House Republicans voted quickly on Wednesday to remove Liz Cheney as their No. 3 leader over her repeated criticism of Donald Trump, a massive shakeup that ties the party tighter to Trump and threatens to create a new litmus test in the GOP.
The fast-moving campaign to dump Cheney, Congress’ highest-ranking Republican woman, and replace her with a Trump loyalist was orchestrated by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his top deputies. The California Republican and his allies complained that Cheney’s constant readiness to call out Trump’s lies about the 2020 election was a distraction that prevented the party from unifying around a cohesive message to win back the House next year.
Cheney briefly addressed the conference before the voice vote, vowing to keep fighting.
“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. That will be their legacy,” Cheney said.
“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,” she added.
McCarthy faced mounting pressure to oust Cheney from Trump and the right flank of his conference — a crucial voting bloc if he wants to claim the speaker’s gavel after the midterms. His push to unseat his own No. 3 culminated Wednesday in a leadership eviction that proved most shocking because of how quickly the outcome became predictable. Cheney was recalled as conference chair, a role responsible for both party messaging and member services.
Veteran GOP Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina introduced the formal resolution to boot Cheney during Wednesday’s closed-door meeting.
A replacement election for the House GOP conference chairmanship is expected to happen later this week or next week. So far, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York — a moderate turned Trump ally — is the only candidate running for the position. She has been working quickly to lock down support, while McCarthy and members close to him are whipping members hard to support her.
“Each day spent re-litigating the past is one less day we have to seize the future,” McCarthy wrote in a letter to his colleagues ahead of the vote. “If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved so as not to detract from the efforts of our collective team.”
Cheney’s removal from leadership delivered a demoralizing blow to the small but vocal anti-Trump wing of the GOP, while serving up a major victory to hard-line conservatives who failed to take her down in February and have agitated for her removal ever since.
It’s also a stunning fall from grace for Cheney, a political scion who was once seen as a fast-rising star in the party. The Wyoming Republican passed on a Senate bid last year to seek her fortunes in the House and was floated as a future speaker. Now, Cheney is a woman in GOP exile who may struggle to even hold on to her congressional seat next fall.
Yet Cheney, who has framed the debate as a fight for democracy and freedom, has made clear she feels comfortable being toppled for sticking to her beliefs. She didn’t try to persuade GOP colleagues to keep her in the post. In a fiery floor speech on the eve of her ouster, she defiantly deemed Trump a “threat we have never seen before” and raised concerns about the direction of her party.
“Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar,” Cheney said Tuesday night, wearing a replica pin of George Washington’s battle flag. “I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”
“We must speak the truth,” she added. “Our election was not stolen, and America has not failed.”
Frustrations inside the GOP conference over Cheney have brewed for weeks, with one member referring to the situation as a “slow burn.” After easily holding on to power in February following her vote to impeach Trump, Cheney continued to speak her mind about the former president in interviews, press conferences and op-eds. Republicans started to complain that they were being asked about Cheney by their constituents and donors back home.
Those tensions reached a boiling point at the House GOP’s annual policy retreat in Orlando late last month, where Cheney once again publicly split with McCarthy on Trump in a move that other Republicans saw as undermining their message. The effort to expel her from the No. 3 spot in leadership escalated quickly after that.
Even some of Cheney’s closest allies, like Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), and moderates who voted to fully certify Trump’s loss, said a change was needed. Lawmakers from all corners of the conference said Cheney should have been focused on bashing the Biden administration — not continually shining a spotlight on their internal divisions over Trump.
“You can’t have a Republican conference chair who continually recites Democratic talking points,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a Freedom Caucus co-founder and Trump ally. “You can’t have a Republican conference chair who takes positions that 90 percent of the party oppose. … I just don’t see how that’s helpful.”
While McCarthy argued just a few months ago that the GOP is a “big tent” that could house a multitude of viewpoints, Wednesday’s vote suggests that the party’s competing Trump factions in the party may be too difficult to reconcile.
“Kevin McCarthy (an employee of Donald Trump) may win tomorrow, but history won’t be kind,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who voted to impeach Trump. “Never has our party gone after its own leadership like this, but Kevin and Steve Scalise made history, because Trump has thin skin. I’d be embarrassed if I was them.”
Aside from Kinzinger, though, the vast majority of House Republicans weren’t conflicted about dethroning Cheney — even if some of them were uncomfortable with the optics or privately worried about the potential repercussions with voters in 2022. Republicans say McCarthy will likely suffer little consequences, at least internally, for purging Cheney from their leadership ranks.
And unlike February’s attempted Cheney dethroning, McCarthy is not dealing with simultaneous drama caused by controversial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). At the time, McCarthy felt it would be politically disastrous to defend Greene while ousting Cheney, so he ultimately stood behind both lawmakers. Now, McCarthy has some distance from both the Greene turmoil and Jan. 6.
But Democrats plan to make the moment as painful as possible for Republicans. They have already seized on the Cheney chaos, using her expulsion to yoke the entire GOP to Trump, the conspiracy theories of QAnon and lies about election fraud circulating on the right.
“Liz Cheney spoke truth to power, and for that, she’s being fired,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday.