One day before the country roused itself from a holiday break, one of the most powerful families in Republican politics issued a double-barreled rebuke of President Trump.
Dick Cheney, the former vice president, and Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, drew on their significant political capital and decades of experience in Washington to attack the president’s false claims of vote stealing and his undemocratic effort to overturn the election, which President-elect Joe Biden won.
It was a significant moment because of Liz Cheney’s upward political trajectory, and placed her at the front of the one lane of the Republican Party that has refused to yield to Trump’s attempted coup.
Cheney, a 54-year-old congresswoman from Wyoming, released a 21-page memo that excoriated the attempts by some Republicans in Congress to challenge the election results, which they plan to do on Wednesday. The memo included a thorough compendium of all the ways in which state and federal courts have dismissed and rejected claims of cheating.
“By objecting to electoral slates, members are unavoidably asserting that Congress has the authority to overturn elections and overrule state and federal courts. Such objections set an exceptionally dangerous precedent, threatening to steal states’ explicit constitutional responsibility for choosing the President and bestowing it instead on Congress. This is directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text and our core beliefs as Republicans,” Cheney wrote in the memo, which was published Sunday.
As for the proposal by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to form a commission to conduct “an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns,” Cheney responded with barely concealed scorn.
“Did those proposing a new commission realize that they were in essence proposing to delay the inaugural? Did they mean to set up a new future precedent where the inaugural is delayed and we have an ‘Acting President?’ For how long? Who decides when that process is over? Will that require another Act of Congress? Could the Acting President veto any such future Congressional action? If Congress has authority to create such a commission now, are state elections, recounts and state law legal challenges just ‘make-work’ until Congress gets around to investigating and deciding who should be President?” Cheney wrote.
The memo clearly explained how the U.S. Constitution does not give Congress any role in deciding the presidency unless no one has a majority of Electoral College votes. Biden defeated Trump in the Nov. 3 election by winning 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232.
“Substituting our views for the votes of the people in the states ... would be establishing a tyranny of Congress and stealing power from the states and the people in those states,” Cheney wrote in a Facebook post on Monday.
The same day that Cheney released her memo, all 10 living former secretaries of defense wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post warning that any attempt to use the U.S. military to contest the election would take the country into “dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.” It also said that any members of the military who participated in such an undemocratic action “would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”
The op-ed was organized and spearheaded by her 79-year-old father, who was the secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993.
The Cheneys are not the only prominent Republicans to reject the descent into delusion that Trump has led millions of Republicans into. In the Senate, Republicans Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Mitt Romney of Utah have forcefully called out Trump’s lies. Meanwhile, some of the most conservative Republican members of the House, such as Rep. Chip Roy and Rep. Ken Buck, have rejected the idea of challenging the Electoral College vote this week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged Senate Republicans not to vote against the election results. And former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also issued a scathing criticism of Cruz and others like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who plan to contest the election this week. “It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act,” Ryan said.
Former Sen. John Danforth, a Republican who represented Missouri for nearly 20 years and who gave Hawley his endorsement in 2018, called him out by name. “Lending credence to Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen is a highly destructive attack on our constitutional government. It is the opposite of conservative; it is radical,” Danforth said.
But there are few Republicans in American political life who have developed more fearsome reputations for political battle than the Cheneys, especially since Dick Cheney’s tenure as vice president from 2001 to 2009. After the 9/11 attacks, Dick Cheney became an even more hard-line defense hawk than he already was and pushed the limits of the law and ethics in advocating for interrogation practices viewed by many as torture. Nicknamed “Darth Vader” by friends and foes alike, his views on national security were so uncompromising that over time he even alienated President George W. Bush to some degree.
Barbara Comstock, a former Republican member of Congress who worked in the George W. Bush administration, said that the Cheney family has the stomach for the kind of backlash prompted by standing up to Trump.
“When you’ve been through these battles before and you’ve had everyone go at you you’re not as intimidated by it,” Comstock, an ally of Liz Cheney, said. “Once they’ve ripped through you and you’ve survived, it’s ‘Hey, I’m here to do the job. I’m not going to be bullied or intimidated.’”
Comstock noted that many members of Congress from overwhelmingly conservative districts “are not used to” criticism from their own side.
As for the gambit by Hawley, Cruz and others to challenge the election results, Comstock said “it’s dumb and dumber, and it’s lazy.”
“The Cheneys have had to do hard real work in politics, and they aren’t disrespecting people when they have to tell them hard things. They’ve done it before and they’ve taken the slings and arrows of it and they’re willing to do it,” she said.
Liz Cheney held senior positions at the State Department during the George W. Bush presidency, but her entry into running for political office got off to an ignominious start. In 2013, she rushed into a primary challenge of a sitting Republican senator, Mike Enzi, who had been considering retirement but put that off by six years in part because of Cheney’s failure to wait for him to make a decision. Cheney eventually withdrew from the race.
But since her election to the House in 2016, Cheney has quickly risen up the ranks of Republican leadership despite her less-than-stellar relationship with the White House. Although she has voted with Trump’s wishes most of the time, she has also bucked him, and at times publicly called him out.
When she turned down the opportunity to take Enzi’s seat this past fall, it got House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s attention, as well as that of the House minority whip, Rep. Steve Scalise. Both McCarthy and Scalise would like to be House speaker if Republicans retake the House majority, in 2022 or 2024, and Cheney now is clearly signaling that she will likely gun for that job as well.
Steve Schmidt, a former Republican operative who co-founded the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said that after the votes this week on the Electoral College, McCarthy “will be the leader of House Autocrats and [Cheney] will be the Leader of House Conservatives.”
At the same time, there are some dissenting voices on the right who have watched the Cheneys over the years and see more political calculation in Liz Cheney’s latest moves than courage.
“I don’t understand why they didn’t do this a while ago, and I think it’s opportunistic for her to stand up after [Trump’s] been fully established as a menace to America,” said one Republican operative who has observed the Cheneys for decades but who did not want to be identified. “Standing up to it now when it’s totally not going to work, there’s no political cost.”
A glance at the comments section underneath Cheney’s Facebook post, however, suggests she will have to steel herself for a good deal of criticism in the coming days at least. And Trump, who remains popular among the GOP rank and file, has repeatedly promised that he will seek revenge on Republican lawmakers who refute his attempts to stay in power.
“I will NEVER FORGET!” he tweeted on Christmas Eve.
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