'History Is Watching': Liz Cheney Doubles Down On Trump Criticism Amid Fallout

May 5, 2021
Originally published on May 6, 2021 6:12 am

Updated May 5, 2021 at 5:52 PM ET

Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, is doubling down on her condemnation of former President Donald Trump over his efforts to undermine the 2020 election and his role in inciting the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot as pressure mounts among top Republicans to remove her from her leadership role.

In an op-ed published Wednesday in The Washington Post, Cheney urged her party to "stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality."

"Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this," the Wyoming Republican wrote.

The op-ed came the same day Trump and Rep. Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican, called for Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a Trump loyalist, to replace Cheney as House Republican Conference chair.

The rift within the party pits Cheney, one of the most conservative members of her party, against Stefanik, one of the most ardent Trump supporters who until recently was seen as a relative moderate. It has implications for the future of the GOP, which appears to have cast its lot with the former president ahead of next year's midterm elections — even as it sidelines Cheney and other conservatives who are Trump critics.

Cheney intensified, however, her criticism of Trump and her party's support of him.

"While embracing or ignoring Trump's statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country," she wrote. "Trump has never expressed remorse or regret for the attack of Jan. 6 and now suggests that our elections, and our legal and constitutional system, cannot be trusted to do the will of the people."

Cheney, who likely faces a vote on her future as the No. 3 House Republican, insisted she will not back down.

"History is watching. Our children are watching. We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process," she wrote. "I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be."

Her comments came the same day that Trump endorsed Stefanik for Cheney's leadership role.

"We want leaders who believe in the Make America Great Again movement, and prioritize the values of America First," Trump said in a statement. "Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair. Elise is a tough and smart communicator!"

Stefanik tweeted her thanks to Trump, writing, "We are unified and focused on FIRING PELOSI & WINNING in 2022!"

Rep. Steve Scalise also publicly called for Stefanik to replace Cheney.

"House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and President Biden's radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair," Scalise's communications director, Lauren Fine, said in a statement given to NPR.

The House of Representatives is currently in recess, which means any official vote to remove Cheney from her leadership role, or elect Stefanik, would happen next week at the earliest.

On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Fox & Friends he's had members share concerns with him over Cheney's ability to carry out GOP messaging and pushed back that the fallout against the Wyoming lawmaker stems from her vote to impeach Trump.

"I haven't heard members concerned about her vote on impeachment, it's more concerned about the job ability to do and what's our best step forward, that we can all work together instead of attacking one another," he said.

But as Axios reported following the interview, McCarthy put it more bluntly in a moment captured on a hot mic.

"I've had it with her. I've lost confidence," he said, according to Axios.

Tensions between McCarthy and Cheney have been simmering for months as Cheney refuses to let up on rebuking Trump for undermining the 2020 election and inciting the Capitol insurrection.

But many Republicans view her fierce criticism of the former president as at odds with her role of carrying out party messaging, especially as leaders such as McCarthy and Scalise are actively working with Trump for his campaign support in the next midterm elections.

Scalise previously told Axios that Cheney's views on Trump are out of step with most Republicans.

"This idea that you just disregard President Trump is not where we are, and frankly he has a lot to offer still and has offered a lot. He wants to help us win the House back," he said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday morning that Cheney's "greatest offense apparently is she is principled and she believes in the truth."

"If you're not 1,000% for Donald Trump, somehow you're not a good Republican, you're not worthy of being in the leadership," Hoyer told The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty on Post Live.

"I think it's a real weakness in the Republican Party that they have jettisoned their principles, jettisoned adherence to the truth, and simply pandered to one individual: Donald Trump."

Stefanik, 36, was first elected to the House in 2014. At the time, she was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. A Harvard graduate who worked in the George W. Bush White House, Stefanik has shifted her political alliances from being closely aligned to the GOP's establishment wing — she was a political ally and onetime adviser to former House Speaker Paul Ryan — to a vocal Trump supporter who earned attention and praise from the former president for her role in defending him during his first impeachment trial.

Stefanik has worked for years to recruit and support more Republican women to run for Congress, a constituency in which she now enjoys a strong level of support. She has not faced a serious challenge for her upstate New York House seat since she won in 2014 and as the area has trended toward Republicans.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney is the third highest ranking Republican in the House for now. House Republicans want to force her out of the job of Republican conference chair. They're mad about two things. She voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. And she continues to confront his false allegations that the 2020 election was fraudulent. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis is following this one. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: Didn't House Republicans already try to force Liz Cheney out of leadership?

DAVIS: They did. They tried back in February after the impeachment vote. And she defeated the challenge by a nearly 2-to-1 margin on a secret ballot. But where most House Republicans have either maintained Trump did nothing wrong or at least they no longer want to talk about it publicly, Cheney's just been relentless in attacking Trump and has said she wants him to play absolutely no role in the party going forward. And this is at a time when most Republicans are courting his support ahead of the 2022 midterms. So her specific leadership job is about crafting party messaging. And her message is just out of step with most Republicans even if what she is saying is, essentially, true. Trump is wrong. The election was not stolen.

KING: And for a while, she had the support of her fellow party leaders, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise. So what, they've just kind of abandoned her now?

DAVIS: Yeah. It's really been a spectacular sight to watch to see a party's leadership turn on each other like this. This does not happen very often. McCarthy has barely appeared with her in public since March. He's distanced himself from an interview with her with Fox News earlier this week. And he was caught on a hot mic later on that show saying he lost faith in her. Scalise took it even further. He put out a statement saying he was going to support a colleague against her, New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik. Stefanik has since announced she's courting support. Trump has endorsed her for the job.

The brutal sort of irony here for Cheney is that Stefanik nominated her for the leadership job in 2018 and 2020 and is now working to take it from her. But Stefanik has been a Trump loyalist. She's not going to criticize him the way Cheney has. Cheney also has a more conservative voting record than Stefanik. For instance, Stefanik voted against the Trump tax cuts. So it really is all about where one stands on Trump. The House has been out of session this week. But they're expected - this is all expected to come to a head next week when they meet in private. If Cheney doesn't step down, they can essentially just force a vote in private to remove her and then elect her replacement.

KING: What is she saying?

DAVIS: She wrote an op-ed yesterday in The Washington Post in which she defended herself. She said this is bigger than her. It's bigger than a leadership race, that it's about what the Republican Party wants to be - in her words, she said, whether they'll choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution and rule of law or fealty to Donald Trump in what she describes as an anti-democratic, lowercase-d cult of personality. She again said that Trump's efforts to undermine the election are dangerous and said they could provoke more violence. So this vote is going to obviously now take on a much greater symbolism about who wants to stand by Trump then just who should be sitting at the leadership table.

We note this has been, really, a pretty dramatic change for Cheney's personal political fortune. She had long been seen as this rising star. She had turned down a Senate bid a couple of years ago. And she was seen as maybe parting a path to the speakership in the House. It's really hard to see her rising up the party leadership ladder right now. But back home, she's also facing a primary challenge for her seat. And she's been censured by her state Republican Party for her impeachment vote.

KING: As you're watching all of this, what does it tell you about Trump's continued influence over the Republican Party?

DAVIS: I mean, when it comes to House Republicans specifically, it seems pretty clear that his power is absolute. There's just no lane to be a Republican of any influence and criticize Trump the way Cheney has been doing. I think it's a warning to the other Republicans who voted for impeachment or have been critical of Trump that they need to proceed with caution in 2022. But there's also some bigger risk here. You know, good primary politics don't always mean good November politics. Republicans are going to try to win back a House majority. But they're trying to win back voters who are pretty repulsed by what Trump did.

KING: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.