Wyoming U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney has me confused. Again.
A year ago, state and national pundits pondered whether Cheney, the No. 3 person in the House minority leadership, would seek a third term or run instead for retiring U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi’s seat.
“Of course she’s going to run for the Senate,” I wrote. “Cheney will stand out as a conservative woman unafraid of offending anyone or letting anything get in the way of her power grab.”
I still stand by that second sentence, and I believe her actions in the past year support my opinion. But I was dead wrong about her ultimate decision, which was to stay in the House.
Cheney was back in the national news last week when six men in the conservative Freedom Caucus charged that she hasn’t been loyal enough to President Donald Trump, and should be removed as head of the House Republican Conference.
That’s one reason for my confusion. In 2019, Cheney voted with Trump’s position on bills 97% of the time. That’s eight percentage points higher than the tally of one of her chief accusers, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
Cheney has routinely gone to bat for the president since 2016, when they were both elected. She spent much of her first term blaming former President Barack Obama for the nation’s domestic and foreign problems. Since Democrats took over the House two years ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has consistently been the target of Cheney’s lash.
So how can she be viewed as anything but a solid Trump loyalist?
Cheney dared to criticize Trump on several occasions using Twitter, the president’s favorite form of communication. In one of her strongest rebukes, she tweeted in May that he should stop repeating the baseless, indecent conspiracy theory that MSNBC host and former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough murdered a staff member.
Cheney also broke ranks with Trump over his decisions to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and Germany. That clash isn’t surprising, given the congresswoman’s hawkishness. She’s defended the interminable Mideast conflicts that former President George W. Bush started under the tutelage of her father, Dick Cheney, when he was vice president. Dick Cheney was one of the leading proponents of going to war with Iraq.
But what raised the ire of Freedom Caucus members like Jordan and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) is Cheney’s support for Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert. She called Fauci “one of the finest public servants we have ever had,” and argued that the public should heed his words during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Fauci is still a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, his views about what the administration should do differ from Trump’s wildly inconsistent comments.
Cheney’s backing of Fauci led Freedom Caucus members to pounce. Anonymous representatives couldn’t wait to spill the beans to the media about the closed-door attack on Cheney.
Trump, who always jumps at the chance to tear into anyone who criticizes him, was strangely silent on Cheney’s defections until last Thursday. After the call for her removal, Trump tweeted that Cheney “is only upset because I have been actively getting our great and beautiful Country out of the ridiculous and costly Endless Wars.”
That’s pretty mild for a guy who routinely calls his perceived enemies stupid, treasonous losers. He’s particularly vicious talking about women he believes have wronged him, but spared Cheney his wrath.
So what gives? I think his muted response can be traced to the fact that while Cheney calls him out occasionally, Trump needs her to keep advancing the claim that the Chinese government knowingly allowed COVID-19 to spread around the world.
It’s an explosive conspiracy theory Cheney is happy to embrace and spout. Trump doesn’t even need to prod her.
“I think there’s no question the Chinese Communist Party … is absolutely directly responsible for this pandemic for the deaths, for the economic devastation we’re seeing,” Cheney told “Fox and Friends” in May. “I think they clearly decided at some point, when they knew they had human-to-human transmission in Wuhan, they understood that the economic devastation was going to be huge.”
China’s leaders, she declared without offering any evidence, made the cold calculation to allow the disease to be transmitted globally so the economic devastation would not hit only their country.
At a Ronald Reagan Foundation forum in June, Cheney repeated her remarks but tempered them by noting, “this is just speculation on my part.” That too-little, too-late clarification didn’t make the headlines.
Having the highest-ranking Republican woman lead the charge against China should bolster Trump’s own attack as election day nears. China is the villain he hopes can save his presidency. That Cheney doesn’t always agree with him on foreign policy will allow Trump to show he has united his party under difficult circumstances.
The second thing that has me confused about Cheney’s intentions is that I have no idea whether she actually wants Trump to win. He’s trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in major polls, both nationally and in key battleground states that Trump can’t afford to lose.
Will congressional Republicans desert if it looks like he’s going to drag them down with him? More importantly for the party faithful in Wyoming who will vote for Trump no matter what he does, would Cheney dare jump off his ship?
I don’t expect her to, but I suspect Cheney will carefully calculate her moves because it could have a huge impact on her political future. She will continue to peddle the China conspiracy theory because I think she genuinely believes it, but that doesn’t mean she has to be tied to the hip with Trump if voters throw him an anchor.
If he wins, Cheney’s voting record shows she’s been solidly in his camp. Taking a few jabs at him on Twitter won’t mean much, especially if they were in defense of her dad’s war mongering.
But Cheney could make a cold calculation of her own that she has much more to gain in the long run if Trump loses. Voters tend not to leave one party in control of Congress for too long.
The only way Cheney wouldn’t remain in contention to eventually move up to the speakership is if Trump loses in a landslide and the GOP re-groups by sending the entire conservative leadership packing. A closer Trump defeat, however, shouldn’t hurt her. Republican strategist Doug Heye told NBC News that many House members are now “jockeying for the post-Trump world.”
“[Cheney] is able to say, ‘I stood with this administration 98% of the time, but when I had a problem with it, I stood up and said so,” Heye said. “‘I didn’t attack the president, I stood up and told truths.’”
Cheney’s favorability likely rose in her party after she stood up to the men who challenged her authority last week. It’s also not far-fetched to think that with the GOP potentially losing women voters in droves due to Trump’s misogyny, the party will eventually look to put a strong-willed female on a presidential ticket.
But after I blew my prediction about Cheney running for the Senate, I’m done prognosticating about her future. Too many wild cards exist in the upcoming election to make it more than a guessing game I’m too exhausted to play.
I’m not betting that Cheney will continue her rapid climb up the GOP’s leadership ladder no matter what happens to Trump. But I’m not foolish enough to bet against her, either.