By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Republican Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming is proving to be a stalwart champion for democratic ideals, battling Trumpism and the autocratic forces in her party. Cheney has even—like some of her Democratic colleagues—received numerous death threats, requiring a security detail.
But although Cheney deserves the nation’s wholehearted appreciation for acting on principle concerning the January 6, 2021 coup attempt, she is no Joan of Arc. Her past actions helped to advance Trumpism, warranting a nuanced assessment of Cheney and her career during the former president’s administration.
Cheney Takes a Stand
On the anniversary of the January 6, 2021 insurrection, Liz Cheney said on The Today Show “If you look at what’s happening today in my party, the Republican Party, rather than reject what happened on [January] 6th, reject the lies about the election and make clear that a president who engaged in those activities can never be president again, unfortunately too many in my own party are embracing that former president, are looking the other way, are minimizing the danger. That’s how democracies die, and we simply cannot let that happen.”
As vice chair of the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 uprising, Liz Cheney has been front and center in the news for her sharply incisive, no-quarter-given questioning of witnesses and no-nonsense public statements concerning the investigation.
On December 13, after former President Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows refused to obey its subpoena to testify, the Committee referred contempt charges against him to the Department of Justice. It was Cheney who took point, setting out the bases for the contempt referral, reading aloud extensively from samples of the dozens of text messages—including those from Fox News hosts like Laura Ingraham, Brian Kilmeade, and Sean Hannity; from Trump Administration officials; and even, repeatedly, from Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr.—all urging Meadows to persuade the former president to take action to halt the assault on the Capitol.
Cheney then posed the question: “Did Donald Trump, through action or inaction, corruptly seek to obstruct or impede Congress’ official proceeding to count electoral votes? Mark Meadow’s testimony is necessary to inform our legislative judgment. Yet he has refused to give any testimony at all. Even regarding non-privileged topics. He is in contempt of Congress.”
Cheney also set out Meadows’ participation in a phone call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in which Trump infamously asked the official to “find 11,780 votes” to change the result of the presidential election in Georgia. Cheney pointed out that there is no conceivable privilege basis to refuse to testify on that topic.
Based on Cheney’s suggestions that Trump’s refusal to stop the insurrectionists may have been part of a deliberate effort to obstruct the counting of electors, the Washington Post has speculated: “The committee is reportedly looking at whether to make that the basis for recommending criminal prosecution [of Trump]. The grounds would be that it violated federal law barring obstruction of an ‘official proceeding.’”
Cheney ended her December 13 recitation by stating quite firmly: “Our Constitution, the structure of our institutions and the Rule of Law, which are at the heart of what makes America great, are at stake. We cannot be satisfied with incomplete answers or half-truths. And we cannot surrender to President Trump’s efforts to hide what happened. We will be persistent, professional and nonpartisan and we will get to the objective truth to be sure January 6 never happens again.”
Given the prominence of the Cheney family in traditional conservative Republican politics, as well as Liz Cheney’s own talents, keeping her front and center as a spokesperson for the Committee was a strategically wise and important move by the Committee. Cheney’s standing up so boldly aids the cause of democracy more than the Democrats on the committee could do—even if they made the same statements—because she is a Republican.
Since Cheney’s actions are unexpected and extraordinary, the media covers her statements in a way they would not cover Democratic voices. That is part of what makes Cheney an invaluable asset to the investigation of the insurrection and the broader coup conspiracy.
Though it may possibly have been a deliberate Committee stratagem to place a prominent Republican as its public spokesperson, the decision takes nothing away from Cheney’s general suitability for that role. One cannot but acknowledge and give her credit for her tenacity, prosecutorial acumen, and fearless disregard of how other Republicans may treat her or the effect on her political career.
The Political Price She’s Paid
Liz Cheney was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump after the January 6 insurrection. As then-House Republican Conference Chair, she was the highest-ranking Republican in the House to do so.
In reaction, members of the House Republican Conference twice attempted to oust her from her leadership position. Cheney fended off the first challenge conducted in February, keeping her position by a vote of 145 to 61. But in May, she was successfully removed. Ostensibly, the second attempt was successful because Cheney persisted in challenging Trump’s lie that the presidential election was stolen.
Cheney did not appear to bat an eye over this. After the vote, she defiantly told reporters from the Casper Star Tribune: “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office. We have seen the danger that he continues to provoke with his language, we’ve seen his lack of commitment and dedication to the Constitution.”
Cheney was also censured by the Wyoming Republican Party in February 2021 for voting to impeach Trump for his role in the January 6 assault. And in November, the Wyoming Republican party’s central committee voted it would no longer recognize Liz Cheney as a member of the GOP—also because of her vote to impeach Trump. According to The Guardian, the state party central committee’s action followed similar votes by local GOP officials in about one-third of Wyoming’s 23 counties.
That Cheney withstands all of this and continues to stand firm is a sign of an individual having a strong sense of self and purpose who is not to be intimidated by what the world thinks or throws at you. She stands tall, if alone, like Gary Cooper in High Noon, while every one of her Republican House colleagues (with the notable exception of Adam Kinzinger of Illinois)—having neither the conscience nor guts to stand up for what is right—has either joined the villains or is running and hiding like a yellow dog. At best, they have spines of jelly, while Cheney’s spine is made of steel. Whether Liz Cheney wins or loses her next Wyoming election, she will have valiantly earned her place in history.
Kinzinger also voted for impeachment after the coup attempt and joined the House Select Committee. But he is less publicly outspoken and has given up on running for another term.
On the Other Hand…
Until her post-insurrection impeachment vote, and ousting as a leader of the Republican conference, Cheney’s opposition to Trumpism in defense of democracy was inconsistent at best.
Cheney voted against Trump’s first impeachment in 2019—the one involving his campaign’s attempt to subvert the 2020 election by trying to strong-arm Ukraine into announcing an investigation into his opponent, Joe Biden, and also contriving and promoting a preposterous conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia was behind interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite the evidence of Trump’s abuse of power and obstruction of justice produced by that first impeachment, Cheney nevertheless stated that she voted for Trump in the 2020 election.
According to Mother Jones, when Biden won the election, Cheney—then still third-ranking House Republican—“spent weeks declining to directly acknowledge that Joe Biden won.”
And whatever her position may be now, in a spring 2021 appearance on Axios on HBO, Cheney refused to acknowledge or draw any connection between the Trump Administration’s attempt to subvert the 2020 election and the many subsequent Republican bills making it more difficult for people to vote in states all across the country.
On a spring 2021 episode of the Axe Files podcast with former Obama senior advisor-turned-CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod, former Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, one of the only Republicans to break with Trump during his term, argued that turning Cheney into a hero is “a bit misguided.” Amash, who left the Republican party to become an Independent and then a Libertarian, pointed out: “We had four years where she could have stood up and said, ‘There’s a problem here. What Donald Trump is doing is wrong.'”
According to the Business Insider, Amash said, “For a long time, I was warning that the president’s approach could lead to things like violence…and all sorts of things that would be harmful to our country. She didn’t stand up for that view.” Amash also told the publication, ‘I say that not as someone who’s saying you can never change, you can never grow, you can never learn, but I’d like to see some real development when people learn…Like, what is it that changed your mind? Liz Cheney, what is it that you saw that made it so different for you versus how Trump was behaving, say, before January 6th?’”
Perhaps the attack on the Capitol was the last straw for her.
The Bottom Line
I believe that Cheney means what she says about the danger to democracy posed by those who have taken over the Republican Party. It is not mere lip service. But there may be other motivations traveling alongside that, including a shrewd political gamble.
The common wisdom, adopted even by the left-of-center Mother Jones, is that Liz Cheney’s stand against the Trump corruption will probably end her time in Congress. But I see her future and her possible calculation concerning it a little differently. I think that Cheney may be playing a long game.
Fortune favors the bold. And brazenly basing her political future on an opposition to Trumpism and a professed faithfulness to the Constitution and the Rule of Law makes Liz Cheney the most likely Republican leader who can take down Trumpism and restore her father’s party to what it was. Dick Cheney’s party was none too democratic or concerned with the Rule of Law—but definitely not in coups-ville. Certainly, if and when Trumpism burns itself out, Liz Cheney will be a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination–assuming we still have elections.
Though I do not completely trust what Rep. Cheney’s ultimate definition of democracy might be, I am very glad she has, in this instance, joined the fight and taken up a prominent position on the noble side of history. Threats to democracy certainly do make interesting bedfellows.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.