When Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., first defended her leadership position among her House Republican colleagues in February, the meeting took hours. This time, it was all over in 20 minutes.
Fourteen weeks ago, Cheney kept her role as GOP conference chair by a 2-1 margin. On Wednesday, members didn’t even bother to write down their votes — her removal, already done in secret, was carried out by voice vote. There will be no record of who sought to rid former President Donald Trump of this turbulent priest.
In a way, it’s fitting that this was a speedy affair. The result was a foregone conclusion by the time the members gathered, and everyone has places to be. But in ousting Cheney from her spot atop the GOP caucus, her party opponents have gifted her with the most precious resource a politician has: time. And Cheney has already indicated that she means to use it to drag conservatives away from Trump, no matter what it takes.
It’s one of many ironies that have played out in this slow-motion civil war. Cheney, her opponents declared, is living in the past. By refusing to let go of Trump’s attempt to steal the election last year, she’s keeping the party from looking ahead to the future. Her attempts to bring her party back from the brink are a “distraction.” One GOP aide accused her of spending “more time bashing Republicans than Democrats."
But it’s actually Trump who has refused to move on; you may not know it given his ban from social media, but he’s spent his time out of office continuing to insist that he really won the 2020 presidential election, issuing more than 20 statements saying as much in the last six weeks. That has, in turn, led Cheney’s opponents to pursue her.
"It wasn't the position that I supported, but I'm moving forward. Liz is going to stay as conference chair, and we're going to work together to take back the majority," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Axios in February. And yet Cheney is the one allegedly living in the past.
Now, in stripping her of her leadership position, I’m not sure the GOP realizes quite what it’s done. Before, Cheney wasn’t exactly shy about her positions, but she had the rest of her colleagues to think of in terms of how hard she could hit. That is no longer the case — they’ve now got an unfettered Cheney on their hands.
“We must be true to our principles and to the Constitution,” Cheney said before the vote, NBC News reported. “We cannot let the former president drag us backward and make us complicit in his efforts to unravel our democracy. Down that path lies our destruction, and potentially the destruction of our country.”
It’s a theme that she has hammered on in recent weeks even as the vote to remove her seemed more and more certain. She warned in a Washington Post op-ed a week ago that “there is good reason to believe that Trump’s language can provoke violence again.” She said it in a defiant speech on Tuesday night on the House floor: “I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative principles is reverence for the rule of law.”
Cheney knew that continuing to speak out would likely cost her the leadership position she had held since 2019. But she also knew that she could take whatever they could throw at her. As BuzzFeed News’ Katherine Miller put it: “You're going to tell the Cheneys it's hard to endure public hatred? People are still upset Dick Cheney got a heart transplant instead of dying.”
And so, let’s go through what Cheney lost on Wednesday versus what she still has at hand. She’s lost the ability to run GOP conference meetings. She no longer will sit on the National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to get Republican House candidates elected. She’s lost out on the extra staffing that comes with the role.
But she has a year and a half left in her term before the midterm elections. She still has her off-the-charts name recognition as a Cheney. Her campaign has about $1.4 million in the bank as of late March, according to the latest filing with the Federal Election Commission. And she has cemented her place as one of the few Republicans willing to stand up when so many in her party have knelt.
There’s no shortage of ways for a committed zealot to spend their time when not bogged down by responsibilities. And Cheney’s cause is the takedown of those who’d see Trump back in office.
The money in her coffers — and whatever more cash now comes in — will be spent on both her own race in Wyoming and in support of candidates willing to stand up to the Trump wing of the party. Axios reports that she’s going to keep her profile high in the aftermath of this vote, telling readers to look for her to “be active in midterm races and other elections, as she works to mold a future Republican Party that looks more like a Cheney party and less like a Trump party.”
With Wednesday’s vote, a transposition that’s taken place over the last decade in the Republican Party is now complete. The bomb-throwers, the radicals, the Jim Jordans and other tea party members are fully in command of the party. The former establishment is on the outside looking in.
But I think that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House minority leader who stuck the knife in Cheney’s back this week, is soon to learn that he should have gone for the head. Much like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., realized when she was booted from her committee assignments, there’s no shortage of ways for a committed zealot to spend time when not bogged down by responsibilities. And Cheney’s cause is the takedown of those who’d see Trump back in office.
"If you want leaders who will enable and spread his destructive lies, I’m not your person. You have plenty of others to choose from. That will be their legacy," Cheney told the gathered Republicans before the vote. She knows what she wants her legacy to be instead, and God help the men and women (mostly men) who think that she will now be silenced.
For Cheney, now is when the real work begins.