By Jamie Gangel and Michael Warren, CNN
Updated: Tue, 04 May 2021 02:37:13 GMT
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, said on Monday her party cannot accept the "poison" of the idea that the 2020 election was stolen and should not "whitewash" the January 6 Capitol riot -- and Donald Trump's role in fomenting it.
"We can't embrace the notion the election is stolen. It's a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy," Cheney said, speaking behind closed doors at a conference in Sea Island, Georgia. "We can't whitewash what happened on January 6 or perpetuate Trump's big lie. It is a threat to democracy. What he did on January 6 is a line that cannot be crossed."
Cheney made her comments, confirmed to CNN by two people in the room, during an off-the-record interview with former House Speaker Paul Ryan before a crowd of donors and scholars at the annual retreat for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Cheney also called the Constitution "our shield" and said a "peaceful transfer of power must be defended."
The comments in Georgia followed a tweet she sent earlier in the day. "The 2020 presidential election was not stolen," Cheney tweeted. "Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system."
The tweet was in response to Trump, who on Monday continued to perpetuate the lie that the election was stolen. "The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!"
Cheney's remarks are the latest in a series of statements and actions she has made in recent months to redirect the Republican Party away from Trump and his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. In January, Cheney was among the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Trump. Since then, she has found herself on one side in an internal war within the party over the role the former President should play in the GOP's future.
In February, Cheney said publicly Trump "does not have a role as a leader of our party going forward" and said just last week it is "disqualifying" for any public official who opposed certifying the election results to run for the White House in the future.
Her persistence in opposing Trump since January 6 has made her a target of the former President and his supporters, including a number of GOP officials. Trump's political operation is looking to back a primary challenger to Cheney in her statewide district in Wyoming.
"She is so low that her only chance would be if vast numbers of people run against her which, hopefully, won't happen," said Trump in a written statement issued Monday afternoon. "They never liked her much, but I say she'll never run in a Wyoming election again!"
McCarthy 'furious' at Cheney
Cheney's break with Trump has led to an escalating conflict with the Republican minority leader, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who has been trying to get back into Trump's good graces. While the House Republican conference voted in February 145 to 61 in favor of keeping Cheney on the leadership team, McCarthy last week refused to answer when asked whether she remained a good fit as the conference chair.
As the top House Republican, McCarthy has the power to call for a quick vote that would effectively seek Cheney's removal from his leadership team and could do so as soon as next week. But it's unclear if he will do that, according to multiple House GOP sources.
Nevertheless, multiple Republican lawmakers and aides tell CNN that Cheney is on very shaky ground internally.
One House GOP lawmaker, who voted to keep Cheney in her post in February, said after speaking with many of his colleagues, it's clear that Cheney has "less (support) than she thinks" within the House GOP conference. Cheney's outspoken criticism of Trump has led some House Republicans to accuse her of dividing the conference and distracting from the party's goals.
When Cheney easily survived the vote in February, McCarthy came to her defense and called on the House GOP conference to keep her in the spot in a speech delivered behind closed doors. This time, however, could be different. A House GOP source who has been in contact with McCarthy said the GOP leader has been "furious" at her for weeks amid her comments about Trump.
Cheney's uphill battle
While Trump has remained popular among Republican voters and within the House GOP conference, Cheney has not tempered her criticism of him. In a statement announcing her impeachment vote in January, she said the then-President had "summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack."
"Everything that followed was his doing," she said.
Since then, Cheney has continued to say that Trump should not have a future in the GOP. At a February 24 press conference with McCarthy, both leaders were asked about the former President's upcoming speaking engagement at the Conservative Political Action Conference. While McCarthy said he should speak there, Cheney disagreed.
"That's up to CPAC," Cheney said. "I don't believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country."
That was the last time McCarthy and Cheney appeared in public together. The two have continued to be at odds on issues surrounding Trump and January 6. A day after McCarthy told Fox News's Chris Wallace that a congressional investigatory commission into January 6 should be broadened to look at other examples of political violence around the Capitol, Cheney disagreed.
"I think it's very important that the January 6 commission focus on what happened on January 6 and what led to that attack," Cheney told reporters on April 26 at the House Republican retreat in Orlando.
In the same press conference, Cheney declined to say Trump was the leader of the Republican Party, naming instead Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate, and McCarthy.
Cheney's Republican allies in her quest to move the party beyond Trump are limited. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and the only Republican to vote to convict Trump twice, has criticized the former President -- and earned boos for doing so at his state party at this past weekend's convention.
And another of the House impeachment 10, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, is attempting to organize support for Republican candidates who oppose Trump's influence on the party with a new super PAC.
Meanwhile, some of the party's past leaders have spoken out against the Trump-era turn of the party in recent weeks, including former House Speaker John Boehner and former President George W. Bush. In a podcast interview with the Dispatch last week, Bush said that if the GOP stands just for "White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, then it's not going to win anything."
And Ryan's participation in the interview with Cheney on Monday suggests the former Wisconsin Republican is also seeking a role in trying to shape the party's future. Ryan's longtime political aide, Kevin Seifert, has been working for Cheney's political team since earlier this year.