Donald Trump is poised to tighten his grip on the Republican party with the ousting of one of his most prominent critics in Congress.
Liz Cheney, the only woman in Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, is widely expected to be voted out next week by members loyal to Trump.
Cheney is a diehard conservative and daughter of George W Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney. Her removal for refusing to parrot Trump’s “big lie” that last year’s election was stolen would exemplify how the Republican party remains beholden to the disgraced ex-president.
“The whole @RepLizCheney saga has been so clarifying,” David Axelrod, former chief strategist for Barack Obama, tweeted on Thursday. “She’s as conservative as they come. Her only sin was to call BS on Trump’s election fraud. For that, she will be expelled as a @GOP leader. The party is branding itself.”
Multiple courts, as well as state and federal election officials, have rejected Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud. But Republican-controlled state legislatures are using his allegations to justify legislation imposing new restrictions on voting.
And far from backing down, Trump has issued several public statements in three days reiterating his baseless claims that Joe Biden’s 7m vote margin of victory was the result of fraud while attacking Republicans who refuse to buy into this narrative.
He also joined Republican House leaders in backing Elise Stefanik, a pro-Trump congresswoman, for Cheney’s job as chair of the party’s conference. A vote could come as early as next Wednesday.
Stefanik, 36, whose status in the party rose after she aggressively defended Trump during congressional hearings ahead of his 2019 impeachment, reportedly spoke to the former president by phone on Wednesday.
Trump said in a statement: “Liz Cheney is a warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership ... Elise Stefanik is a far superior choice, and she has my COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement for GOP Conference Chair.”
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, appears to have calculated that embracing Trump offers the party’s best chance of winning back the House in next year’s midterm elections. McCarthy was caught by a “hot mic” on Fox News saying of Cheney: “I’ve had it with her. You know, I’ve lost confidence.”
A statement from the office of Steve Scalise, the number two House Republican, made it explicit: “House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair.”
Congressman Jim Jordan, an outspoken Trump loyalist, insisted that “the votes are there” to oust Cheney. “You can’t have a Republican conference chair reciting Democrat talking points,” he told Fox News. “You can’t have a Republican conference chair taking a position that 90% of the party disagrees with, and you can’t have a Republican party chair consistently speaking out against the individual who 74m Americans voted for.”
During Trump’s presidency, Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress as well as the White House. They are now looking to claw back narrow Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in the midterm elections next year.
But Cheney, the No 3 Republican in the House, is not going down without a fight. In an opinion column in the Washington Post on Wednesday, she urged her colleagues to reject the “dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality” in order to save the party, warning: “History is watching”.
Cheney wrote: “Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work – confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this.
“The Republican party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the constitution.”
Cheney, 54, held off an initial challenge to her leadership position earlier this year after she was among just 10 House Republicans to back Trump’s impeachment for inciting supporters to attack the US Capitol on 6 January. But she has few public supporters this time, dashing hopes that the former president might finally be losing sway.
Tara Setmayer, a former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, said: “Most of the Republicans were just too cowardly to speak what Liz Cheney has been saying publicly, which is why she survived the vote of no confidence the first time. She’s not going to survive it this time because it’s been clear that Donald Trump still has that hold on the party and they need him to raise money.”
Stefanik, who represents an upstate New York district, began her House career in 2015 as a moderate who spoke out against Trump’s ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries.
Setmayer added: “Elise Stefanik was an up-and-comer, a moderate who a lot of people saw potential to be a leader in the party. She was young, she was smart and she made a calculated decision to hop on the Trump train to bolster her political fortunes and if that’s not an example of selling your soul for political expediency, I don’t know what is.”
Biden, meanwhile. said a “mini-revolution” over identity appeared to be under way in the Republican party. “Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for than I thought they would be at this point,” he told reporters at the White House.