House Republicans on Wednesday voted quickly to depose Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from her leadership position as conference chairwoman, a repudiation of her criticism of former President Donald Trump. And, despite some misgivings in the conference about succession plans, GOP leaders moved to install her replacement by Friday morning.
It took the fractured GOP Conference less than 20 minutes to remove Cheney from her role as the No. 3 House Republican, including time spent on prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
At the start of the conference meeting, Cheney took a moment to address her colleagues, according to a source familiar with what happened.
Cheney said she has “tremendous affection and admiration” for many of her colleagues, but that the Republican Party must be based on truth to shape the future and that she would not play a role in perpetuating Trump’s lies.
“To do that, we must be true to our principles and to the Constitution. We cannot let the former president drag us backward and make us complicit in his efforts to unravel our democracy,” she said. “Down that path lies our destruction, and potentially the destruction of our country.”
“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,” she said. “That will be their legacy.”
Cheney vowed to fight to restore the party and then began the prayer.
“But I promise you this, after today, I will be leading the fight to restore our party and our nation to conservative principles, to defeating socialism, to defending our republic, to making the GOP worthy again of being the party of Lincoln.”
House Republicans then removed her by voice vote rather than a full tally, which means the exact degree of support for her ouster is not yet clear. Cheney was steadfast after leaving the closed meeting where the vote took place, maintaining her stance against Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and his actions surrounding the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
“I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” Cheney told reporters. She said Wednesday’s vote is a clear indication of the path that the GOP is on as a party, tethered to Trump, and sent a warning to Republicans that “we cannot be dragged backward by the very dangerous lies of a former president.”
In a floor speech Tuesday night, Cheney warned that Trump is a dangerous element that the party should leave behind.
“Today we face a threat America has never seen before: a former president who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol, in an effort to steal the election, has resumed his aggressive efforts to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him,” Cheney said. “He risks inciting further violence.”
She said Trump was on a “crusade to undermine our democracy.” The decision to remove the staunch Wyoming conservative and daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney signals a tremendous break away from the Republican Party of old — and further toward one that is beholden to Trump.
Cheney was booed in the meeting when she criticized Trump, but she also received a standing ovation at the end of the meeting. Multiple members said the applause was in recognition and appreciation of her service, not support of her position.
As Republicans emerged from the closed-door meeting, some were reluctant to say how they voted. Those who did attempted to divert from the intraparty fracas to criticize the Biden administration.
Cheney lost key support from her House GOP leadership colleagues in a cascade of opposition emerging in recent weeks. McCarthy put out a letter to his GOP colleagues last week saying that her ouster was required to bridge “internal divisions” that could derail the party’s efforts to reclaim the House majority in the 2022 midterm elections.
“Each day spent relitigating the past is one day less we have to seize the future,” McCarthy wrote. “If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved so as to not detract from the efforts on our collective team.”
Some GOP members tried to remove Cheney from her leadership spot in February after she voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the violent Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
But Cheney survived that challenge, winning a 145-61 caucus vote, with the backing of McCarthy.
In contrast to that vote tally, Wednesday’s voice vote means that the proportion of support that remains for Cheney is not clear. But the tide had turned against her, and top leaders have made their allegiance to Trump clear and backed the former president’s calls for Cheney’s removal.
The rise of Stefanik
Stefanik came to Congress as the then-youngest woman ever elected to the House and as a mainstream moderate Republican, but she subsequently emerged as one of Trump’s most vehement defenders in the House.
She joined the 138 House Republicans who voted to object to the Electoral College counts in Pennsylvania. And she spoke on the House floor on the night of Jan. 6, after the rioters had left a trail of destruction and injury at the Capitol, to reiterate false claims that the election was fraudulent.
Stefanik launched her official bid for GOP Conference chair just a few minutes after the Cheney vote, focusing on the 2022 midterms, without a mention of the 2020 election.
“We know that the American people overwhelmingly reject the radical Democrats’ socialist agenda, but we need to ensure they are hearing our unified conservative vision on the issues that matter to them,” she said in a statement.
But Stefanik may not have a smooth ride into leadership, as opposition is emerging from some of her conservative colleagues.
Texas Republican Chip Roy, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, sent a letter to every GOP member arguing that Stefanik is not fit for leadership, while also saying that Cheney shouldn’t be conference chair.
“We must avoid putting in charge Republicans who campaign as Republicans but then vote for and advance the Democrats’ agenda once sworn in,” Roy wrote.
Data compiled by CQ Vote Watch shows that Cheney voted the same way as other Republicans did far more often than Stefanik during Trump’s presidency, especially after Democrats took control of the House in 2019.
Cheney’s “party unity score” was never lower than 96 percent from 2017 through 2020, while Stefanik’s scores were at 88 percent and 87 percent in 2017 and 2018, respectively, dropped to 68 percent in 2019 and then rose to 82 percent in 2020.
Cheney also voted more often than Stefanik for the positions Trump took.
In 2019, for example, Cheney voted for the positions Trump supported 97 percent of the time, compared with 93 percent for the average Republican and 61 percent for Stefanik.
Roy also took issue with the swift effort by McCarthy and Scalise to whip conference votes and anoint Stefanik as the presumptive replacement for Cheney before the Wyoming Republican was voted out.
“Therefore, with all due respect to my friend, Elise Stefanik, let us contemplate the message Republican leadership is about to send by rushing to coronate a spokesperson whose voting record embodies much of what led to the 2018 ass-kicking we received by Democrats,” Roy wrote.
He called for the GOP Conference to either find a No. 3 leader who “reflects our conservative values” or leave the position vacant, saying it is a leadership role that voters don’t know or care about.
Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado also voiced his opposition to Stefanik after Wednesday’s meeting, but he said he wasn’t aware of alternative candidates emerging. “We have 212 members. The only person I would not vote for is Elise Stefanik and myself,” Buck said.
But many rank-and-file Republicans are expected to fall in line behind Stefanik and the leadership’s choice, citing unity among the party in opposition to the Biden administration and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s agenda in the House.
Rep. Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, said she supported the removal of Cheney and wants to move on.
“I support Elise. I support our leadership,” she said.
Rep. Andrew Garbarino of New York said “we have to move forward now,” adding that he supports Stefanik.
“I think Stefanik would be a wonderful conference chair,” Garbarino said.
The GOP conference will hold a candidate forum for conference chair set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The election will then take place at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.