IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Liz Cheney, January 6 and Trump's grip on the RNC

Why did the Republican National Committee engage in such an extraordinary display of self-humiliation on Friday? Because of the danger Cheney poses.

Liz Cheney, it turns out, matters after all.

Otherwise, why would the Republican National Committee have engaged in such an extraordinary display of self-humiliation on Friday?

With only a few scattered dissents, the RNC voted overwhelmingly for a resolution condemning the Wyoming congresswoman and her fellow representative, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, for their roles investigating what the committee ludicrously called the “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”

The message was clear enough: the RNC remains utterly in thrall to Donald Trump and his Big Lie.

And there it was. In a single vote, the ruling body of the GOP embraced the revisionist version of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that left five dead, recasting the violence millions watched unfold in real time as “legitimate political discourse.”

Republican leaders seemed to recognize almost immediately that they had blundered, and tried to insist that the language was never meant to apply to rioters who assaulted the Capitol.

But the message was clear enough: The RNC remains utterly in thrall to Donald Trump and his Big Lie. Friday’s censure vote came just days after Trump dangled the idea of pardons for Jan. 6 rioters, and following new and newly distributing detail about the Trump administration’s possible plans to use the federal government to seize voting machines.

Of course the GOP’s sycophancy is not new. By now, it feels like a very old story. This is, after all, the same party that failed to pass even a basic platform in 2020, settling instead for a one-page resolution that declared: ”RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

After his defeat, the RNC could have embraced a post-Trump world. But instead, it now resembles the spasmodically twitching limb of a dead presidency. The party still pays some of Trump’s legal bills and endlessly repeats his discredited talking points.

But this only partially explains what happened on Friday. Why did the RNC decide to spend so much political capital on this fiasco? Why is a national political party so obsessed with a pair of representatives?

The first thing to understand is that the Cheney censure was a massive distraction from what Republican elected officials want to be talking about. They think they hold a winning hand on a number of issues, and polls suggest they may be poised for a significant win in the midterm elections.

But rather than talk about inflation, crime, the pandemic, China or the border, Republicans decided to remain in Trump’s endless doom loop of election denialism and revenge.

It was an ugly look and there was some blowback. Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, called the vote “a sad day for my party — and the country — when you’re punished just for expressing your beliefs, standing on principle, and refusing to tell blatant lies.”

Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who had voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, tweeted: “The RNC is censuring Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger because they are trying to find out what happened on January 6th - HUH?” South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice also weighed in: “Someone should definitely be held accountable for Jan. 6,” he said. “The RNC chose Cheney and Kinzinger? That makes perfect sense.”

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a former GOP presidential nominee, tweeted: “Shame falls on a party that would censure persons of conscience, who seek truth in the face of vitriol. Honor attaches to Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for seeking truth even when doing so comes at great personal cost.”

But these were outliers. For the most part, Republicans stayed mum.

And it could have been worse. Before this week, there had been considerable momentum behind the push to expel Cheney and Kinzinger altogether from the House GOP Conference. In December, a group of conservative notables — including Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — signed an open letter demanding their ouster. (The letter was also signed by Trump’s former attorneys Jenna Ellis and Cleta Mitchell, who are likely to be questioned by the House’s Jan. 6 committee.)

On Feb. 2, the oleaginous Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), went on TV and demanded that “any Republican involved in the corrupt Jan. 6 committee should be kicked out of the conference.”

In the end, the RNC’s resolution was modified to simply condemn Cheney and Kinzinger. But it was not completely meaningless. The committee is also preparing to help fund Cheney’s primary challenger.

So this brings us back to the original question: Why does Liz Cheney matter so much?

Perhaps the answer is obvious: Trump demanded revenge, and the feckless GOP simply acquiesced. It’s also true that Cheney’s congressional seat is important: If the next presidential election is decided by the House of Representatives, each state would get a single vote. As Wyoming’s sole representative, Cheney would have as much clout as the entire state of New York.

But that is a relatively unlikely future scenario. So why the obsession with Cheney right now? Why was it so important that the Republican Party denounce and discredit the woman who, just months ago, was the third most powerful member of the House GOP leadership?

Friday’s resolution offers a hint.

Cheney and Kinzinger, it says, “are both utilizing their past professed political affiliations to mask Democratic abuse of prosecutorial power for partisan purposes.” In other words, the problem is not disloyalty, it is credibility. As Republicans, they provide bipartisan credibility to the Jan. 6 committee’s investigations.

Why was it so important that the Republican Party denounce and discredit the woman who, just months ago, was the third most powerful member of the House GOP leadership?

This is the crucial context for Friday’s RNC vote — a desperate anxiety about the danger that the committee poses to Trump world, and the role that Cheney and Kinzinger will play as members of that committee.

Indeed, the House continues to move quickly and effectively — issuing subpoenas, gathering evidence and preparing for televised public hearings.

Almost on a daily basis we learn new information about the insanity of Trump’s final days in office, and the picture that is forming is devastating both to the former president and to his GOP accomplices.

Liz Cheney is about to enter prime time. That’s why she matters so much.