Rep. Liz Cheney tells America why Jan. 6 should terrify them

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For weeks, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has been, in the words of those close to her, “obsessed” with investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

She has devoted more than half of her working hours to collecting evidence, leafing through thousands of pages of testimony, writing scripts for the hearings and strategizing on how best to convince her constituents and fellow Republicans that the events of that January day were part of a chilling conspiracy overseen by former president Donald Trump to undermine democracy.

On Thursday night, at the first in a series of congressional hearings, Cheney narrated that case with a dispassionate but propulsive presentation of facts, often showing evidence from videotaped depositions from the former president’s inner circle admitting his claims of voter fraud had no merit. She teased the investigation’s biggest findings and sharply criticized her fellow Republicans for the roles that they played — including enabling and continuing to support Trump.

“There will come a point when Donald Trump is gone,” Cheney said, “but your dishonor will remain.”

THE ATTACK: The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event.

These hearings, which continue Monday, could mark the pinnacle of Cheney’s political career or the end of it.

The former rising star of the GOP has already been alienated by party leaders, abandoned by longtime supporters and consistently attacked by Trump and his allies, who are backing a primary challenger Cheney will face in August. While most of the nine other Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after Jan. 6 have either decided not to run for reelection or mostly avoided discussing the former president, Cheney has made her role as the vice chair of the select committee investigating the insurrection central to her pitch to voters. She is trying to convince them she’s on the right side of history — and that her Trump-free approach to conservatism is the right one.

“These issues around what happened on January 6th and around Donald Trump and the danger that he poses, those matter to every American,” Cheney told supporters at a campaign event in Cheyenne, Wyo., on Saturday. “And I just feel very strongly about my responsibility.”

The House select committee held its first prime-time session on June 9 after spending nearly a year investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

In more than 20 conversations with lawmakers, political operatives, foes and friends of the Wyoming Republican, they uniformly describe her as obstinately and surgically focused on extinguishing Trump from the modern conservative movement that he has largely redefined in recent years, with little introspection regarding the forces bigger than Trump that facilitated her ousting from the Wyoming Republican Party earlier this year.

Cheney has said the deadly assault of the U.S. Capitol crossed the party line for her and that she has a nonpartisan duty to set the record straight for the people who were “betrayed and lied to” by Trump. Cheney participated in several private meetings with GOP leaders in the days leading up to the attack and was in the House as insurgents tried breaking down the doors, helping other lawmakers put on gas masks because tear gas has been deployed nearby.

Democrats run the select committee, but they deferred to Cheney — the daughter of a former Republican vice president they still revile — at the opening hearing to methodically lay out the case against Trump.

“She’s had a huge head start on the rest of the committee in understanding these events, because she knows the players and understands the internal political culture of the GOP — this is very familiar terrain for her,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said.

6 questions the Jan. 6 committee aims to answer about the attack

Cheney’s Republican colleagues have struggled to understand her motives, especially given the political price she is paying in Wyoming, where Trump celebrated his largest margins of victory. Some wonder whether she is angling to run for a higher office.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has told others that he understands Cheney’s position, but “it’s the only thing she cares about,” according to one adviser. “That doesn’t help anyone.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told Cheney after her impeachment vote that he would try to protect her if she would drop the Trump attacks, but she declined, people familiar with the matter said. He has privately described her as “obsessed” with Trump and with destroying his political power, they said. Cheney has repeatedly criticized McCarthy for going to Mar-a-Lago to see Trump soon after the attack and has come to see him as responsible for Trump’s resurrection in the wake of Jan. 6, according to a person familiar with her thinking.

Cheney explained her motives in personal terms at the Saturday campaign event, pointing to Jan. 6 as the moment she realized the peaceful transfer of power was no longer a guarantee.

“I looked at my boys in the weeks after January 6th; it became very clear that we might suddenly have to question that,” Cheney said. “And I am absolutely committed to do everything I can do, everything that I am required and obligated to do to make sure that we aren’t the last generation in America that can count on a peaceful transition of power. It is hugely important.”

‘Trump is wildly popular in Wyoming’

Days before the opening hearing, Cheney stood in Cheyenne’s Old West Museum, surrounded by 19th-century horse carriages, and told a small crowd of supporters and warned that Trump “can’t be anywhere close to that power again.” The crowd of about 70 supporters included mostly traditional Republicans, including a few who supported her father’s first campaign more than 40 years ago, as well as some independent-leaning voters.

“What we do in Wyoming is going to matter so much,” she said. “I cannot overstate how much what we do is going to matter, because it’s going to matter from the perspective of our democracy as a whole. It’s going to matter. People are going to watch Wyoming.”

In Wyoming’s Aug. 16 primary, Cheney faces Harriet Hageman, an attorney and former Republican National Committee member whose campaign is guided by Trump advisers. The former president attended a large rally for Hageman in late May and has claimed that “the people of Wyoming cannot stand” Cheney.

After Georgia losses, Trump sets sights on ousting Cheney in Wyoming

Cheney advisers describe the race as a difficult one, and Trump has claimed the congresswoman is lagging in the polls. Cheney has held back her vast campaign war chest but last week began what is expected to be a massive TV ad campaign that makes only indirect reference to “standing up to bullies.”

She has not been able to hold large, publicized campaign events, partly for security concerns, and is instead gathering dozens of supporters at a time and then using her digital media team to blast video snippets of the event out to supporters around the state.

Cheney, 56, has long had a complicated relationship with Wyoming. She attended middle school in the state but mostly grew up in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia. Her father, Dick Cheney, went from junior White House aide to the youngest presidential chief of staff ever, for Gerald Ford, before returning to Wyoming and winning the state’s sole House seat in 1978.

Liz Cheney’s political viewpoint was formed in her father’s orbit of conservative hawks, particularly once he became secretary of defense in 1989 and then George W. Bush’s vice president. She worked as a State Department deputy assistant secretary focused on Middle East affairs, at a time when wars were launched in Afghanistan and Iraq. She embraced the belief popular among many neoconservatives that all people yearned for democratic governance freed from their autocratic regimes, justifying U.S. military action in many parts of the world and leading Trump to derisively label her a “war monger.”

In the Obama administration years, Cheney began to carve her own identity, particularly as an acid-tongued partisan commentator on Fox News who belittled the White House. In 2013, she tried to challenge Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) but withdrew from the race amid an angry backlash. She then ran for her father’s former House seat in 2016 and won, saying her star power would help the state.

Tim Stubson, a former state representative who lost to Cheney in 2016 but now supports her, said he recalls Cheney saying: “I have a national voice. I have a national presence. I can use that for the benefit of the state of Wyoming.”

“That was her pitch,” Stubson said. “And that’s exactly what she did.”

As Cheney was first running for office, Trump became the party’s presidential nominee. Stubson remembers her carefully embracing most of Trump’s conservative policies but not his outrageous behavior — later earning her praise from Trump’s family members and senior advisers at a fundraiser in the Wyoming resort town of Jackson in 2019.

Trump won the state by 46 percentage points in 2016 — slightly better than Mitt Romney did in 2012 — and then by 43 percentage points in 2020.

What Wyoming really thinks of Liz Cheney

Over that time, Wyoming’s Republican Party has been slowly taken over by conservatives who identify more as Trump supporters than Republicans. The state party is now led by Frank Eathorne, a member of the Oath Keepers who stood on the Capitol’s West Front during the insurrection, walkie-talkie in hand. Cheney has heavily focused on investigating his role, advisers say.

“This [takeover] was planned over several years, very organized and very dedicated,” said Joe McGinley, a former Natrona County Republican Party chairman who runs a medical practice in Casper, Wyo. “And they had a long-term goal to take first, the county parties, then the state party, then the legislature, and then all of the other elected positions.”

Earlier this month, a group of breakaway Republicans held a candidate forum that included loud heckling of an incumbent state representative wearing a mask — his immuno-suppressing medications make him susceptible to severe outcomes if he develops covid — and even more jeering when he said the state government should accept federal funding, the largest source of state revenue. A long-shot candidate for governor parked his campaign truck, with the motto SOVEREIGN WYOMING painted across the front, outside the event.

With so many voters tilting in this direction, McGinley believes Cheney’s best hope is to attract a pool of new voters for the primary — soft Republicans who do not normally participate in primaries, as well as some crossover votes from independents and Democrats who can register as Republicans up until the day of the Aug. 16 primary. That, however, could require a major shift in Cheney’s current message. Many of those soft Republican voters, according to McGinley, need to be drawn out on local issues.

“This is not about President Trump,” McGinley said. “This is about Wyoming. This is about Wyoming needs. This is about Wyoming jobs. Wyoming is struggling under the Biden administration with oil and gas under attack and coal under attack.”

Some in Wyoming say Cheney hasn’t been as visible as she was in the past, and even advisers and allies wish she was campaigning more, although others note there are concerns about her safety and the reaction of some voters in parts of Wyoming.

Cheney’s work on the committee has helped her develop a national following and raise a record $10 million for this election so far, with almost $7 million in the bank, a figure that has probably grown over the past two months.

Cheney raised more than $7.2 million last year, an astonishing amount for a state with fewer than 600,000 residents, according to Open Secrets, an independent political funding analyst. A little more than $200,000 came from Wyoming donors, according to the analysis — a statistic her opponent has loudly advertised.

Bobbie Kilberg, a prominent Virginia donor, held a fundraiser for Cheney in a hotel ballroom earlier this year. It was moved from Kilberg’s home because so many people wanted to attend after the Republican Party censured Cheney and announced it would not support her reelection, she said, and 212 people raised $532,000. The crowd included Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe McCain, the brother of the late senator John McCain of Arizona.

“There are a lot of Republicans, quiet Republicans who don’t like confrontation, who have had it,” Kilberg said.

At the event, she said, Cheney offered a fiery denunciation of Trump and his behavior.

“She talked at the fundraiser about respect for the constitution, the rule of law. She said that Donald Trump had not adhered to any of that — his behavior was inexcusable — people had to stand up, and people had to be accountable,” Kilberg said. “She did not shy away in any manner, shape or form in her feelings or beliefs that Donald Trump had not respected the rule of law.”

A person involved with the Hageman campaign said Cheney could triumph if Democrats decide to cross over in large droves. Still, Cheney faces a problem of basic math. In the last midterm elections, about 115,000 people voted in the GOP primary, while 17,000 voted in the Democratic primary.

“If it’s 20 percent, we’re okay; if it’s 30 percent, it gets closer,” the person added, trying to predict how many Democrats will ultimately cross over. For their part, Cheney’s team has not tried to go after crossover voters, according to people familiar with their strategy.

In the crowd at Cheney’s Saturday campaign event was Harmon Davis, 75, a retired pulmonologist who didn’t support her in 2016 because he considered her “a carpet bagger” who wasn’t familiar with the state.

Davis described when he had a change of heart: “When she started to behave like a thinking, courageous leader, and was able to not have to swallow the party politic and was able to speak her mind about things, and to stand up.”

But Cheney seems to have lost many more supporters, including Doug Cooper, a Wyoming rancher who volunteered for her original campaign, held a dinner for her team at his house and had her cellphone number. He now plans to vote for Hageman.

“Until Jan. 6, I was pleased with what she was doing, but she has put all her political assets against Trump. It’s a bad deal,” Cooper said. “I feel that she’s really a traitor to us. … I went from an ardent supporter to as strong an opponent as you can find.”

Cooper said Trump was right to raise questions about the validity of the 2020 election results and said Democrats deserve some of the blame for the Jan. 6 attack.

Cheney’s two mortal sins, he said, were voting to impeach Trump and then continuing to criticize him. Cooper said he had emailed Cheney directly about his concerns but didn’t hear back, and had talked to her staff repeatedly about his concerns.

“Trump is wildly popular in Wyoming,” he said. “She’s alienated herself from a large portion of the Republican Party. Liz has got a problem.”

‘She’s a conservative, and I’m not.’

Despite Cheney’s continued conservative convictions — just look at her voting record — she has become somewhat of a hero to liberals who have contributed to her campaign or commended her courage for joining the Jan. 6 committee.

She has received mostly rave reviews from her Democratic colleagues, who describe her as one of the most aggressive members. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who invited Cheney to be on the committee and appointed her as the vice chairwoman, described the Republican’s leadership as “excellent.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) called her “very smart, very hard-working, thoughtful.” Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) said there are “few people in Congress I can think of who I enjoy working with more than Liz.”

The carefully calibrated story of Jan. 6 presented by panel

That doesn’t mean that her new Democratic friends have deluded themselves into believing that Cheney’s now a Democrat. She’s been less “liberated,” according to a person involved with the investigation, and more constrained by her belief system than the other Republican on the committee, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who is retiring from Congress.

“It’s been great working with her, but we don’t agree on many, many other issues, as I’m sure you know,” Lofgren said. “She’s a conservative, and I’m not.”

Cheney did not want the committee to investigate Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist and the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, according to people involved with the investigation. Cheney did not think it was fair to target the justice without evidence that he was involved, according to those involved, but some Democrats instead saw this as an effort to protect her hardcore Republican credentials. Cheney has also clashed with Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) over how much to focus on Trump vs. other Republicans, according to those involved.

“She drives a hard bargain,” said a person involved with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “People’s impression of Dick Cheney — that he is a control freak — Liz Cheney has got some of that.”

Back at the Old West Museum in Cheyenne, Cheney said issues central to Wyoming “matter a huge amount” in her reelection — but nothing will be more important than investigating Trump.

“I have huge respect for the voters of Wyoming,” Cheney said, “so I think that I owe them the truth, and I owe them honesty about how important this is.”

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