On Monday morning, a political action committee for Donald Trump—a film extra who served as president of the United States from 2017 to 2021—released a statement saying that “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” The rebranding edict was directed to no one in particular. But among the prominent politicians who chose to respond to it was Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking member and chair of the House Republican conference, the most Trumpy bloc of elected officials in Washington.
To the naked eye, Cheney’s behavior since she cast her vote for Trump’s second impeachment in response to his supporters’ Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol would suggest that she’s eager to sacrifice her political career on the altar of principle. But since no politician thinks like that, what’s going on here?
Cheney’s Jan. 12 statement in support of impeaching the president was uncompromising. “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing,” she said. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.” The overwhelming majority of her conference sided with Trump instead, but when they tried to strip Cheney of her leadership job in retribution, she saved her position by working the phones, lining up the votes, and earning the support of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy a few weeks later.
She wouldn’t apologize for her impeachment vote, and she still hasn’t. If anything, she’s been more vocal, since Trump’s departure, about the need for the party to distance itself from him.
It’s made for some awkward moments. At a House GOP press conference in February, a reporter asked McCarthy whether Trump should speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. McCarthy said yes. Cheney had a different answer. “That’s up to CPAC,” she said. “I’ve been clear on my views about President Trump. I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, standing next to her, shook his head, and McCarthy abruptly ended the press conference “on that high note.”
The House GOP retreat in Orlando, Florida, last week was far from the happiest place on earth. Cheney, when asked about 2024 presidential candidates, said that “some of our candidates who led the charge, particularly the senators who led the unconstitutional charge, not to certify the election, you know, in my view that’s disqualifying.” She also emphasized the need for a commission focused narrowly on investigating the Jan. 6 riot, which McCarthy opposes.
“If we minimize what happened on Jan. 6 and if we appease it,” she said, “then we will be in a situation where every election cycle, you could potentially have another constitutional crisis.”
McCarthy, ever aware that Trump is dangling a sword over him, already stuck his neck out to protect Cheney once. He stopped doing so in Orlando, refusing to say whether Cheney should remain in GOP leadership and suggesting that those not focused on “policy” at the retreat were “not being productive.”
After returning to Washington for President Joe Biden’s address to Congress, Cheney greeted the president with a fist bump and then joyously told her many haters, including Donald Trump Jr., to pound sand.
Cheney’s continued outspokenness and fraternization with the enemy has reached the level where rank-and-file members are fielding angry questions about her from their constituents “back home,” as Punchbowl News reported. That’s the point at which hand-wavey concerns about a lack of messaging unity within party leadership (no one cares) transform into a problem members feel they need to address. The tide is turning against Cheney within the conference, other leaders are done with her, and members are starting to make public predictions about how long she’ll last. When the House returns to session next week, the House GOP’s weekly meeting should be a lively one.
She may lose her leadership post, she may not. She is “confident,” though, that she will survive a primary in 2022 and win reelection.
To the extent that her consistent poking of the bear can align with her political self-interest, she’s evidently made the calculation that there’s no use in going halfway anti-Trump. Cheney didn’t just begin speaking her mind against the former president on Jan. 6. House conservatives were furious at her last summer for breaking from the Trump line. You don’t need much of a heretical record at all to be tagged as the “anti-Trump candidate” in a competitive Republican primary, and she had already accrued more than enough demerits to earn the title before she voted for impeachment. Rather than hedge now and launch a transparently false “I’m the real Trump candidate” campaign that would only emphasize how she isn’t, she can emphasize how she backs down to no one and always fights! A “wrong” record on Trump can put her in primary danger, but perhaps commitment to a vibe can get her out of it.
That, and a lot of money. Though she may not be popular among the Republican base, the remnants of the Resistance and fellow anti-Trump Republicans will always make sure that the rare Republican who stood up to Trump isn’t lacking in funds.