House Republicans are about to decide which is the greater sin: voting to impeach Donald Trump, or promoting violent conspiracy theories. What they decide will speak volumes about where the party is headed.
The House GOP conference is gathering for the first time in weeks on Wednesday afternoon to discuss whether to strip QAnon-touting Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments—and whether to remove Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from GOP leadership as punishment for voting to impeach President Trump.
The high-stakes meeting will go a long way to showing whether House GOP leaders draw a line in the sand against the most conspiratorial, dangerous elements of their party—and whether there’s any real room to take a stand against Trump.
“This sets up what the future of the party may be for the next two years,” former House leadership aide Doug Heye told VICE News. “Regardless of what happens, it may be an inflection point.”
The meeting’s timing reflects the gravity of the situation. House Republicans’ normal Wednesday morning meeting was moved to the afternoon so it wouldn’t conflict with a ceremony to honor Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, who died while defending the Capitol and the lawmakers from the violent mob of pro-Trump rioters on Jan. 6.
That’s why Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump—for inciting the attack on the Capitol. It’s why Greene’s embrace of a conspiracy theory that claims that Trump was at war against a “deep state” of pedophilic cannibal Democrats who then stole the election from him is so dangerous. And members of both parties were so alarmed when CNN and others reported last week that before she was elected, Greene suggested support for violence against top Democratic officials, and touted a number of other unhinged and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
“This is a key moment in the party. You always have to think about how history’s going to look at this, a week, a month, a year from now. Do you really want someone like this being considered an active member of your party?” said former New York Rep. Peter King, who served until this Congress and was close to House GOP leadership as well as President Trump. “The fact that Cheney and Greene are even being put in the same debate is absurd.”
The meeting is bound to be testy, and lawmakers from all parts of the party are expected to vent their fury about how things are playing out.
The most likely outcome, sources say, is that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the Republican conference decide against punishing either lawmaker. That’s far from certain, however. The Cheney vote will likely be a secret ballot, making its outcome less predictable. And McCarthy would have to ask the GOP steering committee to vote to remove Greene, something he hasn’t yet signaled he’s willing to do. If he does, it’s likely but not certain that they’d vote to strip her of her committee assignments.
It appears that Cheney is likely to hold onto her position as conference chair, the third-ranking position in House GOP leadership. So long as McCarthy sticks with her, it would take a vote of two-thirds of the House Republican conference to remove her from her leadership role. The only way it could be achieved by a simple majority of the conference is if McCarthy decides to allow a straight up-or-down vote.
Many Republican lawmakers see Greene’s panoply of controversial remarks as abhorrent, but some are worried about the precedent of kicking someone off their committees for comments they made before joining Congress. Others don’t want to be seen as giving in to Democrats’ demands, or they fear what Trump might do.
But others think it’s time to draw the line on Greene—or else.
“Of course she should be removed from her committee assignment. While we can’t prevent her from calling herself a Republican, we can take a stand to disavow her from our conference—and we need to,” Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the handful of Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, told VICE News in a statement.
Now the lawmakers’ fates will likely be decided in the same meeting, with a ton at stake for the GOP.
“[Trump has] self-created this snowball of shit and now it’s coming to a head,” said one House GOP aide. “It put people in a very bad position.”
McCarthy’s normal operating procedure is to avoid making hard decisions, and let the majority of the conference dictate what he does. That’s generally been an effective way to keep his fractious conference united in recent years, but it may have blown up in his face this time. If McCarthy had made a swift, forceful decision on whether to support Cheney, he would have pissed off part of the conference—but ended the saga. Instead, he said after days of right-wing attacks against her that he supported keeping her in her role, but criticized her for not telling him she was going to vote for impeachment before putting out her public statement.
The same goes for Greene. McCarthy didn’t do anything to try to stop her from winning her primary even though her QAnon views were out in the open, and the most he’s done to confront her is promise a stern talking-to after criticizing some of her craziest comments surfaced last week. There’s been heavy coverage in recent days of Greene’s past suggestions that 9/11 and the school shootings at Parkland and Sandy Hook might all have been false flag operations and that space lasers owned by wealthy Jews may have been used to trigger West Coast wildfires.
And as McCarthy dallied, others acted. House Democrats are now pushing for a full House floor vote to remove Greene from her committees, a move that would force every House Republican on record on whether to support her. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a harsh rebuke Tuesday that said Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and our country.” It’s unclear whether those developments will convince more Republicans that they need to cut her loose, or whether Democrats’ attacks against her will convince them to circle the wagons around her.
One GOP House member predicted to VICE News that it would be Democrats, not McCarthy, who removed her from her Education Committee post, calling it "horrific precedent for [the] majority to remove committee assignments from a member of the minority."
McCarthy is being unusually tight-lipped about what he’ll do: Multiple sources who are usually in regular contact with his office said he’s been radio silent in recent days.
No matter what he does, he’s going to piss off some members. If he defends Cheney and moves against Greene, the pro-Trump hard-liners who have mostly supported McCarthy may turn against him. If he does the opposite, he’ll infuriate the party’s establishment flank, endanger the swing-district members needed for a majority, and tar the party even more with Greene’s craziness. Doing nothing would show his weakness as a leader.
“Kevin’s in a very tough spot,” King said. “I don’t just mean this politically. Keeping the party together, trying to have a united front. But on the other hand, there has to be a line where someone’s outside the boundaries.”
The charge against Cheney
The charge against Cheney has been mostly led by members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, of which Greene is a member. Freshman Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale has been circulating a petition to remove her from office. Freedom Caucus chairman and Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs and former chairman and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan have also called for her to lose her leadership role, and sources tell VICE News they’ve played an outsized role in building support for the removal effort. Anti-Cheney members have suggested that they have more than 100 GOP allies, more than half the conference but not the two-thirds needed to remove her.
But the anti-Cheney effort hasn’t actually released the text of what they’re circulating or a list of who backs it. Spokesmen for Biggs, Jordan, and the Freedom Caucus didn’t reply to questions about their push; Rosendale ignored a call and text message.
Greene indicated Saturday that she’d talked to the former president and was “grateful for his support,” and while it’s unclear exactly when they talked Trump last August called her a “future Republican star.”
Cheney has been quietly reaching out to members to gauge whether she’ll have their support, and is expected to address the meeting. It’s unclear whether Greene will speak up to defend herself, though given her track record, most expect her not to pipe down.
“We have a choice this week between camp Reagan and camp QAnon,” one Cheney ally told VICE News. “It shouldn’t be that hard a choice–but that’s what the Republican conference is facing this week.”
Liz Landers contributed to this story.
CORRECTION Feb. 2, 2020, 6:58 p.m.: This story originally misattributed a quote to Rep. Jim Jordan. Jordan recently changed phone cell numbers, and denied sending a text response to VICE News.