by Philip Wegmann
Among the 232 votes in the House of Representatives to impeach Donald Trump a second time were 10 cast by Republicans — and now the GOP has a messy church fight on its hands. That’s because one of the 10 breaking ranks was Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who chairs the GOP conference. The immediate question for House Republicans is whether Cheney should remain in that post after voting to impeach Trump. But this is a proxy fight. The broader question is whether Trump populism ought to remain Republican Party orthodoxy.
Each side is circulating petitions either supporting or opposing Cheney, though the conflict doesn’t cut the conference in half. At least not neatly. It was members of the House Freedom Caucus that began Wednesday morning by trying to force a debate about forcing her from leadership.
“She did this for her own personal political gain,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale. It was not a matter of conscience, the Montana freshman insisted. He told RealClearPolitics it was instead a betrayal meant “to elevate herself as one of the new leaders in the Republican Party,” before pausing to add, “the ‘New Republican party,’ if you will.” Who are these upstarts? According to Rosendale, they include those eager to put “the legacy of Trump behind them.” He paused again, this time to clarify: “When I say legacy, I don’t mean the legacy of the last 60 days that has been completely tainted and distorted.”
Trump’s record before last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol — the memory of Trump that Rosendale and others want preserved, anyway — is one of lower taxes and trade wars over manufacturing jobs, and anti-interventionism on the world stage. And though the president’s approval rating has plummeted since the mob action, he hasn’t fallen from grace with a certain segment of the party faithful. “Remember that as bad as this week was, and it was very, very bad,” said a veteran Republican aide with knowledge of all those involved, “Trump is still overwhelmingly popular in most of these guys’ districts and more popular than many of the [House representatives] themselves.
“Most members aren’t exactly going to be jumping at the chance to throw their names behind someone who impeached the top-polling politician in their district,” the aide predicted.
Rep. Andy Biggs, a Trump ally and the current HFC chairman, was calling for Cheney’s ouster before the impeachment vote on Wednesday. “The reality is she’s not representing the conference,” he said in a Fox News interview. “She’s not representing the Republican ideals.” She was “out there advocating for others to join her in impeachment,” he said. “That’s wrong, and I think she should resign.”
But Cheney, who was reelected to her post unanimously just three months ago, didn’t sound cowed. “This is a vote of conscience,” she told Politico. “It’s one where there are different views in our conference. But our nation is facing an unprecedented, since the Civil War, constitutional crisis.”
Cheney’s critics are concerned that she didn’t merely cast a vote of conscience. The day before the impeachment vote, she issued a blistering statement critical of the president, which many Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, used against Trump in Wednesday’s floor debate. “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” the statement said. “Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
It would take just 20% of the conference, just 42 members, to force a referendum on Cheney’s status. Then, a majority would have to vote against the chair for her to be deposed. Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who floor-managed the opposition to impeachment Wednesday, has signaled that he favors such a vote.
Jordan knows these kinds of fights. In 2016, he joined with North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows in a successful attempt to force John Boehner from the speakership and then gave his successor, Paul Ryan, fits over Obama-era budget battles. It was Trump who helped elevate the rebels from discontented budget hawks to national prominence. They backed him when others balked at the rise of the real estate tycoon with questionable conservative ideals. It worked. Their gamble earned them an ally in the White House where Meadows has served as chief of staff since late March.
Some now find the group unrecognizable compared to those conservative purists who once held Republican feet to the fire over the finer points of federal appropriations. “I have no idea what happened to the Freedom Caucus,” said former Rep. Mark Sanford, who fought alongside Jordan and Meadows to lower spending, a posture Republicans quickly abandoned once in power. “Maybe it was just a fraud from the very beginning.” An early member of the caucus, the South Carolina Republican said that a partisan kind of centrifugal force had spun conservatives away from principle, toward a cult of personality, and “out into the far yonder.”
The squabble over Liz Cheney remains an undercard fight to the larger impeachment conflict. After all, only nine of her Republican colleagues joined her in voting to remove the president from office, and those on both sides of the issue realize it will take time for the GOP to figure out its post-Trump identity. For now, members are left sniping back and forth on Twitter over party power struggles that probably don’t register with average voters.
“Liz has more support now than she did two days ago. She has gained immeasurable respect,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who also voted to impeach. A former Air Force combat pilot who still serves in the National Guard, Kinzinger then took a pot shot at Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee: “We may have to also have a discussion about who in our party fomented this, and their roles as ranking members.”
Others, such as Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw, tried to play peacemaker. Although he did not vote for impeachment, Crenshaw, another military veteran, tweeted his support for Cheney, saying she “has a hell of a lot more backbone than most, [and] is a principled leader with a fierce intellect.”
“We can disagree without tearing each other apart,” he added.
It wasn’t clear if the House Freedom Caucus was unified or had the votes to force a referendum. A spokesman told RCP early Wednesday that “all of our members are on board with removing Cheney” before clarifying that “no official position has been taken with HFC on Cheney as of now — just our chairman and a new freshman HFC member leading the charge.”
But there is dissatisfaction among those ranks with GOP brass. “I think that when Kevin and Steve supported an unconstitutional challenge to the election,” Rep. Ken Buck told reporters in a reference to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, “and when [Liz Cheney] is supporting a constitutionally flawed impeachment, we have leadership issues.”
A spokeswoman for the Colorado Republican later told RCP that despite that dissatisfaction Buck “does not support the Freedom Caucus letter going around calling for Liz Cheney to step down.”
Nor does it sound as though Cheney is inclined to go without a fight. “I’m not going anywhere,” she vowed.
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Philip Wegmann is a staff reporter for RealClearPolitics.