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Life after leadership: Liz Cheney plots her long game against Donald Trump

Liz Cheney entered this week knowing it would likely be her last as a member of the House Republican leadership team.

The Wyoming congresswoman fully expected to lose her position as the No. 3 Republican in the House ahead of her conference’s vote on Wednesday, according to a source familiar with her thinking.

But Cheney is also planning to take advantage of her removal as a way to further her fight against Donald Trump’s grip over the GOP and continue hammering the message that got her in trouble in the first place: that Trump’s lies about the 2020 election are damaging for her party and the country.

Four months after the January 6 insurrection, Cheney has told friends she “does not believe Trump will just fade away” and that she’s planning to wage a protracted political war — through public statements and in the media — against the former President.

On Tuesday evening, Cheney struck a defiant tone from the House floor, warning that Trump’s lies risk inciting further violence and threatening democracy.

“We must speak the truth. Our election was not stolen. And America has not failed,” said Cheney, who spoke to a nearly empty room as Republican lawmakers cleared out. Republican Rep. Ken Buck was the only member watching Cheney speak in person.

On Wednesday morning, House Republicans ousted Cheney by voice vote behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, and are likely to replace her with New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who has a less conservative voting record than Cheney but has emerged as one of Trump’s top defenders.

The way Cheney sees it, according to sources, Wednesday’s vote is a chance to put her GOP colleagues on the record: They are either voting for truth and the rule of law or they are voting to continue down the path of lies and insurrection.

“I think it’s a mistake to think that she’s going to fade,” said one person who knows Cheney well.

That will almost certainly continue to bring Cheney into conflict with Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, especially if investigations on Capitol Hill and from the Justice Department focus on the events surrounding the January 6 riot. And the prevailing House GOP message of unity over all will continue to heighten the tension between Cheney and the rest of the conference.

“It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about the focus of our conference, and focusing on pushing back on the agenda that’s being pushed by the Biden administration,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican, on Tuesday.

But Cheney is also facing her own electoral challenge. In order to be fully effective in her anti-Trump campaign she’ll need to survive a competitive Republican primary for her at-large district in Wyoming next year. With Trump and his allies looking to defeat her there, Cheney’s political future is at stake as she makes her next moves.

The question for Cheney is how large and prominent her platform will be once she is no longer a member of the GOP leadership team. The damage done to her brand within the House Republican conference has been significant since her colleagues last voted 145-61 in favor of keeping her in leadership.

Before that vote in February, Cheney had reached out to a wide array of members to ensure their support. But GOP lawmakers tell CNN she’s done little to maintain some of those tenuous relations ever since.

A person with knowledge of the Republican delegation told CNN that Wednesday’s vote will likely be “lopsided” against Cheney. House members who stood by her in February, such as Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, are turning against her now.

“Rep. Cheney can no longer unify the House Republican conference,” Gallagher said in a statement first reported by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Tuesday. The Journal also reported that four of the five Republican members of the Wisconsin delegation said they would vote against Cheney on Wednesday.

One GOP member who is sympathetic to Cheney says she has “not worked on repairing relationships since February,” saying freshmen members in particular are not happy with her in recent weeks. “She’s not open to much feedback or discussion,” the member said.

But what Cheney has lost in influence among House Republicans she could gain as the recognizable leader of the GOP’s anti-Trump wing. Her national name recognition has improved over the past few months, and she has raised a personal record in quarterly campaign dollars — $1.5 million in the first quarter of 2021 — for her reelection.

“She’s going to remain a compelling story because she’s incredibly articulate and very smart, and because Trump’s not going to let these issues go,” said Eric Edelman, a former ambassador and Pentagon official who also worked as a national security aide for Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Cheney published an op-ed in The Washington Post last week that reads as a preview of the fight she’s seeking to have within the GOP.

“Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this,” Cheney wrote in the Post. “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

She’s also likely to make a political case that Trump remains a drag on the party. One recent poll conducted for the National Republican Congressional Committee found the former President was underwater in some of the House GOP’s key battleground districts they’ll need to win in 2022, according to a person familiar with the poll results. But the details about Trump’s poor position were excluded from a report on that poll presented to a group of GOP members at a March leadership retreat in Florida, according to that person.

Trump’s unfavorable polling was first reported by The Washington Post.

Allies few and far between

As Cheney takes on Trump, she has only a few allies among elected Republican officials. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, for instance, has criticized House Republicans for their plans to throw Cheney out of leadership.

“I think we’re better trying to expand the number of people who want to vote for Republicans as opposed to shrink that number. And I think she’s a person of integrity, who follows her conscience and speaks the truth. And I think it will do nothing but drive some people away from our party,” Romney said Monday. “It certainly doesn’t add more people, because the people who are supporters of the President are not going anywhere else.”

Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who has started a super PAC to support Republican candidates who push back on the party’s embrace of Trump, said on Twitter this week that he had warned the conference during a phone call before January 6 that McCarthy’s rhetoric suggesting the 2020 election was stolen would “lead to violence.”

“Kevin dismissively responded with ‘ok Adam, operator next question.’ And we got violence,” Kinzinger tweeted. (McCarthy’s office had no comment to CNN about Kinzinger’s tweet.)

And a handful of Republican governors have been resistant to Trump’s influence on the party. Asa Hutchinson, the term-limited governor of Arkansas and a former House member, said the move against Cheney by her GOP colleagues is not “healthy” and has said he won’t support a hypothetical 2024 White House bid by Trump.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who did not vote for Trump in 2020 and called for his removal from office after January 6, has also expressed his desire for the party to move on from Trump.

“I think we’re going to have a real battle for the soul of the Republican Party for the next couple of years,” Hogan told CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this year. “Are we going to be a party that can’t win national elections again?”

Still, Cheney has few friends in her fight in the halls of Congress, even if Republicans on the Senate side have expressed more unease with how the House is proceeding.

“Cancel culture is cancel culture, no matter how you look at it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa who’s a member of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership team, to reporters on Monday. “I support President Trump and his policies, so I have a slightly different view on that — but I still think we shouldn’t be trying to cancel voices.”

But a number of Senate Republicans downplayed the squabble as simply an inside-the-Beltway dispute that most voters are ignoring. McConnell last week declined to speak on Cheney’s behalf, despite being close to the Wyoming Republican.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a strong Trump ally, said on Monday that there is room for members of the Republican Party to be anti-Trump, but there are limits.

“You’re just not gonna be a leader of the party if you’re anti-Trump,” Graham told CNN.

This story has been updated with Cheney’s comments from the House floor on Tuesday evening and with news that Cheney was ousted from her leadership position on Wednesday morning.

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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