For the first time ever, Congress’ most MAGA contingent on Tuesday decided to test the rule that Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) is the only high-profile Republican who can criticize President Trump and get away with it.
By the end of the day, their efforts had made abundantly clear that Cheney can, in fact, still get away with it—at least for now—with her reputation largely unscathed.
At a closed-door meeting of House Republicans—their first fully in-person meeting since early March—several lawmakers who present themselves as unflinchingly loyal to Trump took the opportunity to execute what struck some as a coordinated broadside on the third-ranking House Republican. According to Politico, Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Chip Roy (R-TX), and others attacked Cheney for being insufficiently supportive of Trump and his agenda, for supporting Dr. Anthony Fauci, and for backing a primary challenger to Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), among other things.
After the news of the meeting broke, Gaetz upped the ante by publicly calling on Cheney to step down from her position as conference chair. “Liz Cheney has worked behind the scenes (and now in public) against @realDonaldTrump and his agenda,” tweeted Gaetz. “Liz Cheney should step down or be removed.” The call was amplified with a well-timed release of an episode of Gaetz’s podcast, “Hot Takes with Matt Gaetz.”
At least one high-profile denizen of Trumpworld clearly heard the call: The president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., piggybacked on Gaetz’s tweet, saying “We already have one Mitt Romney, we don’t need another.” Trump, Jr. is an influential and well-connected figure in House GOP circles.
But, as Cheney pointed out at a press conference later, Trump’s son is “not a member of the House Republican conference.”
Ultimately, none of Gaetz’s band of rabblerousers backed his call to remove Cheney from her post—even those who reportedly aired their grievances against her Tuesday morning.
In fact, one after the other, those reportedly involved changed the subject.
“I am focused on making sure the President wins re-election and helping us take back the majority. I want to stay focused on that, that should be what we’re doing,” said Jordan, when asked if he had confidence in Cheney.
“We had a good robust private conversation,” Roy said—and called Cheney a friend, “just like all my other colleagues in this conference are friends. We’re going to get busy making sure we’re going to win this fall.”
And Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), who was not at the meeting but is close to the Trump family, also declined to take the bait on Cheney, telling The Daily Beast, “I’ve gotten along with her the entire time that she’s been here. And my interactions with her, where we’re aligned on issues, has been only positive.”
Other Republicans chided the push: Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-MI), who is retiring, said it was a bit “extreme” to try to oust Cheney over her views on Trump. “She’s done what she thinks is right,” said Mitchell. “I’m not endorsing it, it’s just if that’s the criteria we use, I don’t think unquestioning support of the president is in the job description of conference chair.”
Trump himself, meanwhile, did not publicly weigh in on the dust-up, and to date has never publicly attacked Cheney in the merciless style he’s gone after other Republicans he views as critical of him. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Cheney and the GOP meeting.
With the would-be insurgents largely silent, Cheney ended the day pocketing public praise from allies and the full backing of House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who appeared beside her at a press conference and proclaimed “we’re honored to have her as conference chair.”
Privately, too, many Republicans seethed at the optics of outspoken male lawmakers going after a highly visible Republican woman. “Where is the party struggling right now? With women,” said one House Republican aide. “And the game plan is to go after the top female elected Republican in all of Congress?”
“There is zero appetite,” said another House Republican aide, “to get rid of the only woman in leadership.”
Indeed, it was unlikely that a fit from House conservatives, who historically love to rattle their leaders, would result in any meaningful effort to oust Cheney. But their first shot at it may portend future turbulence within the Republican Party—especially a post-Trump party that so many believe that Cheney is positioning herself to lead.
The timing of the attack, which was unconnected to any specific bit of news or provocation by Cheney, was “quite intentional,” according to a former House Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe conference dynamics freely.
“It’s also misplaced and purely personal. Cheney is a strong supporter of the President, wants him to win in November, and is arguably more conservative than those chirping,” said the aide. “But, those that have risen in influence because of President Trump’s personal and punch-driven politics made it clear today they will not go quietly if he falls in November. The fight for the future of the Republican Party has broken out into the open.”
The third-term congresswoman’s willingness to push back on Trump at all—where she could easily remain silent or supportive of him—has given rise to chatter that she is planning for a future where the party has moved on from Trump.
Her criticisms of Trump have hardly risen to the level of someone like Romney, who voted with Democrats in an impeachment Cheney slammed as permanently damaging to the country. According to trackers like FiveThirtyEight, Cheney has voted more frequently with Trump’s agenda in her career than detractors questioning her loyalty to the president, such as Gaetz, who did time of his own in the White House doghouse in January over his high-profile fight to rein in Trump’s war powers on Iran.
But within the House GOP’s Trump cheering section, Cheney’s at-times harsh criticism has stuck out—particularly when it comes to Trump’s national security platform and the petty controversies the president reflexively kicks up regularly—putting her in contrast with Republicans like Jordan, who have thrown in their lot so clearly with the president that the association will be hard to shake, no matter what happens to him in November.
Indeed, Trump’s political fortunes were a focal point of the closed-door discussion Tuesday morning, with Cheney’s critics accusing her of undermining the president’s chances at reelection and saying she wasn’t a “team player.” Cheney, a top fundraising officer on the Trump campaign, reportedly parried the attacks with subtle digs at her rivals, wishing Gaetz luck on his new HBO documentary and raising Jordan’s past reputation as anything but a team player.
But leaving that meeting, Cheney illustrated a reason why she’s been able to get so far while lodging criticism of the president—picking her battles.
"We had an exchange of views,” Cheney told reporters, saying not a word about what she’d just confronted. “I think it's all clear we're unified in terms of recognizing the danger... if Joe Biden were elected President. We talked at length about Vice President Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and the kind of America we'd be living in if they prevail. That was really the focus of it. We had a healthy exchange of views.”