Liz Cheney won the battle and then made clear where she stood on the war — that is, her party’s civil war over former President Donald Trump.
Trump, the Wyoming Republican said, does “not have a role as a leader of our party going forward.” He was, she added, guilty of “the greatest violation of his oath of office by a president in the history of the country.”
“We should not be embracing the former president,” Cheney, 54, told Fox News Sunday. Not many GOP elected officials would take that stance. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already traveled to Mar-a-Lago to be photographed with Trump, saying the ex-president was “committed to helping elect Republicans in the House and Senate in 2022.”
Cheney won’t be high on that list. She was one of just 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by hardcore supporters who hoped to overturn the presidential election results. Cheney was censured by the state GOP back home in Wyoming and is likely to face a primary challenge next year. “We need to honor President Trump,” a Cheyenne attorney who ran unsuccessfully against Cheney in the 2016 Republican primary told the Associated Press.
Unlike other members of the party who have crossed Trump, however, Cheney has already prevailed once. Trump loyalists sought to oust the third-ranking Republican in the House from her position as GOP conference chairwoman over her impeachment vote. They didn’t even come close. The following day, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — who once said of Trump, “The party is his. It doesn’t belong to anybody else” — was stripped of all her committee assignments, with 11 House Republicans voting in favor, after a series of conspiracy theories she’d espoused over the years surfaced.
That doesn’t settle whether Trump’s grip on the party has loosened after his messy exit from the White House. Cheney won 145 to 61 in the House Republican caucus, but the vote was by secret ballot. Only eight of the 74 members of the Wyoming GOP central committee voted against her censure.
The recent track record of prominent Trump critics among congressional Republicans isn’t encouraging. Former Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona did not even run for reelection, concluding they would face difficulties in their primaries. Former Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina lost his primary to a challenger Trump endorsed on Twitter on Election Day. Former Rep. Justin Amash isn’t even a Republican anymore, having first become an independent, and then joining the Libertarian Party.
But once-popular former Republican presidents have lost their influence over the party before. Trump’s own nomination and election was partly a rebellion against George W. Bush, whose approval ratings topped 90% in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — among the country as a whole, not just Republicans.
Trump did not think much of Bush’s 9/11 leadership. “The World Trade Center came down during your brother’s reign,” he told former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during a February 2016 GOP primary debate. “Remember that.” Trump hammered both Bushes on the invasion of Iraq. “Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump said. “George Bush made a mistake. Obviously, we can make mistakes, but that one was a beauty.”
“We should have never been in Iraq,” Trump continued. “They lied, they said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none.” The scene was South Carolina, where the former president came out of retirement to help boost his brother’s flagging campaign. Jeb Bush’s tentative lead had evaporated after the blustery showman defied predictions and entered the presidential race.
At first, this seemed like a bridge too far. When Ron Paul made similar comments in a 2007 South Carolina debate, Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City on 9/11 and at the time the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, promptly took him to task. As was the case when Trump lambasted Bush on Iraq, there was a chorus of boos inside the debate hall. Jeb Bush predicted he would make a political comeback in the military-heavy state’s primary, saying, “Saturday is going to be a surprise.”
It was, for the Bushes. Trump won the primary over a divided field. Jeb finished a distant fourth, ending his candidacy after a single-digit performance. Trump cruised to the nomination and ultimately won the presidency by a narrow margin. Giuliani emerged as his trusted sidekick. The Bushes did not endorse Trump, and there were rumors the family’s patriarch, former President George H.W. Bush, voted for Hillary Clinton. Bush 43 did attend Trump’s inauguration. “That was some weird s—,” he said of the 45th president’s inaugural address.
Trump’s relationship wasn’t any better with another previous GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain. There were the personal barbs, such as Trump’s stated preference for war heroes who weren’t captured (McCain was a prisoner of war for five and a half years). The New York Post put Trump, depicted in rags, washed ashore on an island, on the cover with the text “DON VOYAGE.” Trump, the wood declared, “is toast.” Once again, he wasn’t, though the feud would continue into his presidency. The Arizonan was one of the top Republicans who rescinded his endorsement of Trump after the Access Hollywood tape came out. McCain cast the key Senate vote tanking Trump’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace efforts. When he died, the eulogies at his funeral were seen as a bipartisan rebuke.
But it wasn’t all personal. Like Bush, McCain had very different views on foreign policy and immigration than Trump. McCain and Bush had worked together on legislation that would increase legal immigration and create a pathway to citizenship for a large majority of undocumented immigrants, not much unlike the framework President Biden currently supports.
Trump promised to construct a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, eagerly leading “Build the wall!” chants at his rallies. McCain struck a somewhat different tone. “I think the fence is least effective,” he said in January 2007 of the border barrier popular with rank-and-file Republicans. “But I’ll build the goddamned fence if they want it.” In a sign that the party was starting to move away from his and Bush’s position on the issue toward the one that Trump would ultimately adopt, McCain ran an ad in his penultimate campaign in 2010 in which he said, “Complete the danged fence.”
Lists of Republican endorsers of Trump’s Democratic opponents, a cross-party move not even so stalwart a Never Trumper as Mitt Romney was willing to make, were replete with former congressmen from the 1970s and 1980s who had misgivings with the party’s direction dating back to Ronald Reagan, with one significant exception: people who had worked for Bush 43 and McCain.
More than 100 former McCain staffers endorsed Biden for president last year. “These are unusual times,” they wrote in an open letter, “and this is not an easy decision for Republicans to make.” Former Bush appointees launched a political action committee called 43 Alumni for Biden. “We know what is normal and what is abnormal,” an organizer told Reuters. “The president is a danger.” That president was Trump.
Earlier this month, dozens of former Bush officials announced they were leaving the GOP even after Biden became president. “The Republican Party as I knew it no longer exists,” said a former Bush 43 Treasury Department official. “I’d call it the cult of Trump.”
The group did not include Dick Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman’s father. The former vice president was the ranking member of the Bush 43 administration to endorse Trump for president in 2016. He appeared with his daughter at a Jackson, Wyoming, Trump fundraising luncheon with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump in 2019. But Cheney did clash with then-Vice President Mike Pence over aspects of Trump’s foreign policy at the American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum that year.
Cheney told Pence that Trump’s foreign policy at times resembled Democratic President Barack Obama’s, Politico reported, and grilled his successor on the administration’s commitment to NATO. “Man, who wrote all these softball questions?” Pence jokingly asked the audience during the exchange. Cheney also reportedly complained about Trump’s tendency to announce decisions related to national security on Twitter.
After mostly avoiding criticism of Obama for eight years, Cheney’s former boss also took veiled shots at Trump’s ideology. “We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America,” Bush said in a 2017 speech.
Plenty of Bush alumni also found a home within the Trump administration, though for officials like former national security adviser John Bolton, it did not always end well. The former president turned out not to be as ideological as some of his populist and nationalist admirers had hoped — Steve Bannon did not last in the White House long and, unlike Nikki Haley, did not go out on his own terms.
These ideological fights are nonetheless roiling the party as much as the question of what to do about the former president himself. Jan. 6 ended the shotgun marriage between Trump and most of the Republican establishment. But the party’s philosophical direction is less clear. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who also voted for impeachment, is setting up a political action committee to target not just Trump but “Trumpism.” He has said there is a “huge list” of Republicans he would target.
“I mean, look, all you have to do is see people like, of course, Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Kinzinger said at a Washington Post event. “You look at people like [Florida congressman] Matt Gaetz, who know better. I think neither of them believes all the stuff they ascribe to; they just want fame.” Gaetz, who flew to Wyoming to encourage local opposition to Liz Cheney, was quick to strike back. “Now, he wants to target my America First politics, referencing me by name,” he tweeted of Kinzinger. “My response: F—ing bring it.”
While Bush was elected twice, becoming the most recent Republican presidential nominee to win the popular vote in 2004, Democrats had even bigger congressional majorities when he left office than they do now. A careful analysis by political reporter Aaron Blake concluded that a shift of 43,000 votes in three states would have reelected Trump, while 32,000 additional votes in the right districts and 14,000 votes in the proper states would have put Republicans in control of the House and Senate, respectively.
“Republicans came within 90,000 votes of controlling all of Washington,” blared the headline on Blake’s article. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s defeat, the GOP had gained seats in the House and was two Georgia runoff elections away from holding the Senate. Trump had remained competitive in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Biden flipped Arizona and Georgia, but his margins were not big.
Then, in January, the party’s position began to deteriorate. Trump still had not conceded the election with only weeks remaining in his term. While he campaigned for the Republican Senate candidates in Georgia, he also repeatedly told their voters that the presidential race had been stolen from him in part by state election officials. More than 752,000 Georgia voters stayed home, most of them white and rural GOP constituents. Republicans narrowly lost both Senate races. The Capitol attack, which triggered the second Trump impeachment, occurred the next day. The riot left five people dead.
Since then, there have been numerous reports of declines in Republican voter registration in states where such records are kept as thousands abandoned the party in apparent protest of Trump. Unlike his House counterpart, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, whose title now says “minority” instead of “majority” thanks to Georgia and Trump’s loss, has publicly rebuked the former president’s “lies” about the election. And the party has seemed riven with divisions.
“It will be a long wait for a post-Trump GOP because there currently is no leadership and no vision,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who worked for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Therefore, there is no strategy on how to become a majority party with an attractive governing philosophy. In the meantime, the best it can hope for is being a radicalized regional party until it runs its natural course of political demise into irrelevance.”
Others are more optimistic the party will hold together, as it did after the Great Depression and Watergate, in the latter case winning back the White House and the Senate six years after Richard Nixon’s resignation. Even now, Republicans are one seat away from the Senate majority and five seats away from capturing the House.
“The Patriot Party is a horrible idea that will go the way of the last populist Republican Party,” a veteran GOP operative said of a proposed pro-Trump third party. “As soon as Trump followers begin to understand how to govern, as the [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] types need to learn as well, they will find they are simpatico again with the party of smaller government.”
W. James Antle III is politics editor of the Washington Examiner.