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Liz Cheney is back and unloading on the current leaders of her ancestral GOP

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chairwoman of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, participates in the panel's last public meeting on Dec. 19, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., vice chairwoman of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, participates in the panel's last public meeting on Dec. 19, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, ousted by a hard-right revolt within his own party this fall, said this week he will be "taking this time now" to think about his political future. The California deadline for filing for his seat is Dec. 8.

Now comes Liz Cheney, a former member of McCarthy's own Republican leadership team, to give McCarthy some food for thought. He is not likely to find it palatable.

Cheney has written a book about President Trump's efforts to remain in office after he had lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden. The book, Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning, is also about Cheney's rather lonely role in resisting those efforts.

It will be officially out next week, but got an early preview when CNN obtained a copy independently and published excerpts this week, ahead of an embargo. The excerpts have produced headlines across news outlets, primarily for Cheney's treatment of McCarthy and other former colleagues.

Cheney says McCarthy was guilty of "cowardice" in his unwillingness to stand up to Trump, according to the excerpts. She says McCarthy had told her he knew Biden had won the election and she even reports that Trump himself had told McCarthy he knew it too.

And yet, Cheney notes, according to the excerpts, McCarthy went on TV denying that Biden had won. Moreover, in the hours immediately after the riot that breached the Capitol on January 6, McCarthy spoke on the House floor calling the violence "unacceptable, undemocratic and un-American" — yet he also joined with his party members who voted against certifying the electors from some of the states Biden had won.

Without the votes of those states, no candidate would have had a majority in the Electoral College. That would have triggered a "contingent election," with the winner chosen by a vote of the House. Trump's allies thought they could win such a vote because it is taken as a roll call of the states: just one vote per state, regardless of a state's population or number of seats.

Efforts to carry out that plan have since produced federal charges against Trump for his role in the January 6th 2021 attack on the Capitol and formed the background for charges against Trump and 18 other codefendants in Georgia.

Cheney calls out McCarthy as well as the new House speaker

While Trump surely remains the central villain of Cheney's narrative and analysis, the CNN excerpts also include scathing criticism of Republicans generally. She calls them "enablers and collaborators" who fell in line with Trump's false claims. And she singles out both McCarthy and his still-freshly minted successor Mike Johnson of Louisiana for sharp condemnation.

She reports, according to the excerpts, that she was shocked that McCarthy went to Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to reconcile with him three weeks after the Capitol attack. The excerpts have her protesting to McCarthy with: "Mar-a-Lago, Kevin? What the hell?" Cheney reports McCarthy replied that Trump's staff had asked him to come because the former president "wasn't eating" and was "very depressed."

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., center, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., in 2018 with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., when she was chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in leadership.
Susan Walsh / AP
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wy., center, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., in 2018 with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., when she was chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in leadership.

Turning on the new speaker

Cheney's treatment of Johnson, McCarthy's successor, in the excerpts is relatively dismissive by comparison. She notes that she was House Republican Conference Chair when Johnson was first elected to a lower rung of the party leadership and they worked together. She recalls that he showed strong interest in currying favor with Trump, at times joining the president's traveling entourage and bringing his own constitutional law background to the defense table in Trump's first impeachment trial in 2020.

But Cheney unloads on Johnson in the excerpts for his role in an amicus curiae brief in a case filed by the Texas attorney general after the 2020 election. It urged the Supreme Court to set aside the Electoral College votes of several states that Biden won. The argument was that these states' voting procedures had been imposed by state courts rather than by state legislatures and were therefore invalid. Johnson recruited many GOP members to sign on in the month after the election (but before the January 6 events). According to the excerpts, Cheney asked Johnson about this and was told: "We just need to do this one last thing for Trump."

Despite objections from Cheney and others, most Republican members of the House did sign that brief, including McCarthy. But the Supreme Court still declined to hear the case.

While Johnson was aggressively gathering signatures from his colleagues, according to the excerpts, Cheney overheard one of them say in exasperation: "The things we do for 'Orange Jesus.' " In the excerpts, Cheney names the congressman, who has since denied using those terms for the former president.

In fact, the appearance of the Cheney excerpts this week on CNN and elsewhere in the news media space has prompted a flurry of denials from various spokespersons.

"The book belongs in the fiction section of the bookstore," said Steve Cheung, spokesman for Trump.

A departure from a lifetime trajectory

Until the events of late 2020 and early 2021, Cheney was the third ranking Republican in the House behind GOP Leader McCarthy and party whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana (who is now majority leader under Speaker Johnson).

Cheney was at the time a strong prospect to be the first Republican woman elected speaker. That was surely an ambition with special meaning for her parents, who met as graduate students and had coauthored a book about speakers in history. Cheney's father, Richard, was himself a potential Speaker when he was a congressman from Wyoming and also the minority whip, the House GOP's second-ranking leader, in the late 1980s. Instead, he left Congress to be secretary of Defense under President George H.W. Bush and was elected vice president under President George W. Bush in 2000. His wife Lynne, Liz Cheney's mother, was director of the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan.

Although lifelong Republicans, both Cheney's parents have backed her resistance to Trump. That includes the year she spent as the high-profile vice chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the Capitol, a panel whose last act was to recommend that the DOJ bring criminal charges against Trump. While her performance in that role won her many new admirers, mostly outside the GOP, it cost her the support of her base in Wyoming. She lost her 2022 primary to Harriet Hageman by a 2-to-1 vote. Wyoming had given Trump a winning margin of more than 40 points in 2016 and has remained loyal since.

Cheney was urged by Democrats and "never Trumpers" in the GOP to run against Trump in the 2024 Republican primaries. But she has left that task to others, spending her time promoting the work, findings and legacy of the January 6 committee and warning against the perils of another Trump administration – or even candidacy.

The book comes at an inopportune time for Republicans

There is no good time for a book as critical of one's own party as Oath and Honor, at least not from the perspective of a career in that party. But it is particularly uncomfortable for the GOP to take these punches right now.

After two rounds of bruising battles over the speakership, the House majority has yet to pass most of its spending bills. Even a perennially popular piece of legislation such as the annual reauthorizing of the Department of Defense stalled in Congress for the first time in six decades.

Yet valuable floor time continues to be expended on relatively minor matters. And the media coverage continues to focus on such dysfunction as the ethics case against Republican freshman George Santos of New York. The House spent Friday morning on a motion to expel Santos, based on a thoroughly damning report from the Republican-run ethics committee. Santos, only the third House member expelled since the Civil War, is facing a 23-count federal indictment for fraud and other crimes. He had mounted a lively defense in the media, attacking the integrity, work ethic and sobriety of his fellow House members. Expulsion required a two-thirds majority vote but cleared that hurdle with ease, 311-114.

About half the chamber's Republicans voted against expulsion, some arguing it was bad precedent to expel members facing criminal charges before they had been tried and convicted. With Santos gone, the GOP majority is down to three seats to spare. Ten House Republicans have already announced they would not seek reelection in 2024, and there has been speculation that McCarthy might retire even before his current term ends.

So stay tuned. There can always be yet another surprise.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.