WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans ousted Rep. Liz Cheney from her post as the chamber’s No. 3 GOP leader on Wednesday, punishing her after she repeatedly rebuked former President Donald Trump for his false claims of election fraud and his role in fomenting the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
Meeting behind closed doors for less than 20 minutes, GOP lawmakers used a voice vote to remove Cheney, R-Wyo., from the party’s No. 3 House position, a jarring turnabout to what’s been her fast-rising career within the party.
She has been Congress’ highest-ranking Republican woman and a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and her demotion was the latest evidence that challenging Trump can be career-threatening.
In an audacious signal that she was not backing down, Cheney took to a nearly empty House chamber Tuesday evening to deliver an unapologetic four-minute assault on her GOP adversaries and defense of her own position.
“Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar,” she said, adding, “I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”
Cheney’s replacement was widely expected to be Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who entered the House in 2015 at age 30, then the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Stefanik owns a more moderate voting record than Cheney but has evolved into a vigorous Trump defender who’s echoed some of his unfounded claims about widespread election cheating.
Stripping Cheney, 54, of her leadership job stands as a striking, perhaps historic moment for the GOP.
One of the nation’s two major parties was in effect declaring an extraordinary admission requirement to its highest ranks: fealty to, or at least silence about, Trump’s lie that he lost his November reelection bid due to widespread fraud. In states around the country, officials and judges of both parties found no evidence to support Trump’s claims that extensive illegalities caused his defeat.
It’s been clear that Cheney’s days in leadership were numbered as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., No. 2 leader Steve Scalise, R-La., joined Trump and other Republicans from across the party’s spectrum aligned against her.
Critics said Cheney’s offense wasn’t her views on Trump but her persistence in publicly expressing them, undermining the unity they want party leaders to display as they message in advance of next year’s elections, when they hope to win House control.
“It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about the focus” of House Republicans, Scalise said Tuesday.
Many Republicans also agree with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who’s said the allegiance many GOP voters have to Trump is so intense that the party can’t succeed without him.
A small number of Republicans had spoken out against removing Cheney.
“It will do nothing but drive some people away from our party,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee and one who has clashed often with Trump.
Seemingly conceding that the numbers were against her, Cheney made no discernible effort to cement support ahead of Wednesday’s vote, several Republicans said.
Rather, she all but erected billboards advertising her clash with Trump, declaring in a Washington Post column last week, “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”
Cheney has told Republicans she intends to remain in Congress and seek reelection next year in her solidly pro-Trump state. The former president has said he’ll find a GOP primary challenger to oppose her.
Cheney arrived in Congress in 2017 with a well-known brand as an old-school conservative, favoring tax cuts, energy development and an assertive use of U.S. power abroad. By November 2018 she was elected to her current leadership job unopposed and seemed on an ambitious pathway, potentially including runs at becoming speaker, senator or even president.
She occasionally disagreed with Trump during his presidency over issues like his withdrawal from Syria and attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci over the pandemic. But her career hit turbulence in January once she became one of 10 House Republicans to back his second impeachment for inciting his supporters’ deadly Capitol assault of Jan. 6. The Senate acquitted him.
In a memorable statement before the House impeachment vote, Cheney said: “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.”
Her words — and her pre-vote announcement, which allowed Democrats to cite her opposition during the debate — infuriated many House conservatives.
She withstood a February effort by conservatives to boot her from leadership in a 145-61 secret ballot, but a McCarthy speech on her behalf is credited with saving her. That wasn’t expected to happen this time.
Since then, she’s stood by her views, in one noteworthy incident while McCarthy stood awkwardly nearby at a news conference.
Stefanik also arrived in Congress with sterling GOP establishment credentials. A Harvard graduate, she worked in President George W. Bush’s White House and for the campaign of the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, Wisconsin Rep. and later Speaker Paul Ryan.
Her district, bordering Canada and Vermont, voted twice for Barack Obama and then twice for Trump in the past four presidential elections. She opposed Trump’s trademark 2017 tax cut and his efforts to unilaterally spend billions on his southwestern border wall.
Stefanik grabbed center stage as a fierce Trump defender in 2019 as the House impeached him over his efforts to pressure Ukraine to produce damaging information about Joe Biden, his Democratic rival. Senate acquittal followed.
While Stefanik has won adoration from Trump, some of Washington’s hardest-right conservatives have remained suspicious of her moderate record.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, wrote colleagues Tuesday chastising “Republicans who campaign as Republicans but then vote for and advance the Democrats’ agenda once sworn in.”
No Stefanik challenger has yet emerged, and other conservatives like Scalise and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, are in her camp.
“We have a great deal of support from the Freedom Caucus and others,” she said Tuesday.