Cheney’s “got real problems” and “I’ve had it with her.”
I think that McCarthy, who is a relatively amoral political figure, he’s focused on winning and he simply was fed up with her articulating a message that he and others don’t believe is going to lead to Republican victory in 2022. To understand McCarthy, you have got to understand that he’s only thinking about politics. He wants to become speaker and he wants Republicans to take back the House in 2022.
It seems like the Republican Party is guessing that the winning tactic is to just double down, ignore what happened on Jan. 6, keep it pushing. That is a fundamentally amoral strategy. The question is whether it’s a winning or losing strategy.
We don’t know. Liz Cheney could be right. I think that the disagreement is over two things. The first is how big of a threat is Trump out of power? And the second is what is the winning message for 2022? So I think Liz Cheney thinks Trump is much more powerful out of power than does Kevin McCarthy, and she believes Trump is an electoral killer and that as a result she needs to beat him over the head and stamp out his influence ahead of 2022 because that’s bad for Republican politics. Whereas somebody like McCarthy says, “I don’t want to keep talking about things that divide the party. I want to talk about the Biden administration.”
Is there a case that this is a good way for Cheney to make it rain in terms of campaign dollars? She puts herself out there as the person who’s speaking up against Trump, and there are very few people like her who have an R next to their name. And so maybe that is part of her calculus here.
There’s been a lot of discussion about what is Cheney’s endgame here, what is she trying to do, because in refusing to drop the Trump stuff, she’s giving up a position of power, and power involves moral compromises. So I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I will say, for anti-Trumpers, there are sort of two paths you can go. There’s the Mitch McConnell path—he stated his views and now he’s not answering questions about Trump anymore. And then there’s the Jeff Flake, Bob Corker path. Those are both former senators whose strident anti-Trumpism, I would say, killed their careers. But I don’t think they fundamentally disagree on anything. I happen to agree with Liz Cheney and everything she said. I part ways with her on the tactics.
I was listening to the Sunday shows from this past weekend and the murmurs among Republicans about Liz Cheney, and the pushback on Cheney reminded me so much of pushback on Elizabeth Warren from a few years back. You had Chris Christie on ABC saying she wouldn’t stop talking about Jan. 6 and it’s going to be a drag. It sounded so much like “nevertheless, she persisted,” like she just kept talking. And there’s this other similarity between Cheney and Elizabeth Warren, which is people often say Warren’s a bad politician. She staked out these positions that often seemed very outside of where her party was, and she was critical of the party itself, and she won some contests and she lost some, but she ended up pulling her party in a direction that it was not going before. She was part of that. And it made me wonder if that was Cheney’s play here, to do something like that.
I think in her dreams perhaps that’s her play, is to make a real stamp on the party by pulling it in the anti-Trump direction. But I think there is one important distinction, which is that I think as a Democrat, it’s easy to pull your party to the left. And as a Republican, it’s easier to pull your party to the right. If you’re a Republican trying to pull your party to the left or to the center, that’s more challenging.
Cheney’s already got a primary challenger for 2022, right?
She does, and I think the big question is how this will reverberate for her back home. And I think there are real doubts about whether she will come out of that primary after losing a leadership post. She, by the way, has expressed a lot of confidence that she’ll prevail, and I hope she does. I think her message is perfectly fine for a rank-and-file member of the Republican Party. I think it’s less appropriate for somebody in party leadership. But I think Cheney is an important presence and an important voice in the party.
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.