(The Hill) — Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., didn’t make any new friends in the Republican Party with her star turn bashing former President Donald Trump in prime time on Thursday night. It doesn’t bother her a bit.
Cheney, a dynastic figure who sits in the House seat once held by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, used her high perch on the Jan. 6 select committee to accuse Trump of abusing the powers of the presidency to orchestrate nothing short of an attempted coup — explosive charges that have reinforced her status as Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of the MAGA faithful.
The much-watched hearing has further complicated Cheney’s path to reelection in deep-red Wyoming, a Trump stronghold where her primary opponent has the energetic backing of the 45th president, who is actively stumping against the mutinous incumbent.
But as Cheney’s attacks on Trump have grown only louder, it’s increasingly clear she’s motivated by something other than securing her future in the lower chamber. Whether that thing is a self-sacrificing desire to save the country’s democratic traditions from the former president or an egomaniacal effort to advance her own fame and political powers largely depends on the perspective of her fans and critics.
What is not in question is that Cheney has staked her legacy on her relentless anti-Trump activism — a reputation that will become only more deeply entrenched as the select committee airs its investigative findings in a long series of public hearings that will dominate discussion in Washington through the rest of the month.
“President Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack,” Cheney, the vice-chair of the select committee, said during the panel’s prime-time hearing Thursday night.
For the like-minded Trump critics, Cheney is an enormous asset to the investigation, offering the committee not only a good dose of bipartisan legitimacy but also a seasoned legal mind who knows the ins and outs of the GOP conference and its complicated dealings with the former president.
“She’s an awesome lawyer, … (and) she was the chair of the House Republican Conference,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a former professor of constitutional law who also sits on the investigative panel. “So she obviously knows the terrain better than anyone else on the committee.”
To Trump’s allies on and off Capitol Hill, however, Cheney is simply a traitor to the party — a “Pelosi Republican” who’s been all but disowned as GOP leaders try to tap Trump’s popularity in their effort to flip control of the House in November’s midterm elections. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who wants to take the House speakership next year, said this week the responsibility for Jan. 6 falls on “everybody in the country.”
In one sense, Cheney is an unlikely figure to assume the role of Republican iconoclast. Her family ranks among the most powerful GOP dynasties of the last half-century, and her father’s unique brand of conservatism — combined with his no-apologies approach to power-policymaking — made him a favorite with the Republican base.
In a similar vein, Liz Cheney’s staunch conservative positions — including strong attacks on gay marriage during an early campaign — made her a villain in the eyes of Democrats nationwide, but helped propel her quickly into the leadership ranks once she arrived on Capitol Hill in 2017.
In another sense, however, Cheney is the natural fit to play Trump’s foil.
Trump had devoted much of his successful 2016 campaign to bashing the overseas entanglements of the Bush-Cheney administration, most notably the 2003 decision to launch the Iraq War, which was championed by the elder Cheney. After taking the White House, Trump continued those attacks on the old Republican guard, which had pushed an aggressively interventionist foreign policy. That group included both Cheneys.
Although Cheney opposed Trump’s first impeachment, she was furious with his actions surrounding the attack on the Capitol, where a violent mob of Trump supporters tried to overturn his election defeat. More than 150 police officers were injured in the rampage.
Cheney was one of just 10 Republicans to support Trump’s impeachment following the riot, and she has jumped head-first into her role investigating the tragedy. On Thursday, she used the platform of the televised hearing to warn those Republicans still backing Trump that history won’t treat them kindly.
“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,” she said.
Supporters of the far-reaching investigation note the significance of having a Republican of Cheney’s stature joining the probe.
“It’s important, because like she said, this is not about political parties or your political views. It’s about finding out the truth,” U.S. Capitol Police Sgt. Aquilino Gonell said following the hearing. “And from what the committee laid out today, it seems like there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”
But Cheney’s recalcitrance has come with political costs.
Last year, after Cheney refused to stop criticizing Trump for his role in the Capitol riot, the GOP conference voted overwhelmingly to boot her out of leadership, replacing her with a Trump loyalist, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who has embraced Trump’s lies about a stolen election.
More recently, the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted to condemn Cheney — along with the only other Republican on the select committee, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — for their willingness to join Democrats in the Jan. 6 investigation. That decision, the RNC charged, “has been destructive to the institution of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic.”
In the wake of Thursday’s select committee hearing, the attacks on Cheney from Trump’s allies have grown only more pronounced. Amid the hearing, Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News pundit, characterized Cheney as “the Iraq War lady” who’s now “lecturing us about honor and truth.”
Carlson’s guest was Joe Kent, a Trump supporter from Washington state who has launched a primary challenge against Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who also supported Trump’s second impeachment. Kent, too, had some sharp words for the Wyoming Republican.
“It’s absolutely absurd and insulting,” Kent said of Cheney’s attacks on Trump’s defenders. “She thinks that we can’t go back and look at her record that she has been lying to the American people basically for her entire career and profiting off of it, but also she has to bring up this whole, ‘Oh it must be a big Trump thing.’”
Kent said the Capitol rioters were in Washington on Jan. 6 not because of anything Trump did or said, but because “a vast majority” of Americans “did not feel like their voices were heard at the election box, and therefore things started to get a little bit dicey.”
In the face of such attacks, Cheney has found a new group of allies: Democrats, who have always opposed her conservative policy prescriptions but are now cheering her on as she takes on a shared adversary in Trump.
“Liz Cheney and I do not agree on almost probably 80 percent of the contentious issues that come up, give or take 10 points,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters this week. “But what she is standing up for is the truth.
“That’s why she was removed as the leader of the Republican Party,” he continued. “Because the Republican Party didn’t want to hear the truth.”