When it was Cheney’s turn to speak, the 54-year-old Wyoming congresswoman began by describing her lifelong reverence for the House, where her father, Dick Cheney, was minority whip more than 30 years ago before serving as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense and George W. Bush’s vice president. But, Cheney went on, she was “deeply, deeply concerned about where our party is headed.” Its core principles — limited government, low taxes, a strong national defense — were being overshadowed by darker forces. “We cannot become the party of QAnon,” she said. “We cannot become the party of Holocaust denial. We cannot become the party of white supremacy. We all watched in horror what happened on Jan. 6.”
Cheney, alone among House Republicans, had been mentioned by Trump in his speech that day. “The Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them,” he told his supporters at the Ellipse shortly before they overran the Capitol. The president had been infuriated by Cheney’s public insistence that Trump’s court challenges to state election results were unpersuasive and that he needed to respect “the sanctity of our electoral process.” At the time of Trump’s speech, Cheney was in the House cloakroom awaiting the ritual state-by-state tabulation of electoral votes. Her father called her to inform her of Trump’s remark. Less than an hour later, a mob was banging against the doors of the House chamber.
In the conference meeting, Cheney said that she stood by her vote to impeach Trump. Several members had asked her to apologize, but, she said, “I cannot do that.”
The line to the microphone was extraordinarily long. At least half of the speakers indicated that they would vote to remove Cheney. Ralph Norman of South Carolina expressed disappointment in her vote. “But the other thing that bothers me, Liz,” he went on, “is your attitude. You’ve got a defiant attitude.” John Rutherford of Florida, a former sheriff, accused the chairwoman of not being a “team player.”
Others argued that her announcement a day before the impeachment vote had given the Democrats a talking point to use against the rest of the Republican conference. (“Good for her for honoring her oath of office,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointedly remarked when told of Cheney’s intentions.) Likening the situation to a football game, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania lamented, “You look up into the stands and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side — that’s one hell of a tough thing to swallow.”
“She’s not your girlfriend!” a female colleague yelled out. Kelly’s remark was immediately disseminated among Republican women in professional Washington, according to Barbara Comstock, who served as a Republican congresswoman from Virginia until 2019. “We emailed that around, just horrified, commenting in real time,” she told me.
Throughout it all, Cheney sat implacably — “as emotional as algebra,” as one attendee later told me. She spoke only when asked a direct question. But when McCarthy concluded by suggesting that they put this matter behind them and adjourn, Cheney insisted that the conference vote on her status right then and there. The members cast their secret ballots, and Cheney prevailed, 145 to 61.
The lopsided margin was almost identical to Cheney’s own whip count going into the conference. Individual colleagues had confided in her that most of the conference was only too happy to move on from Trump — but saying so in public was another matter. To do so meant risking defeat at the hands of a Trump-adoring Republican primary electorate or even, many of them feared, the well-being of their families. In sum, it risked getting the Liz Cheney treatment. That Cheney was willing to face Trump’s wrath called attention to the fact that most of them were not — a factor in the aggrievement directed at Cheney in the meeting. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania said that Cheney had “a low E.Q.,” or emotional quotient. On his way out the door, one congressman remarked, “I just got to spend four hours listening to a bunch of men complain to a woman that she doesn’t take their emotions into account.”