For his part, Trump appeared to understand Cheney’s stature within the Republican hierarchy. Her party connections extended across generations. She could pick up the phone and call current and former foreign leaders from around the world, particularly in the Middle East. She seemed, on occasion, a human link between the legacy of the last Republican administration and Trump’s own, despite their mutual lack of chumminess. Five days into Trump’s presidency, the congresswoman expressed her enthusiastic approval when Trump floated the possibility of bringing back waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Cheney later praised Trump for having issued a pardon to her father’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Cheney criticized Trump’s policies publicly on occasion but with discretion, and Trump rarely fired back.
All that changed when Cheney stood alone among House Republican leaders in refusing to humor Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump won 70 percent of the vote in Wyoming in 2020, his highest share in any state. In Carbon County, the local party chairman, Joey Correnti IV, immediately convened two town halls to take the local temperature. “A few folks kind of let loose for a bit” over Cheney’s impeachment vote, he told me. “Talking about tar-and-feathering, riding her out on a rail. That kind of stuff.”
Correnti drafted a resolution of censure — one of several against pro-impeachment lawmakers by Republican state committees in various states — that would soon be adopted by the entire state party. In it, the Wyoming G.O.P. called for her immediate resignation and asserted that Cheney had “violated the trust of her voters.” Several politicians announced their intentions to challenge her in the 2022 Republican primary. On Jan. 29, one of Cheney’s G.O.P. House colleagues, Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman and performative Trump ally, appeared on the State Capitol steps in Cheyenne, where he pronounced Cheney “a fake cowgirl” before posing for fan photos. (Gaetz had been invited by a 27-year-old freshman Wyoming state representative and food-truck entrepreneur, Ocean Andrew, a protégé of Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, whose distaste for the Cheneys dates back to the Iraq war.)
On one level, this was a now-familiar story of Trump’s presidency and its aftermath: A Republican lawmaker, finally pushed over the line by one or another of Trump’s actions, publicly breaks with him, only to see years’ worth of alliances, friendships and ideological credibility evaporate overnight. But Cheney was not a backbencher, and she was not only standing on principle.
According to sources who are familiar with Cheney’s views, she believes the G.O.P. has been manifestly weakened by Trump. The party now controls neither the executive nor the legislative branch. Twice in a row, Trump lost the popular vote by significant margins, exacerbating a worrisome trend for Republicans that has extended across five of the last six presidential elections. Given all this, Trump’s conduct in egging on the rioters presented his party with a political opportunity. By impeaching him, they could wash their hands of Trump and then resume the challenge of winning back majorities of the voting public.
Cheney declined to speak to me on the record for this article, as did many other congressional Republicans. To defend Cheney is to invite the wrath of Trump and his base, while for those members who remain Trump loyalists, interaction of any sort with “fake news media” is increasingly to be avoided. But I was able to listen in on Cheney’s remarks at a virtual fund-raiser for her on Feb. 8, hosted by more than 50 veteran lobbyists who had each contributed to her political action committee. At the event, Cheney lamented the party’s drift away from reality, the extent to which it had become wedded to conspiracy theories. The party’s core voters, she said, “were misled into believing the election was stolen and were betrayed.” Alongside a legitimate concern over a Biden administration’s priorities was “the idea that the election somehow wasn’t over, and that somehow Jan. 6 would change things. People really believed it.”
When one lobbyist raised the specter of Trump re-emerging as the G.O.P.’s dominant force, Cheney responded that the party would have to resist this. Citing the Capitol riot, she said, “In my view, we can’t go down the path of embracing the person who did this or excuse what happened.” She added: “We really can’t become the party of a cult of personality. It’s a really scary phenomenon we haven’t seen in this country before. Our oath and our loyalty is to the Constitution, not to an individual — particularly after what happened on Jan. 6.” This month, she told Fox News that she would not endorse Trump if he ran again in 2024.
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