Liz Cheney’s last stand: Why she is staking her career on Jan. 6

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, vice chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, speaks to the media after the panel held its first hearing on July 27, 2021. Representative Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois (second from right) are the only Republicans on the committee after efforts to compose a more evenly bipartisan panel failed.
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It was a solemn moment for Rep. Liz Cheney. As Congress prepared to reconvene after being disrupted by the Jan. 6 riot that had ricocheted round the world, she reflected on the sacrifices made by her countrymen – including her great-great-grandfather’s fight to save the Union.

“In this time of testing, will we do our duty?” she later asked. That led the Wyoming Republican to vote to confirm Joe Biden’s victory and impeach President Donald Trump.

Why We Wrote This

As the Jan. 6 committee begins revealing to the public what it has learned, Liz Cheney will be front and center this week, both documenting – and etching her place in – history.

Now, she is vice chair of the Democrat-led committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol, which will hold the first of a series of highly anticipated hearings on Thursday evening.

To Ms. Cheney, Jan. 6 represents an existential battle for the American republic – one for which she is willing to sacrifice her political career. Supporters herald her as a rare example of courage in an age of partisanship. Critics say her myopic focus on Mr. Trump has abetted a politically motivated investigation, and undermined her ability to serve constituents.

Meanwhile, her primary challenger – backed by Mr. Trump – is crisscrossing Wyoming trying to oust his chief critic.

“This is a watershed election,” says GOP state Sen. Cale Case of Lander, a Cheney supporter. “The nation is looking at us.”

On the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, Rep. Liz Cheney had a rendezvous with Clio, the muse of history. 

Congress was just about to reconvene to confirm Joe Biden’s victory after being disrupted by a riot that ricocheted round the world. The Wyoming congresswoman strode into Statuary Hall, where officers in tactical gear were leaning against the marble figures of great American men and women, exhausted after hours battling their countrymen.

Above the door, Clio watched over them. She sits atop a clock fashioned by an octogenarian clockmaker from Roxbury, Massachusetts, where 15 of the first Cheneys who came to America are buried. William Cheney arrived in 1640 as part of the wave of Puritans fleeing religious persecution. Two centuries later, Samuel Fletcher Cheney fought to save the Union. And now here stood Elizabeth Lynne Cheney, leader of the House Republican Caucus, on the threshold of an era of division unseen since the Civil War.

Why We Wrote This

As the Jan. 6 committee begins revealing to the public what it has learned, Liz Cheney will be front and center this week, both documenting – and etching her place in – history.

It was a solemn moment for the scion of one of America’s most influential Republican families. Perhaps it was no mistake that she had dressed all in black that day. Only a few generations in American history, President John Kennedy once said, have been “granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.”

“Today, that role is ours, as we face a threat we have never faced before: a former president attempting to unravel our constitutional republic,” Representative Cheney would later say. “The question for every one of us is, in this time of testing will we do our duty?”

The No. 3 Republican then went back into the House chamber and was among a minority of her party who did not object to the Electoral College count in two swing states. A week later, she was one of only 10 in her party to vote to impeach President Donald Trump, saying he “summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame.” Within months, she lost her leadership position.

Now, she is vice chair of a Democratic-led committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol, which will hold the first of a series of highly anticipated hearings on Thursday evening. 

To Ms. Cheney, Jan. 6 represents an existential battle for the American republic – one for which she is willing to sacrifice her political career. Supporters herald her as a rare example of courage in an age of partisanship, one of the few Republicans of national stature willing to confront former President Trump and call out her party for enabling his lies. Indeed, it was at the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage ceremony, where she was one of the five honorees, that she shared her reflections on history and duty.

Critics, however, say her myopic focus on Mr. Trump has abetted a politically motivated investigation. It has also undermined her ability to serve her constituents, who decry her lack of help in fighting Biden policies that are hurting Wyoming’s farms, ranches, and oil fields.

As the Jan. 6 committee begins revealing to the public what it has learned so far, Ms. Cheney will be front and center, both documenting – and etching her place in – history. Meanwhile, her Republican primary opponent has logged 23,000 miles crisscrossing Wyoming’s vast plains and mountain ranges to meet with voters. 

Lauren Miller/The Casper Star-Tribune/AP
Former President Donald Trump endorses Harriet Hageman for Wyoming's sole congressional seat during a rally on May 28, 2022, at the Ford Wyoming Center in Casper. He spent much of his hour-and-a-half speech pillorying incumbent Rep. Liz Cheney, arguably his chief critic within the Republican Party.

At a rally in Casper last month, Mr. Trump – who won Wyoming by the largest margin of any state – denounced Ms. Cheney for doing the bidding of “corrupt” Democrats, and urged voters to instead back Harriet Hageman, an attorney who has built a career battling federal bureaucrats. In many ways, this is the biggest test of the former president’s influence over the Republican base. 

“I think this is a watershed election,” says GOP state Sen. Cale Case of Lander, who is supporting Ms. Cheney. “We know that the nation is looking at us.”

The view from Wyoming

Casper has been at a national crossroads before. In the 1800s, settlers streamed over the North Platte River en route to a new life in Oregon or the gold mines of California. Five different routes once converged here, including the Mormon Trail that two of Ms. Cheney’s great-grandmothers trod. As homesteaders hewed cabins from trees, Buffalo Bill Cody transformed the image of cowboys from social outcasts to romantic icons of strength and courage. 

Now, Wyoming is debating who should represent the state in Congress – and how independent the voters will be, especially those who supported Mr. Trump.

Ms. Hageman, a fourth-generation Wyomingite and daughter of a longtime legislator, was raised on a ranch and has developed a reputation for sticking up for the state’s farmers and ranchers.

“I know Wyoming, I love Wyoming, I am Wyoming,” Ms. Hageman told the crowd at the Trump rally. “I know what it means to be loyal to the outfit that hired you.

“As soon as I defeat Liz Cheney ... ” she continued, before deafening cheers drowned out the rest.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
Former Vice President Dick Cheney walks with his daughter, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, Jan. 6, 2022. Representative Cheney, who lost her House GOP leadership position over her stance on Jan. 6, is serving as vice chair of the House select committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The Cheney name looms large in Casper, where a young Dick Cheney would shoot game on the prairie and bring fried rabbit in his lunchbox the next day. A key player in multiple Republican administrations, Mr. Cheney was the youngest White House chief of staff in history, served as Wyoming’s sole congressman for 10 years, and oversaw the Gulf War as secretary of defense under George H.W. Bush. Many still regard him as the most influential vice president ever, for his role in orchestrating the Iraq War during the second Bush administration.

Today the local high school’s field bears his name, as does the federal building downtown, not far from an old-fashioned soda fountain and a movie theater with a vertical neon AMERICA sign. 

But Liz Cheney, his elder daughter, has struggled to convince voters she’s a real Wyomingite. Raised mainly in the Washington, D.C., area, she and her husband bought a house in the state in 2012 before she made a short-lived run for Senate, challenging the popular Republican Mike Enzi in a move some saw as presumptuous. They chose the Jackson Hole area – a wealthy resort town at the base of the Grand Tetons full of multimillion-dollar homes, in contrast with the ranches, bungalows, and rusting trailers that dot the rest of the state. If she and her family have ever lived here full time, it’s a closely kept secret in this close-knit state. 

Since winning election in 2016, however, Ms. Cheney has impressed many of her onetime detractors – including Tim Stubson, a former state legislator who ran against her in the GOP primary that year, and had criticized her as a carpetbagger. 

Her argument was that with her connections in the Republican Party, she could come into Congress on Day One and help Wyoming – and she did, says Mr. Stubson. Within two months of taking office she spearheaded a resolution to nullify an Obama regulation that restricted public land use, a big issue in Wyoming, and stood next to President Trump as he signed it. 

“She has been a super-effective legislator,” he says in an interview in his Casper law office.

Ms. Cheney is also one of the most conservative members of the House GOP caucus, voting with Mr. Trump more than 90% of the time during her first two terms, with their differences mainly related to foreign policy and fiscal discipline. And while she has continued to introduce legislation that could help Wyoming, including a bill challenging the Biden moratorium on oil and gas leasing, some constituents say her focus on Jan. 6 has undermined her advocacy for Wyoming’s interests.

“She lost the ability to fight for Wyoming,” says Jack Mueller, who has known the family for decades, serving as a county co-chair for Dick Cheney’s first congressional campaign in the late 1970s. 

“This whole Jan. 6 thing – she’s been milking that like mad,” says Mr. Mueller, who supported the Laramie County GOP’s censure of her and says he got a call from Ms. Cheney a few days later. “I accused her of forming a cabal with Nancy Pelosi.” 

He says he still doesn’t understand what her motive is. The two haven’t spoken since. 

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Then-President Donald Trump gives his pen to GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a first-year congresswoman at the time, after signing a land-use bill she sponsored in the House. From left are GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Don Young of Alaska, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (far right) and his wife, Lolita Hand.

Even as her stance has alienated members of her own party, however, it has won her accolades from the left. 

“I consider her a person of great decency and character,” says Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a constitutional lawyer who has developed a warm working relationship with her on the Jan. 6 committee, despite their policy differences. “She’s resilient and tough as nails.”

“To my mind,” he adds, “Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and Mitt Romney and the other Republicans who have stood up against Donald Trump are constitutional patriots.”

Her detractors see things differently. 

If Ms. Cheney is so committed to the Constitution, one Trump rally-goer wondered, why isn’t she fighting for justice for the people who were arrested for, in their view, merely taking selfies in the Capitol on Jan. 6? When the Republican National Committee took the unusual step of censuring Ms. Cheney and Representative Kinzinger, it said that it was “unbefitting” of Republicans to participate in a Democrat-led committee that disregarded minority rights, traditional checks and balances, and due process, among other things.

“‘Hang Mike Pence’ is nothing”

At the heart of these diverging viewpoints is a fundamental disagreement between Ms. Cheney and her critics about what actually happened on Jan. 6 – and how big a threat it posed. 

At his “Save America” rally that day, then-President Trump had called the election “the most corrupt in history” and urged his supporters to march to the Capitol, where Vice President Mike Pence was overseeing Congress’s counting of the Electoral College votes. 

“We’re going to have to fight much harder, and Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us,” he told them, urging the vice president to support a Republican challenge to some states’ votes. 

Trump supporters then marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, where Ms. Cheney’s great-great-grandfather had once paraded to celebrate the end of the Civil War. Those leading the charge shattered windows and doors to break into the Capitol, clashing with police officers while rioters in the hallways chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!”

Lawmakers and police barricaded the doors with furniture, and at least one shot rang out when a policeman fired on unarmed veteran Ashli Babbitt as she tried to climb through the smashed glass of a door to the lobby outside the House entrance. Two other protesters also died in connection with the attack. Some 114 Capitol Police officers, as well as several dozen Metro D.C. officers, were injured that day after hours of what a bipartisan Senate report described as ”absolutely brutal” physical abuse. Five have died, including four by suicide. 

Some grant that lawmakers in the building that day may have felt more danger than they feel was apparent to those watching on television. Still, many on the right believe Ms. Cheney is abetting what they see as the left’s exaggeration of Jan. 6 for political purposes. 

Marti Halverson, one of Wyoming’s three electors in 2020, was watching the day’s events unfold on TV and texting with friends who had gone to Washington for Mr. Trump’s rally.

“I think the Capitol Police overreacted,” she says. How could the Capitol be “breached” when it is the people’s House? she wondered. As for threats chanted by the rioters, she says that as a former state legislator she received awful threats in her inbox but sees them as routine for any politician these days. “‘Hang Mike Pence’ is nothing,” says Mrs. Halverson, adding that she doesn’t believe the rioters meant it.

Courage or ambition?

Ms. Cheney’s stance has motivated some Wyoming Democrats – who can change their party affiliation even on voting day – to cast a ballot in the GOP primary. 

“She won a lot of us over because of that,” says Sarah Konrad, who manages a federal grant program supporting scientific research at the University of Wyoming in Laramie and is planning on registering as Republican for the first time to support Ms. Cheney.

It also persuaded some conservatives like Helen Higby, by her own account an erstwhile “loud Trump supporter” who credits Ms. Cheney with changing her outlook after the 2020 election. 

“Having her brave enough and willing to risk her political future and willing to cross swords with him – I admire her for that,” says Ms. Higby, a mountaineer in her youth who respects the congresswoman’s dogged focus. “My ethic is, you don’t just throw up your hands when things get tough.”

But where some see integrity and courage, others see willfulness and ego.  

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Former Rep. Barbara Cubin, the first woman to represent Wyoming in Congress, endorsed Rep. Liz Cheney's primary opponent, Harriet Hageman, a week after she announced. Pictured here in downtown Casper, Ms. Cubin says it was a difficult decision because she's had a fondness for the Cheneys for many years.

“Liz is a very stubborn person. She is never wrong – never,” says former Rep. Barbara Cubin, the first woman to represent Wyoming in Congress, who endorsed Ms. Hageman shortly after she announced – a decision she says was hard, because she has “fond feelings” for the Cheneys.

“I think she has bigger political ambitions,” says Monte Hartman, sitting on a grassy knoll outside the Trump rally in Casper.

But just what those ambitions are is unclear. Many surmise she has her eye on the 2024 presidential race. It’s unlikely she could win either party’s nomination, however, having burned her bridges with the GOP, and still far too conservative for most Democrats. 

“I can’t imagine that there weren’t political calculations, but I really thought she did it out of a sense of principle,” says Dino Wenino, a progressive who is registered as a Republican so he can have some sway in elections here. “She was riding high in the Republican Party and now she’s almost a pariah.”

Whatever her motives, in a state where 7 in 10 voters supported Donald Trump, many feel affronted by her decision to co-lead the committee investigating his role in that day’s events.

“I could give her all the credit in the world for operating in accordance with her highest principles when she cast her vote to impeach,” says Mrs. Halverson, the Wyoming elector, but adds that her congresswoman’s subsequent actions showed “seeming contempt.” In particular, she highlights Ms. Cheney’s decision to skip a GOP gala in Rock Springs earlier this year in favor of attending the Wyoming Press Association’s annual gathering, and her subsequent explanation to The New York Times that she’s “not going to convince the crazies.” 

A Cheney spokesman says that comment referred to the leadership of the state party. A recent exposé of GOP Chair Frank Eathorne, who spearheaded not only the state party’s censure of Ms. Cheney but also the Republican National Committee’s censure resolution, depicts him as pursuing a purist strain of politics that critics say borders on extremist. But some took Ms. Cheney’s “crazies” comment as akin to Hillary Clinton calling Trump supporters “deplorables.”

“All she has done since Jan. 6 is dig herself deeper and deeper into a hole,” says Mrs. Halverson in her hotel lobby the afternoon before the Trump rally, sporting a Hageman for Wyoming button. “And I’m very disappointed.”

The next day, she took the stage to praise Mr. Trump and rally the crowd for Ms. Hageman. 

“The most important election”

While a handful of other Republicans have spoken out against Mr. Trump, few have the pedigree, national standing, and platform that Liz Cheney has had as daughter of a former vice president and vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee. There’s a lot riding on this race – not just for Ms. Cheney, but also for the party and its relationship with Trump. 

“Wyoming, all of America is counting on you,” Mr. Trump told the crowd of about 8,000 in Casper. “We have a lot of elections coming up. I think this is the most important election that we have, right here.”

Cheney supporters think so, too. 

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Milcey and Pete Scott, ranchers outside of Casper pictured here with their border collie, Griet, support Representative Cheney – but rarely talk about politics with their neighbors. Many ranchers credit the Trump administration as well as Representative Cheney’s opponent, lawyer Harriet Hageman, with removing red tape imposed by federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Park Service.

“If she’s reelected, she’s in a much stronger position to be a counterweight to Trump,” says Pete Scott, a Republican rancher outside Casper who has watched the former president’s “takeover” of the party in disbelief. “If she’s defeated, that does not augur well, because she is just about the only national Republican willing to stand up to Trump.”

Many interviewed here feel the momentum is with Ms. Hageman, but they haven’t counted Ms. Cheney out. A key question is how many Democrats like Ms. Konrad will cross over to vote in the GOP primary – something Mr. Trump tried unsuccessfully to persuade the state legislature to limit. 

In 2018, Democrats made an eleventh-hour bid to influence the GOP gubernatorial primary. Of the more than 11,000 newly registered Republicans in 2018, almost 3,000 were previously registered as unaffiliated (independent) and almost 2,400 as Democrats. But some insiders say it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Ms. Cheney will pick up enough to compensate for the Republican voters alienated by her relentless criticism of Mr. Trump.

“There’s a huge part of me that’s like Liz, just stop – I want you to win, and you don’t have to keep poking the bear,” says a Republican strategist in Wyoming. “Now it’s too late.”

Most agree she undoubtedly calculated the risks of coming out against Mr. Trump, and what it would mean for her influence going forward.

“The vast majority of people never reach that point where they’re willing to say, ‘OK, I’m going to jump off this political cliff because of principle,’” says Mr. Stubson, explaining that for many Republicans unenthused about Mr. Trump it’s easy to make the argument that it’s better to stay quiet and exercise what influence they have than to lose it. Even among the 10 House members who took the leap and voted for impeachment, Ms. Cheney stands out. 

“Liz was in the unique position that she couldn’t be pushed to the side, even if she got kicked out of leadership, because of the national voice that she had,” says Mr. Stubson. 

Indeed, whether she wins reelection or not, “she will have an avenue in America,” says Alan Simpson, a longtime former senator who campaigned alongside Ms. Cheney’s father when he was running for Congress in the late 1970s and Liz and her sister would tag along with a straw hat full of buttons.

“She is her father’s daughter – and Dick Cheney is one tough cookie. But he’s a big-hearted man and he loves this country with passion,” adds former Senator Simpson. “She is going to be a spokeswoman to take down the clandestines and the phonies and the fibbers. And the fakers – add them. That’s going to be her mission.”

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