Liz Cheney’s ouster happened so quickly that members were still showing up as she was removed as chair of the Republican Conference by a quick voice vote in the auditorium of the Capitol basement.
It was supposed to be the biggest show on Capitol Hill in months, between the pandemic and the January 6 putsch that kept people away. Before the meeting began at 9 a.m., Cheney stopped in an adjacent bathroom and was immediately surrounded by the press in a matter more befitting paparazzi than the D.C. press corps. Those who wanted to be discreet could avoid the media, while for others, there was the D.C. equivalent of a red carpet: a long hallway lined with photographers and bright with overhead fluorescent light where they could “talk to the cameras.”
Inside was the showdown, hyped as having existential stakes for the Republican Party. On one side were supporters of Donald Trump, who incited an attack on the Capitol as part of a desperate attempt to promote lies about election fraud and hold on to power. On the other was the right-wing dynastic scion trying to promote the traditional values of the GOP and ward off “the big lie.”
The meeting began with brief remarks by Cheney, who once again condemned Trump. “We cannot let the former president drag us backward and make us complicit in his efforts to unravel our democracy. 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. That will be their legacy.”
She then offered a prayer citing John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
The matter was decided quickly inside the closed meeting as a voice vote: Several members said it sounded like a roughly three-to-one margin for removing Cheney. An attempt afterward to put members on the record was ruled out of order because the time had already passed to make the motion. Previously, after her vote to impeach Trump in January, Cheney had won a recorded vote by secret ballot in February by a two-to-one margin. There was little appetite even among Cheney’s defenders to put the vote on the record this time. As Ken Buck of Colorado told Intelligencer afterward, “People wanted to move on. They wanted to adjourn quickly, and it was obvious … even the people who voted for her felt it was unnecessary.”
Afterward, only Cheney and her ardent ally Adam Kinzinger of Illinois were willing to talk to TV cameras. Cheney reiterated her opposition to Trump in her brief remarks to the cameras. “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” she vowed. Trump celebrated the vote in a statement in which he called the Wyoming Republican “a bitter, horrible human being,” while his allies celebrated. Freshman representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina tweeted, “Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye Liz Cheney.”
But while some members such as Buck defended Cheney, saying she was “canceled today for speaking her mind,” others just viewed the vote as a distraction and were ready to move on. Cheney’s desire to keep on defending the integrity of the election was an irritant to their goals, which were laid out in an email from House Republican whip Steve Scalise minutes after the meeting with the subject line “Staying focused on fighting the socialist agenda.”
Still, it is clear how central staying in Trump’s good graces is for the Republican Conference and how important it is to support his efforts to impugn the integrity of the 2020 election.
As Byron Donalds, a freshman from Florida, put it to reporters, “Let me posit to you this: If you had a member of the Democratic leadership who said they don’t believe in climate change anymore, would they stay in leadership? I don’t think so.”