Liz Cheney’s Bold Bet on Impeachment

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As his presidency careens to a finish, Republicans are sharply divided over Donald Trump. But they agree on one thing: Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney’s vote to impeach the president is a bold—and risky—move.

On Tuesday, Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, broke publicly with Trump, blaming him in a blistering three-paragraph statement for the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” she wrote.

Cheney’s decision split the Republican leadership. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Majority Leader Steve Scalise have both been staunch supporters of Trump throughout his term. Her vote to impeach forced open a wrenching intra-party debate over whether the GOP should remain in thrall to Trump once he leaves office or try to assert its independence and rebuild its electoral appeal after Democrats won full control of Washington in the last election.

It’s far from clear that Cheney’s repudiation of Trump will sway her party: Only nine other Republican House members voted to impeach him today.

“It’s inevitable for the party to pivot away from Trump given the way he’s leaving his term,” says Tom Davis, the former Virginia congressman and past chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The irony here is that Liz represents one of the most pro-Trump districts in the country, so it’s a real profile in courage for her—or tomfoolery, depending on your point of view.”

Indeed, Cheney’s move poses risks for her in Washington and back home in Wyoming. On Tuesday, Republican Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona, chairman of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, demanded that Cheney resign from her leadership post. “She should not be serving in this conference,” he told reporters on Tuesday. Biggs, a close Trump ally, has begun circulating a petition to call a meeting in which Republicans could oust Cheney from her leadership role.

Polling since Jan. 6 shows that while most Americans have further soured on Trump, the Republican backlash against the president has been limited. “There is no doubt that January 6th was a galvanizing movement for millions of Americans,” says Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. “It remains to be seen how much opinion among Republicans will change as a result, but there’s clearly been movement against the president since his speech and the attack on the Capitol.”

Cheney has a noteworthy lineage—she’s the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney—and earned a reputation as an ambitious politician who rose quickly in the caucus after first being elected to the House in 2016. Before running for elected office, Cheney had a high-profile career as a State Department official and foreign policy hawk, who worked on her father’s 2004 campaign and appeared regularly on Fox News.

Her break with Trump isn’t entirely unexpected. She’d bristled against Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, publicly defending Dr. Anthony Fauci against the president’s attacks and, with help from her dad, criticizing Trump’s hostility toward masks:

Her vote for impeachment isn’t likely to go over smoothly in Wyoming, a state Trump won by 43 points in November and where he remains popular. “In 2016, a lot of the Trump vote was really an anti-Clinton vote, but it was much more pro-Trump in 2020,” says James King, a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming. “Some of those people are going to be put off by her decision to support impeachment.”

Even so, King says, Cheney has a strong presence in the state and should have no trouble surviving. “She’ll be challenged in 2022,” he says. “But she’s got the resources, the name recognition, and the connection to the state such that one vote is not going to cost her her seat.”

But political observers say Cheney’s Washington ambitions could be dealt a serious blow. Cheney has long been viewed as positioning herself for a run at the speaker’s chair once McCarthy retires or loses support—a race Scalise is also known to be eyeing. Last year, she passed up a run for Wyoming’s open Senate seat to keep on track in the House. Judging from the ongoing support for Trump illustrated by the impeachment vote, she’s likely to pay a price within the caucus for moving to oust him.

“Being in leadership there’s tremendous pressure on her to stay the course,” says Davis. “For a leader to break is, in many ways, harder, not easier, than for a backbencher to do it. As the third-ranking Republican in the House, she has put her career on the line.”

Experts say that her vote probably forecloses any chance she has to succeed McCarthy, unless Trump’s departure leads to a sea change in Republican opinion toward the twice-impeached president.

“I don’t think it bodes well for her chances of being speaker,” says Josh Huder, a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “There’s going to be a real battle to frame the Trump legacy following his departure from office. But right now, I don’t think she’s in a good spot unless a number of Republican constituencies can redefine the Trump legacy in a negative way.”

Not every Republican believes that Trump’s hold on the party will endure after he leaves office. Another GOP pollster, who didn’t want to be named publicly criticizing the president, likened Trump’s influence going forward to that of another charismatic and polarizing politician, former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. In the 2010 election cycle, the pollster said, no voice was more influential or endorsement more coveted in GOP circles than Palin’s. But without a political platform, her public profile and influence quickly waned, as she drifted toward entertainment and eventually reality television.

While Trump still remains popular among the conservative faithful, his appeal has diminished. A Jan. 13 Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 40 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents would vote for Trump if he ran in the 2024 Republican primary, down from 53 percent who said they’d support him two months ago.

To friends, Cheney has characterized her vote against Trump as a matter of conscience, rather than politics. Even so, it represents a career gamble that Republicans will soon break free of Trump’s grip and may one day even come to view his presidency with regret. If that happens, Cheney will have staked out a position for herself as a leader for the party’s future. It’s a bet few other Republicans have been willing to make.
 
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