Rep. Liz Cheney’s already slim chances of hanging on to her post as House Republican Conference chair became even more remote Wednesday after former President Donald Trump and fellow Republican leaders rallied around her most likely replacement.
Delivering what could prove to be the knockout blow, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise threw his support behind Rep. Elise Stefanik’s bid to oust Ms. Cheney, and others followed suit.
The biggest blessing came from Mr. Trump, who didn’t miss another chance to slam Ms. Cheney as a “war-mongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership.”
“We want leaders who believe in the Make America Great Again movement, and prioritize the values of America First,” Mr. Trump said Wednesday. “Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair.”
Ms. Cheney fired back by warning that the Republican Party is at a “turning point” and that embracing or turning a blind eye to Mr. Trump’s claims of a stolen election will “do profound long-term damage to our party and our country.”
Ms. Cheney said the best path forward for Republicans is to support Justice Department’s criminal investigations into the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol and to back the creation of a bipartisan 9/11-style commission with subpoena power necessary to effectively investigate what led to that attack.
“Finally, we Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality,” Ms. Cheney said in a Washington Post op-ed.
“We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process,” she said. “I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”
Ms. Cheney’s fate is expected to be decided next week when the House returns from its spring break.
The irony is that Ms. Cheney, a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, was a far more reliable vote for Mr. Trump than Ms. Stefanik, according to congressional vote trackers.
She also has a much stronger lifetime rating with the American Conservative Union, scoring 78% on key conservative votes to Ms. Stefanik’s 44%.
As a result, Ms. Stefanik faced some backfire Wednesday from conservatives.
“Elise Stefanik is NOT a good spokesperson for the House Republican Conference,” said the Club for Growth, which described her as a liberal. “House Republicans should find a conservative to lead messaging and win back the House Majority.”
But Ms. Stefanik has been a more vocal ally of Mr. Trump.
She voted against impeaching him and voted in favor of objecting to the results of the 2020 election.
Ms. Cheney, by contrast, was among the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump for inciting the Capitol mayhem. She also refused to object to the election results, arguing that Mr. Trump’s claims of a stolen election were rejected in the courts and at the state level.
She said the party must move away from Trumpism and focus more on conservative policies and principles that could bolster the Republican Party brand after losing the White House and both chambers of Congress on Mr. Trump’s watch.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Mr. Scalise, meanwhile, are betting they are better off having Mr. Trump in their corner as they look to flip control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections.
“House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair,” Scalise spokesperson Laura Fine said in a statement.
Mr. McCarthy, meanwhile, was caught in a hot mic moment this week telling “Fox and Friends” host Steve Doocy that he has “had it with” Ms. Cheney.
Ms. Cheney survived a rebellion earlier this year when Republican lawmakers voted 145-61 to keep her on the leadership team.
Mr. McCarthy now insists the concerns about Ms. Cheney have nothing to do with her impeachment vote and everything to do with whether she can carry out her leadership duties.
In her op-ed, Ms. Cheney said Mr. McCarthy has changed his tune after stating on the House floor in January that the “president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.”
“The question before us now is whether we will join Trump’s crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election, with all the consequences that might have,” she said. “While embracing or ignoring Trump’s statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country.”
Douglas Heye, a Republican Party strategist who worked for Eric Cantor when he was House majority leader, said the debate over Ms. Cheney’s role in leadership underscores deep divisions over the future of the Republicam Party.
“There is certainly a yin and yang within the party between those who are looking at what the Republican Party could and should be in the future, which means acknowledging what happened in the past, and those who are thinking short-term and just want to forget about it,” said Mr. Heye, a frequent Trump critic.
Mr. Heye said the Republican Party made a “deal with the devil” in 2016 when it nominated Mr. Trump and has yet to come to grips with the idea that the “only Trump agenda is Donald Trump, and if you want to play his game you have to back him up.”
“It has been really frustrating as you see so many Republicans look to pick up points with Donald Trump,” he said. “But Donald Trump doesn’t give points. He only takes them away one at a time.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump once again lashed out against Republicans who refused to echo his election claims, including former Vice President Mike Pence, who served as his wingman for four years.
“Had Mike Pence referred the information on six states (only need two) back to State Legislatures, and had gutless and clueless MINORITY Leader Mitch McConnell (he blew two seats in Georgia that should have never been lost) fought to expose all of the corruption that was presented at the time, with more found since, we would have had a far different Presidential result, and our Country would not be turning into a socialist nightmare!” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “Never Give up!”
Asked about the push to oust Ms. Cheney, President Biden told reporters that Republicans are in the midst of a “mini-revolution.”
“It seems as though the Republican Party is trying to identify what it stands for, and they’re in the midst of a significant, sort of mini-revolution going on in the Republican Party,” Mr. Biden said at the White House.
“As one of you said on national television last night, we badly need a Republican Party,” the president said. “We need a two-party system. It’s not healthy to have a one-party system. And I think the Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for than I thought they would be at this point.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, defended Ms. Cheney. He said she is being punished for telling the truth about the 2020 election and refusing to echo Mr. Trump’s stolen-election narrative.
“That is her problem,” Mr. Hoyer said Wednesday in a Washington Post Live event. “She told the truth, and the Republicans do not like the truth. As a matter of fact, Trump rarely speaks the truth.”
Mr. Hoyer said Ms. Cheney’s position reflects what the courts and former Attorney General William Barr concluded: “There was no substantive evidence that there was a fraud that affected the outcome of the election.”
Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, called the Republican Party a “dumpster fire.”
“Did we need to know any more about the state of the Republican Party than the fact that GOP leadership is punishing Liz Cheney for telling the truth about 2020 and attempting to replace her with another student of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s conspiracy school?” Mr. Moussa said.
“McCarthy has done more to hold Cheney accountable for telling the truth than he has about Greene’s conspiracy theories or Matt Gaetz’s alleged underage sex trafficking.”
⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this report.