Senate

Cheney drama exposes GOP's Trump rifts

The days-long drama over Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is exposing deep rifts in the party about its most prominent member: Donald Trump. 

Trump - more than three months out of office - remains the dominant force within GOP politics and is willing to try to sink fellow Republicans heading into 2022. 

That's left Republicans divided into largely three camps: Flatter Trump, try to ignore Trump or, increasingly rarely, fight Trump, none of which unite a fractured party. 

Cheney's embrace of the third option is not only highlighting her odd-woman-out status on Capitol Hill, but putting renewed focus on those larger divisions. 

"There is an overwhelming need to please Trump ... and yet that is felt more in the House than in the Senate," said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former House leadership aide, about the differences in strategy. "That's a big part of it." 

Top GOP leaders, split over their Trump strategy, would rather focus on what unites their members: Opposing President Biden. 

But Cheney is essentially arguing the debate can not be put off, casting Trump as not only a test for the Republican Party but for democracy itself as the former president and some of his closest allies double down on his false claim that the election was "stolen."

"The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution," she wrote this week in a Washington Post op-ed.  

Cheney has allies, some of whom have defended her.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol after Cheney voted to impeach him, tweeted that she "refuses to lie." And Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) urged the party to be less Trump-driven after the former president spent the last five years remaking it in his image.

"Liz Cheney is a woman of strength and conscience. ...We need to be accepting of differences in our party," Collins told CNN's "State of the Union." 

But, unlike Cheney, Collins and Romney aren't in GOP leadership. 

GOP leaders in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have criticized Trump in the past, but are largely avoiding doing so now.

McConnell and Cheney both offered blistering criticism in the immediate weeks after the Jan. 6 riot. Cheney said Trump "summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack." McConnell, who didn't lean on members to acquit Trump, ultimately voted against convicting him only to offer withering criticism of Trump as "morally responsible" for riots. 

But since then, they've taken divergent paths that reflect their different priorities. Cheney routinely weighs in on Trump's false claims and engages with reporters who ask about the former president. And, unlike top leaders, Cheney's main focus isn't 2022. 

McConnell, in contrast, is firmly in the camp of ignoring Trump, whose name he rarely mentions in public even when talking about the previous administration. Asked about him during stops in Kentucky this week, as well as a belief by a sizable portion of GOP voters that the 2020 election was stolen, McConnell pivoted to what he believes provides "total unity" in his caucus: Opposing Biden's $4 trillion spending proposal. 

McConnell didn't return fire on Trump after he issued a release this week that criticized the Senate GOP leader along with Cheney and Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence.

"One hundred percent of my focus is on stopping this new administration," McConnell told reporters in Kentucky this week in response to questions about the GOP infighting over Cheney.

The strategy appears to be paying dividends: McConnell's rating was up to 42 percent among Republicans according to a Politico-Morning Consult poll, compared to the 30 percent approval he received in the same poll in late February. Cheney, by comparison, is facing the threat of a Trump-backed primary challenger in a deep red state where he remains popular. 

Firing back at Trump would also fuel stories about GOP infighting, putting McConnell's members in the middle of a feud that would be the main topic in Capitol hallways and potentially overshadow his attempts to keep the caucus' focus on 2022 and opposing Biden. 

"For a lot of them they just want to put Trump in the rearview mirror. ...Most members, they just want him to go away," Heye said, while arguing that "the best they can hope for is that he won't tank them in 2022."

Cheney and McConnell are also taking different paths than House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), highlighting divisions between not only Cheney and McCarthy but the two men she considers the leaders of the party. 

If Cheney is removed - and if she's replaced by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the odds-on favorite - the top three House Republicans will have all voted for overturning 2020 election results. In contrast, McConnell and his top lieutenants voted to certify the results and actively tried to squash a challenge. 

While McConnell hasn't spoken to Trump since mid-December, McCarthy has reportedly spoken to him multiple times this week, courted him at Mar-a-Lago and wants his help in 2022. 

McCarthy, like McConnell, initially was critical of Trump, saying roughly a week after the attack that Trump "bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack" and "should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding." 

But since then McCarthy has defended Trump's response, telling "Fox News Sunday" that Trump didn't know about the riot until they talked on the phone and "he ended the call ...telling me, he'll put something out to make sure to stop this. And that's what he did." 

Heye noted that the differences in top-level strategy when it comes to dealing with Trump in large part boils down to their different political pressures. 

House Republicans are playing to districts that are more ideologically conservative, where crossing Trump would be big fodder for a primary challenger and, unlike in the Senate, every House Republican is up in 2022. As McConnell tries to win back the Senate majority, he needs Trump's voters but also to hold seats in states won by Biden. 

In the Senate, several potential presidential contenders also are sticking closely to the former president, which puts them at odds with McConnell and Cheney, who hasn't ruled out a White House run of her own. 

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who voted for one of the challenges and chairs the Senate GOP campaign arm, recently gifted Trump with an award shortly before the former president unloaded on McConnell as a "dumb son of a bitch." Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tweeted a photo of himself with Trump this week and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is predicting Trump will be the party's 2024 nominee if he runs while also knocking Cheney. 

"I think she's sort of spiraling," Hawley said during an interview on "The Megyn Kelly Show" podcast. "I think she's out-of-step with Republican voters. ... I just think this is somebody who does not really represent Republicans."

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