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Image: House Republican Leadership Speaks To The Media After Conference Meeting
Rep. Liz Cheney speaks during a news conference with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, right, at the Capitol on July 21, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

On hot mic, McCarthy shares candid perspective on Cheney, her future

In February, McCarthy stood with Cheney, stressing the need for "unity." Three months later, "unity" has been thrown out the window.


After House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting a deadly insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, more than a few GOP lawmakers said her partisan betrayal could not stand. Far-right members came up with a specific goal: remove the Wyoming congresswoman from her leadership post.

That effort failed badly, in part because Cheney enjoyed the backing of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). After rank-and-file Republican members voted to keep Cheney in her position, the GOP leader told reporters, "People can have differences of opinion.... Liz has a right to vote her conscience. At the end of the day, we will be united."

That, of course, was in early February. Three months later, House Republicans are anything but "united."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Tuesday he's "lost confidence" in Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) during a moment of candor caught on a hot mic, a tape reviewed by Axios shows. "I think she's got real problems," McCarthy told Steve Doocy off-air ahead of a live "Fox and Friends" interview. "I've had it with ... I've had it with her. You know, I've lost confidence. ... Well, someone just has to bring a motion, but I assume that will probably take place."

In context, "bring a motion" appeared to be a reference to the procedural efforts to oust Cheney at the next formal House Republican conference meeting.

Neither MSNBC nor NBC News has heard the recording Axios referenced, but none of the relevant players have made any effort to push back against the reporting.

Before we dig in on the implications, it's probably worth explaining how a "hot mic" incident like this can happen. When people agree to join news programs as guests, they tend to sit in front of a camera and wait to appear on the air. But before going live, it's common for guests to interact with people in the network studio -- talking to technicians, producers, and occasionally hosts -- before the segment begins. Viewers don't get to see any of this, and in general, the interactions aren't important. (A producer might let a guest know, for example, how many minutes remain before they appear on the air.)

Occasionally, however, guests will be a little too unguarded, indifferent to the fact that they're wearing a microphone and sitting in front of a camera. Carly Fiorina, for example, did damage to her Republican Senate campaign in 2010 with a hot-mic incident.

In yesterday's instance, it appears McCarthy chatted with a Fox News host about his genuine feelings regarding Cheney, ahead of an on-air interview in which the House minority leader was a little more diplomatic about members having "concerns" about the congresswoman.

We don't know how Axios obtained a recording of McCarthy's off-air chat, and at this point, it's difficult to say with confidence whether this was a genuine accident or a deliberate leak from the GOP leader's team.

Either way, Cheney's willingness to tell the truth about democracy and election results has clearly put her career in Republican politics in jeopardy, and unlike the intra-party disputes from earlier in the year, the top GOP official in the House has apparently now "had it" with his conference chair.

The message to every other House Republican, who'll apparently be asked to decide Cheney's fate at an upcoming meeting, seems obvious: McCarthy no longer has confidence in his party's conference chair, and he wants a new one.

This unsubtle signal has sparked some behind-the-scenes wrangling among Cheney's would-be replacements, with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) -- who boasted a few days ago about "bipartisan" credibility -- beginning an outreach effort, building support to run for the leadership post if Cheney is ousted.

After the Jan. 6 riot, the House took up two Republican measures to reject election results the party didn't like. Stefanik voted with her far-right colleagues on one of the two resolutions, and soon after lied about Georgia's election results. A week later, the New York congresswoman also voted against Trump's impeachment.

Or put another way, when Stefanik tells GOP members that she's more in line with their far-right values than Cheney is, she'll be telling the truth.

Update: House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), the #2 Republican in the House GOP leadership, has thrown his support behind Stefanik, which necessarily means that both of the top two House Republicans have now effectively said they want Cheney gone.