Liz Cheney’s Stand Against Trump: Too Late, But Not Too Little
In her new book, she should have held herself accountable for enabling him for so long
In the three years since the horrific attack on the U.S. Capitol, no one has done more to expose and condemn the actions of Donald Trump than Liz Cheney. As Republican Conference chair, the third-highest position within GOP leadership in the House, Cheney immediately pushed for his second impeachment. When the Senate failed to convict, she agreed to serve on the select committee to investigate the whole disgraceful episode. As one of only two Republican members, Cheney worked diligently to find and interview people who had vital information about what Trump and his confederates did to block the peaceful transfer of power. In the televised hearings, she provided a sober, eloquent conservative voice, contrasting with the sordid mendacity of GOP colleagues like Jim Jordan and Mike Johnson. We now have her personal account of these events in Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning.
At this point, though, with Trump’s stranglehold on the party the strongest it’s ever been, Cheney could be forgiven for asking herself: Why the hell did I bother?
Trump’s Unshakeable Hold
The Jan. 6 committee unearthed a mountain of evidence laying bare Trump’s systematic effort to overturn the 2020 election result—and his central role in fostering the violence that engulfed the Capitol. No sane-minded person who watched the hearings, followed the news coverage, or read the committee’s voluminous report could doubt that he is guilty of one of the most frightening assaults on democracy and the rule of law in American history.
And yet Trump is all but assured the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Despite the cascade of indictments, the mountain of incriminating revelations, the compelling constitutional challenges to his eligibility, and his praise of the Jan. 6 rioters, his favorability rating is higher today than it was when he left office.
As if to highlight his malign purposes, Trump refused to sign an optional loyalty oath for the Illinois primary ballot stipulating that he would not advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government—even though he signed it in 2016 and 2020. His lawyers, arguing for his immunity from criminal liability, contend that if, as president, he were to dispatch a team of SEALs to assassinate a political rival, he could not be prosecuted unless he was first impeached and convicted. Just days ago, Trump took to social media to declare that even actions that “cross the line” must be covered by presidential immunity. Could he be any clearer in telegraphing his intentions?
A recent Pew Research poll found that Trump remains the first choice of a majority of Republican voters. A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that only 14 percent of Republicans say he bears responsibility for the insurrection, and 72 percent believe too much has been made of his failed coup. He won Iowa decisively—knocking out his imitator Ron DeSantis in the process, who endorsed him on his way out—and posted a decent lead over Nikki Haley in New Hampshire, becoming the overwhelming favorite to wrap up the nomination. In head-to-head polls versus Joe Biden, he’s maintained a consistent lead for months. He stands a good chance of being inaugurated a year from now—with the opportunity to carry out the campaign of retribution he has promised.
Chronicling Trump’s Insurrection
Cheney views that prospect with intense alarm. Her memoir is, she writes, “the story of the moment when American democracy began to unravel … the story of the most dangerous man ever to inhabit the Oval Office, and of the many steps he took to subvert our Constitution.” It provides a thorough but readable account of everything known about Trump’s plot to hold on to power after the election defeat: his immediate and persistent claims that the election was stolen from him; his efforts to reverse the outcome in battleground states that he lost; his call to supporters to descend on Washington on the day the election result would be certified by Congress; his incendiary speech on the Ellipse the morning of Jan. 6; and his refusal, for hours, to do anything to quell the violence once it erupted.
Cheney’s memoir may seem a futile enterprise, given the willful blindness and complicity of so many politicians and voters. While it may be possible she has political aspirations that she thinks this book could help her achieve, I suspect she wrote it because she wanted to leave a clear record for history, and perhaps her grandchildren, that she did everything she could to prevent the destruction of our constitutional system.
Given Trump’s impulsive, reckless personality, much of his post-election conduct could have been interpreted as ad hoc maneuvering by a desperate man. But actually, writes Cheney: “The planning for January 6 appears to have consumed the vast majority of the president’s time for several weeks in December of 2020. He was doing almost nothing else. Donald Trump did not do all this on a whim.” Instead, “It was complicated and detailed. And, above all else, it was premeditated.”
By now, the story is familiar, though Cheney’s account carries particular force, coming from someone who was trying to foil Trump’s plan to block certification of the election and who lived through the terrors of Jan. 6 (her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, called her on that day while she was in the Capitol’s cloakroom to warn her about the remarks Trump had just made). It’s especially useful in illuminating the pathetic cowardice that infected nearly every Republican member of Congress. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, she says, assured her after the rioters were dispersed that he would drop his objection to certification—but “it turned out that Kevin was lying.” When she demanded to know why McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago to be photographed grinning alongside the former president a few weeks later, he explained that Trump’s aides were “really worried. Trump’s not eating, so they asked me to come see him.” Cheney commends Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell for forthrightly denouncing Trump’s conduct, and she “thought it was likely he would support conviction” in a second impeachment—which he didn’t. Only 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump. But she writes that “had the impeachment vote been by secret ballot, it would have been overwhelmingly in favor of impeachment.”
The Morally Bankrupt Party
She reserves particular scorn for then-fellow members Mike Johnson, now Speaker of the House, and Jim Jordan, who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Johnson, holding himself out as a “constitutional lawyer,” argued that Congress should reject the electors from several states carried by Biden because of changes in election laws made during the Covid-19 emergency. “Voting rules in other states, such as Texas and North Carolina, had also been changed because of Covid,” Cheney notes. “If this was a violation of the U.S. Constitution, why then was Johnson objecting only to states where Trump had been defeated?” During the siege of the House chamber, Jordan approached her, saying, “We need to get the ladies off the aisle. Let me help you.” Her furious reply: “Get away from me. You f—ing did this.”
Why did so many congressional Republicans stick with Trump no matter what? One reason, of course, is the danger of losing a primary election to a MAGA loyalist. The desire for re-election has overridden their consciences. But Cheney says she repeatedly heard that members were not focused solely on electoral consequences: “They feared a vote for impeachment would put them—and their families—in danger. We were now entering territory where the threat of violence was affecting how members voted.”
For her trouble, Cheney was evicted from her House Republican leadership position, endured endless death threats and, in her re-election bid, lost the GOP primary by a 37-point margin. In the old Republican Party, Cheney might have eventually become a presidential nominee. In the new one, she is a non-person, her political career likely finished.
The Party of Cowards and Morons
In the aftermath of Jan. 6, her allies were almost entirely from the Democratic side of the House. She and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois were censured by the Republican National Committee for their role on the Jan. 6 committee. “The resolution,” writes Cheney, “reflected a political party that had lost its principles and, frankly, seemed to be led by morons.” When Pelosi was considering putting her on the Jan. 6 committee, her aides produced a list of the 10 worst things Cheney had ever said about her, to which Pelosi replied: “Why are you wasting my time with things that don’t matter?” She came to appreciate the Democratic speaker:
Over the next 18 months, every time I went to her with a concern, a proposed approach, or a request that she intervene with Democrats to help guide things in the right direction, she backed me up. Every time. A relationship that had been unimaginable a few months earlier would now become indispensable.
Lizzy Come Lately
But that passage is also an inadvertent reminder that among the Republicans who long sided with Trump is one named Liz Cheney. She endorsed him in 2016 and cast her ballot for him in 2020. As a member of the House, she voted with him 93% of the time and voted against his first impeachment. But her account begins the day after the 2020 election, sparing her the task of explaining her alignment with such a manifestly dangerous leader.
Readers would profit from her answers to some vital questions: Why did she stick with Trump for so long? At what point did she begin to harbor serious doubts about his fitness for the office? Were there signs of Republican rot that she now realizes she should have seen? Looking back on the direction of the GOP over the past 10 or 20 years, can she identify the moment when it made the fatal step in its journey to becoming the party of bigotry, violence, and autocracy?
For years, Cheney was a paid commentator for Fox News, which did so much to lay the groundwork for Trump’s incessant disinformation, and even filled in as guest host for Sean Hannity. She was not above crude and dishonest smears, as when she said on Fox in 2013, “I would really like to see a president, frankly, who’s as dedicated to disarming al-Qaeda as President Obama seems to be to disarming law-abiding Americans.”
Cheney deserves immense credit for what she did to combat Republican perfidy after the 2020 election. But she fails to hold herself accountable for contributing to what the party has become.
That failure doesn’t detract from the courage and energy she has since displayed in trying to save America from the severe—and possibly irreversible—hazards of a second Trump administration. In staunchly defending our fundamental ideals, Cheney has done as much as she can to redeem herself. If enough Americans heed her warning, they can redeem our democracy.
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