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The knives are out for Liz Cheney because she won’t stay quiet when President Trump lies about the election—and House Republicans have coalesced around one of Trump’s favorite lackeys to replace her.
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, who emerged as one of Trump’s loudest defenders during his 2018 impeachment trial, has been aggressively seeking support in her bid for House Republican Conference Chair should Cheney be ousted. On Wednesday, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, the House’s second-most-powerful Republican, publicly endorsed Stefanik’s efforts.
“House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker Pelosi and President Biden’s radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair,” Scalise spokesperson Lauren Fine said in a statement.
Scalise’s announcement comes a day after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy publicly threw Cheney to the wolves. McCarthy said on Fox News that he’d heard “from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message”—and told them off-camera “I’ve had it with her.”
McCarthy and Scalise are attempting to frame the issue around party unity, while downplaying the real reason—that Cheney refuses to stay quiet when Trump lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. She was one of ten House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump, was vocally critical of Trump for inciting the Capitol riots on January 6, and has continued to publicly push back on his 2020 conspiracies.
But Trump made clear exactly what the putsch effort is really about.
“Warmonger Liz Cheney, who has virtually no support left in the Great State of Wyoming, continues to unknowingly and foolishly say that there was no Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election,” Trump said in a meandering Wednesday morning statement that pushed conspiracies and also attacked former Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Trump followed up a few hours later with a statement giving Stefanik his “COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement.”
“This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on Jan 6. Liz will not do that. That is the issue," Cheney spokesman Jeremy Adler told VICE News Tuesday in response to McCarthy’s attacks.
Stefanik won’t officially run directly against Cheney—the House Republican Conference will first have to vote by a two-thirds majority to remove Cheney from her position as House Conference Chair, the third-highest position in House leadership, then vote on a replacement. But Republican leaders have sought to help Stefanik clear the decks of any GOP opponents. As a young, female rising star whom Trump loves but who can also sound moderate and reasonable when she wants to, the party sees her as an ideal replacement.
Cheney is clearly more conservative than Stefanik on policy. Her lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 78%, while Stefanik’s is 44%. The conservative Club for Growth gives Cheney a 65% lifetime rating on its scorecard, while Stefanik gets just 35%.
But the biggest difference between them isn’t on policy—it’s on Trump: Stefanik has fully embraced Trump’s election lie as a cost of doing business in the modern GOP.
“He is the only candidate who will stand up for hardworking families and protect the American dream for future generations. Since his first day in office, President Trump has fought tirelessly to deliver results for all Americans, despite the Democrats’ baseless and illegal impeachment sham and the media’s endless obsession with it. I was proud to lead the effort standing up for the Constitution, President Trump, and most importantly, the American people,” Stefanik said in a speech last summer at the Republican National Convention.
Stefanik was decidedly not an early Trump backer. She hails from deep within the old GOP establishment—she was a staffer in George W. Bush’s White House before working for Paul Ryan when he ran for vice president—and in 2015 became the youngest woman at that point in House history by running to the center. She repeatedly criticized Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 election, voted against Trump’s tax cut package, and slammed his refugee ban as “rushed and overly broad.”
But the longer Trump was president, the more Stefanik embraced him. And when the camera lights came on, Stefanik morphed into one of Trump’s loudest cheerleaders.
She used her perch on the House Intelligence Committee to become one of Trump’s fiercest defenders during his impeachment and slammed Democrats defending the president at every turn. The shift drew accolades from the right and applause from Trump himself.
"I thought, 'She looks good, she looks like good talent.' But I did not realize when she opens that mouth, you were killing them, Elise,” Trump told Stefanik at a White House event after the Senate voted against removing him from office in early 2020. "I'll always be your friend. What a great future you have."
Stefanik is well-liked across the conference. She pushed hard for GOP leaders to recruit more women to run, and many of the female candidates she backed in 2020 won hard-fought races in swing districts. She’s popular with moderates, but her fierce defense of Trump made her friends in the hard-line House Freedom Caucus—many of their members are now pushing her as a Cheney replacement.
Stefanik’s fast rise—and Cheney’s possible downfall—proves that the only easy way to get ahead in the modern Republican Party is to embrace Donald Trump, no matter how false, dangerous or unmoored from reality his rhetoric becomes.