WASHINGTON (AP) — Just before a mob unleashed a deadly rampage on the U.S. Capitol last week, President Donald Trump told tens of thousands of supporters that “we got to get rid” of Rep. Liz Cheney.
The Wyoming congresswoman and No. 3 House Republican had already broken with the president on everything from mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic to pulling back American troops in Afghanistan. Now she's emerging as the most prominent Republican to back Trump's impeachment — the only member of her party's leadership doing so.
This could be a defining moment in Cheney's political career. Her support provided some cover to the nine other House Republicans who followed her lead and made Trump the only president in American history to be twice impeached. Defying Trump also carried the historical weight of coming from the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, a conservative force in Washington for decades.
“That is not some irresponsible, new member of the Congress,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on the floor Wednesday, noting that he'd endured opposition from the older Cheney in the chamber and elsewhere. “This is the daughter of the former Republican whip and former vice president. She knows of what she speaks.”
Hours later and moments before the vote, Hoyer again returned to Cheney's position, imploring Republicans, “I hope others will join Liz Cheney." The 10 Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment was small but significant — when Trump was impeached last year, no House Republicans supported it.
Cheney represents one of the country's reliably Republican states, but her vote could prompt a primary challenge from the right in next year's election. That makes her backing impeachment all the more surprising since Cheney is seen as someone looking to build on an already strong national profile to possibly grow within the Republican Party's upper ranks.
As the only woman in House GOP leadership, Cheney has been seen as a possible candidate for House speaker should the GOP regain the majority in 2022 or beyond. That might even have portended a future presidential run.
"There will be some blowback within her state and the Trumpites in it, but I think it’s a fairly calculated decision,” said Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and congressman who was unseated in 2018 by a conservative primary challenger endorsed by Trump. “There’s some degree of risk-reward to it.”
Any hope of Cheney rising in the House GOP leadership looks bleak, at least for now. The two Republicans who outrank her, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, have generally remained supportive of Trump.
Other top members of her own party have begun clamoring for Cheney to quit — or be voted out of — her post as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus, called her stance on impeachment “totally wrong.” Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale said Cheney “ignored the preferences of Republican voters” proving she’s “unfit to lead.”
But Cheney has bounced back from other tough moments, including when her short-lived 2014 primary challenge against Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi was derided by the Republican establishment and conservative activists alike.
She rebounded to win her state's lone House seat when it came open just two years later. Cheney later turned down invitations by top Republicans to run for Enzi's seat when he retired last year and instead opted to remain in the party's House leadership — stoking speculation that she was intent on becoming the first female Republican to be House speaker.
And Cheney has bucked Trump before, speaking out against his opposition to mask-wearing, his veto of a defense spending bill and many foreign policy decisions. That was a key reason Trump singled her out as the kind of Republican his supporters needed to rise up against before last week’s armed insurrection at the Capitol.
Not all Republicans are denouncing Cheney, evidence that the party remains deeply divided between those still siding with Trump and those now willing to oppose him mere days before he leaves office.
“I’m not judging anybody on this. This is a very, very difficult decision,” Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis said of Cheney.
Rep. Nancy Mace, a newly elected Republican from Sanford's old South Carolina district, said she’s been critical of both Democrats and Republicans for helping to create the political conditions that triggered the mob moving on the Capitol.
“I think it’s very important that we hold everybody accountable," Mace said "and I hope that people are investigated to the fullest extent of the law, from the president on down.”
Cheney brushed aside any suggestion she'd quit the GOP House leadership, saying “I’m not going anywhere. This is a vote of conscience.”
“It’s one where there are different views in our conference. But our nation is facing an unprecedented, since the civil war, constitutional crisis,” she said Wednesday. "That’s what we need to be focused on. That’s where our efforts and attention need to be.”
In supporting Trump's impeachment, Cheney similarly didn't mince words, noting that the Capitol was overrun and ransacked after Trump “summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack." She added that “there has never been a greater betrayal by a president.”
Questions of a president's fitness for office isn't uncharted political territory for the Cheney family. Before he was vice president, Dick Cheney served as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Richard Nixon and ultimately pardoned him, after Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The elder Cheney also was a chief architect of many of President George W. Bush's policy initiatives that most delighted the Republican base — from lucrative tax cuts to the war in Iraq.
Still, Sanford noted that the Republican Party of today is not the same as it was 20 or even 10 years ago. He said Rep. Cheney knows that "the Bushes are not exactly Trump fans so, if anything, there would probably be a basis within the old guard ... for her to do something.”
“I just think that whatever happened in the Bush administration happened then," Sanford said, "and, if Trump hadn’t shattered every other historic precedent that’s out there, I don’t know who would.”