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Liz Cheney’s Kamikaze Campaign

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Liz Cheney’s Kamikaze Campaign

In late June, Liz Cheney, the conservative congresswoman from Wyoming, travelled to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, California, to give a speech on the future of the Republican Party. Cheney had been to the Reagan Library many times before. She twice interviewed her father, the former Vice-President Dick Cheney, onstage to promote books they co-wrote; when a friend pointed out a framed photo of her father speaking at the library, Cheney noticed that she had been cropped out of it. Since the start of 2021, she has been her party’s most vocal critic of Donald Trump, a stance that has got her voted out of leadership by the House Republican Caucus and formally expelled by her party in Wyoming. She now travels with an armed Capitol Police guard, because of threats against her. The atmosphere at the Reagan Library was tense enough that an official with the organization felt compelled to mention, while introducing Cheney, that he’d received word that some of her opponents had been planning to disrupt the event.

Even still, Cheney took the stage to a burst of applause. The previous evening, she had led a bombshell hearing of the January 6th select committee, at which a former White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, who is twenty-six, had given a striking account of Trump’s inner circle on the day of the Capitol assault—of the President’s efforts to join the crowd and of his aides’ mounting alarm at his behavior. “Her superiors, men many years older—a number of them are hiding behind executive privilege, anonymity, and intimidation, but her bravery and her patriotism yesterday were awesome to behold,” Cheney told the audience. “To the young women who are watching tonight—these days, for the most part, men are running the world, and it is really not going that well.”

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Cheney’s titular role on the select committee is vice-chair, but she has defined, more than any other member, the stakes of the investigation. At the dais, where she is often enlisted to deliver opening and closing remarks, sometimes speaking directly to Republicans about the deterioration of her own party, she has evoked what the political writer Katherine Miller has called a “granite singularity”—a presentation so emotionally neutral that it invites viewers to see her less as a political actor than as a tool of law. When I spoke with some of Cheney’s select-committee colleagues, they credited her with deflating conservative efforts to denounce the hearings as a partisan exercise. One Democrat pointed out her voting record: she’d sided with Trump about ninety-three per cent of the time. No one could call her a RINO.

Cheney also helped shape an unmistakable feature of the January 6th committee: a set of hearings backed almost exclusively by Democrats has become about the compromises and abdications of members of the Republican Party. For months, the staff often scheduled multiple depositions a day, and Cheney was a frequent presence in the room. (“I’m sure the staff experiences her as a bit of a control freak,” a committee source told me.) Cheney pushed for more Republican witnesses, and was on a first-name basis with some of the key figures of the insurrection, including the President’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. She understood intuitively the ways in which power flowed in Trump’s White House. Jamie Raskin, a congressman from Maryland and a select-committee member, told me that Cheney had emphasized how many in the crowd likely believed the Big Lie, and how Trump and others close to him did not. “Liz speaks fluent Republican—it’s her native tongue,” Raskin said. “She has really helped me to decode the ideological currents informing all the different sectors of the attack.”

If Cheney made the Republican world more approachable for the committee, she also made the committee feel more approachable to Republicans. “Because some of these Republican witnesses, you know, they don’t feel comfortable stepping forward to talk with the Democrats on the committee,” Zoe Lofgren, a committee member and Democratic congresswoman from California, told me. “They wanted first to be introduced to the Republicans on the committee, and Liz has been willing to play that important role.” Hutchinson, for example, initially reached out to the committee through Cheney. “Liz played a key role with Cassidy Hutchinson,” Lofgren said.

Cheney’s family history is more intertwined with the Republican Party than that of just about any other active politician. The irony that she is now the most visible face of what is mostly a Democratic initiative isn’t lost on anyone. At one of the committee’s hearings, someone noticed that Cheney’s nameplate read “Ms. Cheney,” whereas the Virginia Democrat Elaine Luria’s read “Mrs. Luria.” Why the discrepancy? Cheney, a longtime social conservative, said, sarcastically, “Because I’m such a consummate feminist.” Still, her disdain for some of her fellow Party members has been apparent during the proceedings. During a House floor vote to compel Steve Bannon to testify before the January 6th committee, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia, approached Raskin and Cheney, who were sitting together, and shouted at them, “You’re a joke! Why don’t you focus on something that the American people actually care about?” Cheney shouted back, “You’re a joke.”

For Cheney, this period of political life is not only about Trump; it is about the decisions that Republicans have made to defend him. At the Reagan Library, she told the audience, “To argue that the threat posed by Donald Trump can be ignored is to cast aside the responsibility that every citizen—every one of us—bears to perpetuate the Republic.” Raskin told me, “She is someone who experiences this not just as a radical betrayal of country and Constitution but as a major deterioration of ethics in her own party.”

The praise for Cheney I heard from Democrats on the committee was so extravagant that it sounded like a way of surfacing some deeper frustrations with how stuck government normally is. Lofgren told me she and Cheney have joked that they are “looking forward to the day when we can go back to disagreeing about policy.” Raskin told me, a little wistfully, that he kept wondering what it would be like to have bipartisan committees on climate change and gun violence that worked like this one. Luria said, “I personally—and maybe I’m too close to it—but I would view Liz Cheney as someone who saved American democracy. She took a role that no one else was willing to take.”

Cheney hadn’t lived in Wyoming since middle school before moving back, in 2012, to make a short-lived run for the Senate. She won a House seat in 2016—the year that the Republican Party began to define itself around Trump. Cheney did not rush toward his faction. Former Representative Barbara Comstock, a friend of Cheney’s, recalled that in early 2017 the Trump loyalist Jim Jordan had asked Cheney to join the Freedom Caucus, pointing out that they’d had only one female member and could use another. “Dude, that’s your pitch?” Cheney had replied.

Nevertheless, she was often on Trump’s side. Many of her allies became Never Trumpers; Cheney adapted, focussing on the enemies that she shared with the President. After the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” Cheney put out a statement saying, “Hillary’s actions have been far worse.” She said anti-Trump texts sent by F.B.I. agents “could well be treason”; frequently lashed out at leftists such as Ilhan Omar (“an anti-Semitic socialist who slanders US troops”) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history”); and delivered characteristically compact versions of G.O.P. talking points, such as when, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she called the Democrats “the party of anti-Semitism, the party of infanticide, the party of socialism.”

One supposed mystery about Cheney: If she is so horrified by Trump’s war on democracy, why did it take her until after the November, 2020, election to notice it? There were signs that Cheney’s loyalty to the President was waning as early as the beginning of that year, when she publicly praised Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, and Alex Vindman, a member of the National Security Council, both of whom had testified against Trump during his first impeachment trial. But she voted against impeachment. Although friends say that Cheney has great respect for Anthony Fauci, because her father had worked with him on bioterrorism policy in the Bush years, and that both Liz and Dick Cheney were disgusted by the Administration’s rejection of pandemic science, she limited her public criticisms of Trump’s COVID policy. The record suggests that Cheney ultimately turned on Trump when she lost faith in the Republican Party to manage him. A turning point came on January 28, 2021, when Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ House leader, paid a visit to Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Cheney had thought that, in the aftermath of January 6th, the Party would effectively shun the ex-President, but McCarthy’s visit convinced her that wasn’t true. As the House evacuated on January 6th, Jordan offered Cheney his hand, to help her out of the aisle. She slapped it away. “You fucking did this,” she said.

The most important question about Cheney is this: Why did so few of her colleagues join her? Right now, the Republican Party seems trapped in a pattern of nearly terminal risk aversion. For half a decade, most of its elected members have been unable to publicly denounce a President who disgusts and scares many of them privately. How much can a congressional seat be worth to them? “You can do many of the things you do in Congress in other ways,” Comstock told me. A moderate Republican, Comstock represented northern Virginia in the House until 2018, when she lost her seat in the anti-Trump wave. When we spoke, she had just returned from a diplomatic trip to South Korea. “Why are so many congresspeople selling their souls?” she said. “Isn’t there anything else they can do to make a hundred and seventy-four thousand dollars a year?”

Cheney is likely to lose her seat in the midterm elections. The most recent poll of Wyoming’s Republican primary, which is scheduled for August 16th, shows her trailing her well-funded, Trump-backed opponent, Harriet Hageman, by twenty points. Some of the immensely wealthy and conservative Jackson Hole families that have long backed the Cheneys (the Kemmerers, the Friesses) have switched their allegiance to Hageman. When I asked Mary Martin, the chair of the Teton County G.O.P., why Cheney had fallen out of favor, Martin said that the congresswoman had addressed locals’ concerns about election integrity by “implying that they were ignorant or stupid or uninformed.”

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Liz Cheney’s Kamikaze Campaign