It was May 27 and President Donald Trump had, for the umpteenth time in four years, set Republicans scrambling to defend him amid a controversy of his own making.
At that moment, the focus was MSNBC anchor Joe Scarborough. The president had spent days reviving, via Twitter, a baseless conspiracy theory that Scarborough had something to do with the death of a female employee of his when he served in Congress two decades ago. It prompted the woman’s distraught widower to plead with Twitter to take the ranting messages down.
Arrayed at a press conference on Capitol Hill amid this blow-up were the top three members of House Republican leadership: the minority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, his deputy, Rep. Steve Scalise, and the GOP conference’s chair, Rep. Liz Cheney.
Inevitably, McCarthy—a close ally of Trump, who calls him “My Kevin”—was asked about the Scarborough tweets and, inevitably, McCarthy dodged. “I was not here with Joe Scarborough,” he said. “I don’t quite know about the subject itself.”
Scalise and Cheney weren’t asked to respond. But after the press conference ended, Cheney was talking to two reporters about something else when, unprompted, she gave her own response to the question. “I do think the president should stop tweeting about Joe Scarborough,” she said to the Washington Post. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. He’s the commander in chief of this nation. And it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died.”
That Cheney stating the obvious registered as news is, of course, revealing of the Trump-era GOP, where even one critical word of the commander in chief is enough to earn a Republican a presidential public flogging; two can earn them permanent banishment into the bin of haters and losers.
But no such backlash, no presidential Twitter counter-punch, came for the Wyoming congresswoman afterward. And it did not come last year, when Cheney rebuked Trump for going after Marie Yovanovitch—the former ambassador to Ukraine whom he targeted during impeachment—nor when Cheney called Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria “sickening,” nor when Cheney pointedly said that the federal government “does not have absolute power” after Trump insisted it did.
On Saturday, Cheney did it again. In reference to reports that Trump was moving to slash the long-standing U.S. military presence in Germany, she tweeted out a condemnation of the “misguided” move and a shot across the bow at an “America First” vision of foreign policy. “If the United States abandons allies, withdraws our forces, and retreats within our borders, the cause of freedom—on which our nation was founded & our security depends—will be in peril,” she wrote.
“She says what a lot of us are thinking but can’t say,” a Republican lawmaker told The Daily Beast. “But she can get away with it because of who she is. Whenever she does speak out, she doesn’t lose support in the conference—she probably gains it.”
If anything, Trump has had only good things to say about his occasional critic. Last year, he called Cheney “a friend of mine, and a wonderful person, and somebody that has, I don't know, a pretty unlimited future, I'd say.”
Indeed, few in the GOP would disagree with Trump’s own assessment of her potential.
Born in 1966, Cheney has a classic Washington pedigree, spending her childhood split between Wyoming and the Beltway as her father, Dick Cheney, climbed the rungs of the Republican Party establishment. After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Cheney held posts at the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. When her father became vice president, she held various posts at State related to Middle East policy. After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008—Cheney worked for Mitt Romney in that election cycle—she enjoyed a brief stint as a Fox News pundit.
After a failed bid for Senate in 2014, Cheney leapt from freshman House backbencher to No. 3 in the GOP leadership in just two years. At 53 years old, she’s seen a future leader of the party; her decision to pass up an open Senate seat this year in deep-red Wyoming directs her future toward the House, where her father served for a decade and held the same seat and the same position in leadership she does now.
“I’ll be thrilled,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), “when Liz Cheney is the first Republican woman to be Speaker.”
Cheney’s office declined an interview for this story. In interviews, the congresswoman’s allies and admirers scoff at the notion of any master plan on her part and say observers read too much into her words about the president. But Republicans who are familiar with the congresswoman, including those who watched her ascend in Wyoming, describe a driven and strategic political figure who believes her currency in the future GOP won’t rest on her approach to Trump, but on her careful construction of her own no-nonsense brand of truth-telling.
“She clearly speaks with some resolve and gives the sense she’s not going to take shit from anybody, that she’s not someone to be messed with,” said Brendan Buck, a former top adviser to former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). “She speaks with a clarity you don’t often see in Congress these days. When you do that, it triggers respect from everybody.”
That sense is shared back home. “Wyoming is pure, unadulterated Trump country, and they sense Liz is on the same wavelength, but yet is willing to criticize the President when she thinks he is out of order,” Foster Friess, a prominent Wyoming GOP donor who ran for governor in 2018, said in an email to The Daily Beast. “Wyomingites are independent, straight-shooting thinkers, and I believe even the hard core Trumpsters respect her for that.”
Trump does too, say colleagues. Banks, an ally of Cheney’s on the House Armed Services Committee, said he’s witnessed many times the “respectful banter back and forth between the two of them. She has a unique ability to push back, or speak out, or disagree with the president but do it with a smile on her face.”
“There’s an effective way to disagree,” said Banks, “and there’s a way that will quickly render you irrelevant in the Republican Party. Liz Cheney has figured out, like a few others have, that you can disagree with the president and he can at times respect it and uniquely listen to your point of view.”
But the fact that she would even risk running afoul of Trump at all is a question that vexes some in the GOP. For Republicans, the Trump era has proved that the political price of sticking by the president no matter what has been minimal or non-existent. Cheney could easily say nothing when, for example, Trump uses his platform to speculate that a talk show host got away with murder.
“I long ago came to the conclusion there is no upside, no political benefit, to speaking out,” said Buck. “What’s the pure political advice? It’s to do what Kevin McCarthy does. That’s all the more credit to her that she doesn’t care about that, and says what she thinks.”
A House Republican aide said Cheney is strategic, as with most things, about when and where she deploys her criticism. “When she goes on Sunday morning shows, she’s a bulldog for what the president is doing,” said the aide. “When you’re talking to Capitol press, you can have some distance, and it doesn't raise hackles as much.”
In reference to the Scarborough conspiracy dust-up, the aide noted how low-hanging that particular fruit was—even though Cheney was the only one to grab it. “That’s not really that controversial of a statement, even with diehard Trump supporters… if you poll them, they think he could tweet less.”
Still, Cheney has been careful not to go full #resistance and has hardly gone down the path of Trump nemeses like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and former Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). She has rarely broken with him when it mattered most; during the House impeachment process, for example, Cheney’s support of the president was never in doubt. Though she defended Yovanovitch, a central figure in the drama, as a dedicated public servant as Trump attacked her, Cheney’s final impeachment message was that trying to remove Trump would cause “permanent damage to the republic.”
And unlike Romney or Flake, Cheney has also been an eager attack dog for the president’s enemies and foils, chiefly Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the members of the so-called progressive Squad. After Pelosi ripped up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address in February, Cheney called her an “embarrassment” and “unfit for office.”
Joe Barbuto, the chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party, slammed Cheney, saying "she's not a person who seems to even have a desire to reach across the aisle.”
"She's more comfortable in making talking points about why Democrats are wrong or bad and using scare tactics, like red meat words like socialism and really not talking about issues necessarily that impact Wyoming," Barbuto said.
When Trump faced widespread criticism—including from Republicans—for tweeting in July 2019 that the four female members of the Squad should “go back” to the countries they came from, Cheney rallied to his defense. In a testy interview on CBS’ Face the Nation, the politician praised for her directness dodged questions over whether his words were appropriate. “Are you agreeing with the president or disagreeing with him?” asked host Margaret Brennan. “Because I'm not clear.”
Cheney responded that she disagreed with the “send her back” chants said at Trump rallies, and then quickly pivoted to attacking the media for not focusing on objectionable claims made by the Democratic congresswomen. “I think the news media, you included, ought to cover the substance and I think it is outrageous for you to say the president doesn't talk about substance,” responded Cheney.
Usually, the congresswoman’s strongest criticisms have a specific purpose: pushing Trump toward more hawkish moves and policy positions. She is a devoted proponent of an aggressive foreign policy that favors interventionism and force—which is not an instinct that Trump consistently shares. Her slamming of Trump’s attempt to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria last fall was one of several high-profile nudges from the right for him to reverse that decision, which he ultimately did.
In Washington, Cheney has shown a willingness to go after Republican colleagues on foreign policy differences and beyond. She was one of the first GOP leaders to call for the ouster of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) after his bizarre comments last year on rape and incest; she also contributed to the campaign of the Republican challenging Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY), who forced the House to return to vote on coronavirus legislation. In a rare misstep, Cheney had to ask for her money back after the candidate, Todd McMurtry, had racist tweets and messages exposed.
In fact, Cheney’s own path to elected office began with a tense intra-party feud. During the 2014 cycle, she sparked resistance in Wyoming by moving to challenge primary longtime incumbent Sen. Mike Enzi, which fell apart well before any votes were cast. Not long after, Rep. Cynthia Lummis’s decision to not run for re-election during the 2016 cycle gave Cheney a clearer chance to win a Congressional seat.
In both of those races Cheney’s Wyoming credentials, or lack thereof, provided ample fodder for her critics and opponents, according to The Casper Star Tribune. The paper reported she bought a home in the state back in 2012, but that did little to insulate her from being seen as a Wyoming outsider as she moved to launch her political career after spending most of her life as a creature of the Beltway.
Karl Rove, the famous Bush White House alum, was quoted in a 2010 New York magazine piece saying that Cheney was “likely to seek office in Wyoming or Virginia,” taking the kind of approach that only inflamed concerns about her Wyoming bona fides when she did eventually run for Congress.
“For us, that was the avenue we saw to beating her in the primary is that there were that sort of carpetbagger allegation that she was using Wyoming as a cheap way to get into Congress and hadn't lived here in forever and didn't know the state and didn't know its people,” said Tim Stubson, a then state representative who ran against Cheney in the 2016 primary.
By the time ballots were cast in August of 2016, Cheney won nearly 40 percent of the vote against the eight other challengers on the Republican primary ballot, besting her nearest competitor by almost 18 points.
When Enzi announced his retirement last year, Cheney was at the center of intense will-she-or-won’t-she speculation. Ultimately, she passed on the Senate, telling House colleagues at a closed-door meeting she wanted to stay with them to “stop this madness” caused by Democrats. “Let’s go get our majority back,” she said, “and make Kevin McCarthy the next the speaker of the House.”
That pleased many Republicans in D.C., who are desperate for an appealing female House leader for a conference with just 13 women. It also reined in speculation that the fast-rising Cheney might challenge McCarthy for the No. 1 spot in party leadership anytime soon—though GOP insiders don’t entirely discount that possibility someday, especially if Trump were to lose in November. “McCarthy’s angle is the here and now,” said a GOP aide. “That’s to hug the president as close as possible and have his support. Her vision is the here and now, but it’s also post-Trump—where’s the party going to be.”
It’s lost on few Republicans that Cheney announced a run for conference chair in 2018 before the prior occupant of the post, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), had announced whether she’d run again. McMorris Rodgers did not.
Back in Wyoming, Republicans have watched happily as Cheney rapidly ascended House ranks. “And I think that's where a lot of us are glad that she decided not to run for Senate because she's done so well in the House and we want to continue to see her move forward in leadership,” said Holly Jennings, acting chair of the Sheridan County GOP. “So I think it was a good decision on her part.”
“I think she sees a long view and sees that there's going to be sort of a fight for the heart and the soul of the Republican party when Trump's presidency is done, whether that's in a year or in five years,” Stubson said. “And I think she's really putting herself in a position to have a strong voice in what that is.”
The challenges for Cheney and other Republicans these days aren’t ignored by Stubson, who doesn’t plan to vote for Trump in November but does support Cheney. The president’s re-election effort means that Cheney’s balancing act will be even more intense—and high-stakes for her own prospects.
"I think the president puts every Republican in a difficult position," Stubson said.