Three weeks earlier, Cheney announced that she would vote to impeach President Donald Trump over his encouragement of his supporters’ storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 — one of only 10 House Republicans, and the only member of the party’s leadership, to do so. Because her colleagues had elected Cheney to the party’s third-highest position in the House, her words were generally seen as expressing the will of the conference, and those words had been extremely clear: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” she said.
The combination of her stature and her unequivocal stand amounted to a clear message from Cheney to House Republicans: If they sided with Trump in challenging the election, they were siding against the Constitution, and against at least one of their elected leaders. The tenor of the Feb. 3 meeting was therefore tense, portentous and deeply personal from beginning to end, according to several attendees who later described it to me.
When it was Cheney’s turn to speak, the 54-year-old congresswoman from Wyoming began by describing her lifelong reverence for the House, where her father, Dick Cheney, was minority whip more than 30 years ago before serving as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense and George W. Bush’s vice president. But, Cheney went on, she was “deeply, deeply concerned about where our party is headed.” Its core principles — limited government, low taxes, a strong national defense — were being overshadowed by darker forces. “We cannot become the party of QAnon,” she said. “We cannot become the party of Holocaust denial. We cannot become the party of white supremacy. We all watched in horror what happened on Jan. 6.”
Cheney, alone among House Republicans, had been mentioned by Trump in his speech that day. “The Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them,” he told his supporters at the Ellipse shortly before they overran the Capitol. The president had been infuriated by Cheney’s public insistence that Trump’s court challenges to state election results were unpersuasive and that he needed to respect “the sanctity of our electoral process.” At the time of Trump’s speech, Cheney was in the House cloakroom awaiting the ritual state-by-state tabulation of electoral votes. Her father called her to inform her of Trump’s remark. Less than an hour later, a mob was banging against the doors of the House chamber.
In the conference meeting, Cheney said that she stood by her vote to impeach Trump. Several members had asked her to apologize, but, she said, “I cannot do that.”
The line to the microphone was extraordinarily long. At least half of the speakers indicated that they would vote to remove Cheney. Ralph Norman of South Carolina expressed disappointment in her vote. “But the other thing that bothers me, Liz,” he went on, “is your attitude. You’ve got a defiant attitude.” John Rutherford of Florida, a former sheriff, accused the chairwoman of not being a “team player.”
Others argued that her announcement a day before the impeachment vote had given the Democrats a talking point to use against the rest of the Republican conference. (“Good for her for honoring her oath of office,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointedly remarked when told of Cheney’s intentions.) Likening the situation to a football game, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania lamented, “You look up into the stands and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side — that’s one hell of a tough thing to swallow.”