‘Death by a thousand cuts’: How the House GOP took down Cheney

‘Death by a thousand cuts’: How the House GOP took down CheneyMay 13, 2021


House GOP leaders were preparing to walk on stage for a press conference in Orlando sixteen days ago when one of Liz Cheney’s colleagues delivered her a warning.

Cheney was bound to get asked about Donald Trump and Jan. 6, her fellow Republican cautioned her, counseling her to pivot away from the question. She didn’t take the advice. Cheney buckled down, splitting with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on the scope of a commission to probe the Capitol riot and citing “ongoing criminal investigations” when asked if Trump should be charged for inciting the insurrection.

That dismissal of her colleague’s advice, recounted by a Republican source briefed on the conversation, ultimately changed the trajectory of Cheney’s political future.

Cheney’s actions at her conference’s policy retreat in Florida, including other interviews where she challenged Trump, did more than make headlines — they broke the dam, releasing pent-up frustrations with the Wyoming Republican.

“It was death by a thousand cuts” that ultimately claimed her, said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), who came to Cheney’s defense earlier this year.

This account of Cheney’s demise is based on interviews with more than a dozen GOP lawmakers and aides, who say McCarthy will likely suffer few internal consequences for evicting the party’s highest-ranking woman. But the next 18 months will test the value of the points he just earned with his right flank. With Democrats eager to yoke congressional Republicans to Trump — and an emboldened Cheney now unbound — McCarthy may discover a whole new set of landmines lining his path to the majority.

If McCarthy’s lightning-quick removal of Cheney helps score him the House’s top gavel, he can say it all started in the Sunshine State. Calls for her demise as House Republicans’ No. 3 leader escalated quickly there, as members approached McCarthy at the retreat to complain that Cheney had stomped on their carefully crafted message and was threatening to undermine their efforts to win back the House.

“The GOP is a big tent party. There is room for debate. But there is a difference between a big tent and having a disagreement at the leadership table, and the spokesperson overseeing messaging having a public disagreement with the leader of the party,” said Reschenthaler, who backed and began whipping for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) last week.

Stefanik, a Trump loyalist, was one of a few names that surfaced at the retreat as a potential replacement. Not long after, she would emerge as the consensus pick. The campaign to dump Cheney — blessed and even orchestrated by the upper echelons of the GOP leadership — culminated Wednesday in a speedy voice vote to recall her as conference chair.

McCarthy’s handling of the moment marked a 180-degree shift from February, when he vouched for Cheney as conservatives tried unsuccessfully to take her down for her vote to impeach Trump. This spring, McCarthy calculated that booting a leader whom Republicans largely viewed as a constant distraction would not only alleviate some of his headaches, but also unite his divided ranks around a cohesive message.

“I’m looking forward to being speaker in the next Congress,” McCarthy confidently told reporters Wednesday.

But Cheney, who now has an even bigger platform to push back at Trump while McCarthy embraces him, has vowed to “do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.”

Wednesday’s leadership showdown raises serious questions about whether the party’s competing Trump factions can ever be reconciled. And the decision to oust Cheney for repeatedly rebutting Trump’s lies about the election is only going to tether the party more closely to Trump — something Democrats are eager to seize on, especially in suburban battleground districts where women fled the party under Trump.

“I’m all for unity and truth,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who voted to impeach Trump, told reporters Wednesday. But “truth cannot coexist with lies, truth cannot coexist with falsehoods,” he added. “You cannot unify with that.”

‘Sometimes you have to eat shit’

The messy McCarthy-Cheney breakup was weeks, if not months, in the making. Almost immediately after Cheney easily survived her attempted removal in February, Cheney — to McCarthy’s annoyance — continued to speak her mind about Trump in public and in print. McCarthy stopped appearing at press conferences with Cheney after one particularly uncomfortable televised moment where they clashed over Trump’s role in the party.

McCarthy, along with multiple GOP members, said they implored Cheney to tone down her language. Their urging was ignored, just as Cheney dismissed her colleague’s advice in Orlando. That also led multiple Cheney allies to reconsider their support.

Republicans also started to complain that they were being asked about the No. 3 leader by their constituents and donors back home, telling McCarthy that Cheney was becoming a “liability” for them.

The grievances piled up. GOP lawmakers pointed to Cheney’s Fox News interview on Feb. 7, her private criticism of a working-class voters memo drafted by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and her quip that Trump wasn’t attending the Florida retreat because she had not invited him.

“People want to make it about Trump, and obviously that’s a part of it. But the bigger issue is, we literally have one job where sometimes you have to eat shit and deal with it,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.). “I love Liz. She has every right to every one of these opinions. I just don’t think she can have it in that job.”

Cheney’s allies argue she has been nothing but consistent. And Cheney has suggested publicly that the real “distraction” was that McCarthy decided to claw his way back into Trump’s good graces after Jan. 6, forcing the entire conference to hug the former president just as tightly.

By the time Republicans huddled in Orlando late last month, tensions were near a boiling point. Reps. Mike Johnson (La.), Richard Hudson (N.C.), and Drew Ferguson (Ga.), who joined Cheney in the Orlando press conference, were shell-shocked as they walked off-stage, according to one source: They had just experienced, firsthand, Cheney breaking from the party on Trump as they stood helplessly behind her.

“The retreat in Orlando, the press conference, was the final straw,” said one GOP lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal dynamics. “It had come to a point where it was obvious that something had to happen.”

Cheney’s comments in subsequent interviews at the retreat fueled the discontent. Among the comments that aggravated her colleagues were her declining to rule out a 2024 presidential run, her split on the scope of a 9/11-style commission to examine Jan. 6, and her remarks that those who objected to certifying Biden’s win should be disqualified from running for the White House.

“If you’re sitting here at a retreat that’s focused on policy … and you’re talking about something else, you’re not being productive,” McCarthy said of Cheney at the event’s closing press conference.

‘Kevin has had his eye on Elise’

McCarthy, by that point, felt that action needed to be taken — and fast.

Working to his advantage, the climate inside the conference had changed considerably since the last time Cheney’s critics tried to dethrone her. Then, McCarthy was dealing with the simultaneous drama caused by controversial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). At the time, he felt it would be politically disastrous to defend Greene while ousting Cheney, so he ultimately stood behind both. By spring, McCarthy had some distance.

But Republican leaders still had concerns about the uncomfortable optics of pushing out their highest-ranking woman. So a carefully coordinated plan to purge Cheney kicked into high gear almost as soon as McCarthy touched back down in Washington for President Joe Biden’s joint address to Congress.

Discussions about Cheney’s future — and potential successors — started in Orlando and gained steam at a separate House GOP retreat two days later in Key Biscayne, Fla. Meanwhile, Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Banks, both McCarthy allies, gave interviews publicly critical of Cheney that same weekend, with Banks telling Axios that the Cheney headlines were an “unwelcome distraction.”

This time around, GOP leaders felt strongly that they needed to line up a successor, and preferably a woman, before Cheney’s ouster vote. Stefanik, who was interested in the gig earlier this year, quickly emerged as the favorite among leaders and began working swiftly to lock down support. McCarthy, too, called members and whipped them hard to back Stefanik for the job.

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) indicated to McCarthy early on that she was interested in running, sources said, but she was discouraged after McCarthy informed her that Stefanik was already running and she’d have to give up her top spot on the House Ethics Committee.

The field began to clear for Stefanik, although some members have started to grumble about her “coronation.”

“Kevin has had his eye on Elise for a long time,” one GOP member said.

McCarthy also leaned on loyal ally Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to help him sell Stefanik to fellow members of the House Freedom Caucus. Some members of that far-right group were either hesitant or outright opposed to the New York Republican, who had a low conservative scorecard. Jordan’s endorsement came shortly before Donald Trump threw his support behind Stefanik last week.

GOP leaders settled on a strategy to have veteran Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, not a male lawmaker or Freedom Caucus member, introduce the formal resolution to strip Cheney of power.

“We are not going to reconcile the wings of the party on Trump,” said one GOP member who voted to certify the election results. “To carry on hurts us in 2022. Let’s look forward and not backwards, and accept we will have to agree to disagree.”

On the eve of Cheney’s ouster, McCarthy gathered some of his close confidants in his Capitol office to lay out a game plan for how the removal vote would go down.

It took only 15 minutes on Wednesday morning to determine her fate.

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