WASHINGTON — House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy wants his party to stand firmly with Donald Trump, despite the former president’s false claims about the election being stolen from him.
No. 3 GOP leader Liz Cheney is trying to steer the party far from Trump’s claims about his defeat, charting a future without him.
The party, it became more apparent Tuesday, does not have room for both.
Cheney’s political future was increasingly in peril as McCarthy signaled he would no longer protect his lieutenant from those seeking her ouster from House GOP leadership, opening the possibility of a vote to remove her from the job as soon as next week. One Republican aide granted anonymity to discuss the situation said simply, “She’s toast.”
What could be seen as a skirmish between minority party leaders trying to find a way back to the majority has become a more politically profound moment for Republicans and the country. The party of Abraham Lincoln is deciding whether to let Trump’s false claims about the election of Democrat Joe Biden go unchecked — or to hold him accountable, as Cheney does, by arguing the country cannot “whitewash” the former president’s role in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
“This is a much bigger issue than the future of the Republican Party,” said Timothy Naftali, an associate professor at New York University and founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “This is about the future of our democracy.”
The standoff has been intensifying ever since Cheney led a group of 10 House Republicans voting with Democrats to impeach Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection over the Jan. 6 siege, the worst domestic mob attack on the Capitol in the nation’s history.
Not only was her effort an affront to Trump, still president at the time, but it was out of step with most House Republicans, including the 138 who voted against certifying the Electoral College vote for Biden’s victory. However, others, including Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, who voted to impeach Trump, see Cheney as the “truth-telling” GOP leader the nation needs.
Some fellow Republicans tried to oust her from her leadership position, but they failed in February in a secret party ballot, 145-61, in part because McCarthy urged his troops to remain unified against Democrats.
But the divisions have now widened into a fight for the party’s future as it navigates a post-Trump world.
McCarthy and Cheney are offering their colleagues two theories of the path forward.
McCarthy, who would be in line for the speaker’s gavel if the GOP wins House control, wants to keep Trump voters active in the party and attract new supporters. He believes this is accomplished by keeping Trump engaged, dashing down to the former president’s private club in Florida for support and drawing on his connection with the man who referred to him as “My Kevin.”
Cheney takes the opposite approach, arguing the GOP must rid itself of Trump’s brand of politics with its nationalist, authoritarian overtones if it hopes to return to its conservative roots and attract the voters who fled the party for Biden.
“We can’t embrace the notion the election is stolen. It’s a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy,” Cheney said at a fundraising event with the conservative American Enterprise Institute at Sea Island, Georgia, according to a person familiar with the event and granted anonymity to discuss it.
“We can’t whitewash what happened on Jan. 6 or perpetuate Trump’s big lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on Jan. 6 is a line that cannot be crossed.”
Then, as lawmakers often do when they hope to speak indirectly to Trump, McCarthy appeared on Fox News Channel early Tuesday, and spoke of Cheney a day after Trump leveled fresh claims of voter fraud.
“I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out her job as conference chair, to carry out the message,” he said. “We all need to be working as one if we’re able to win the majority.”
Trump himself issued a fresh statement Monday renewing his desire to see Cheney defeated by another Republican in next year’s Wyoming GOP primary.
Meanwhile, the fight between the two is viewed by other GOP leaders as a distraction, and many rank-and-file Republicans blame her for prolonging it rather than simply letting the former president’s claims go unanswered.
One top Republican congressional aide said McCarthy had weeks ago urged Cheney to stop talking about Trump, and her failure to do so has boosted frustration with her.
McCarthy, who delivered a speech supporting her when House Republicans privately voted to keep her in February, will not do that this time, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations. A vote on whether to remove her could occur as early as next Wednesday, when House Republicans are next scheduled to meet.
Interviews with a half dozen lawmakers and aides from across the party’s ideological spectrum found none saying it’s likely she will survive the challenge. They cited her abandonment by McCarthy and her persistence in criticizing Trump.
Cheney isn’t backing down.
Asked about McCarthy’s comments on Tuesday, spokesperson Jeremy Adler said in a written statement, “This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on Jan 6. Liz will not do that. That is the issue.”
A potential vote on her leadership puts the GOP in the awkward position of seeking to oust its highest-ranking woman from her post at a time when the party is trying to erode Democrats’ decisive advantage among female voters.
Potential contenders to replace her include Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York and Jackie Walorski of Indiana, the aide said. Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, head of the powerful Republican Study Committee, is also seen as in the running.
In Wyoming, far from riding out the criticism, Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is on the defensive.
She already has four Republican primary opponents for next year’s election. Among them, two state legislators are giving her grief for fist-bumping Biden after he spoke to Congress in a joint address last week.
“Liz, fist bump your way right out of Wyoming,” tweeted Chuck Gray, a state representative from Casper.
Cheney responded to the criticism by saying she “will always respond in a civil, respectful and dignified way” when greeted by the president.
She does have allies in Congress, some prominent. However, many House Republicans are unwilling to stand up to Trump, who says he is considering a run to return to the White House in 2024.
Illinois Rep. Kinzinger supports Cheney, and “will continue to fight for the soul of the GOP, no matter how long it takes,” his spokesperson Maura Gillespie said.
And Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee and another Trump adversary, leapt to Cheney’s defense.
“Every person of conscience draws a line beyond which they will not go: Liz Cheney refuses to lie,” Romney tweeted. “As one of my Republican Senate colleagues said to me following my impeachment vote: ‘I wouldn’t want to be a member of a group that punished someone for following their conscience.'”
Story by Lisa Mascaro, Alan Fram and Mead Gruver.