RIVERTON – If there’s one thing Liz Cheney never expected, it was to be called a RINO. The derisive term, an acronym for “Republican in Name Only,” seems not just an unlikely label for Wyoming’s sole U.S. Representative, but an absurd one, given party norms over most of the past 25 years.
Applied, typically, to Republicans who run afoul of generally understood party principles, the put-down in the past tended to be used after a Republican member of Congress cast votes outside the party majority or ran for re-election while espousing something not in the party platform.
Those are things Cheney just didn’t do. Her voting record with party majority verged on 100 percent. So steadfast was her adherence to the party line, in fact, that her colleagues elevated her to one of the three highest leadership positions in the GOP House in just her second term.
But when, as Cheney saw it, adherence to party policy meant unswerving devotion to one person — Donald Trump — the RINO label reserved normally for the likes of Mitt Romney or Susan Collins was aimed at her also.
“That was really strange,” Cheney said during an interview in The Ranger newsroom. “I think I had voted with Trump’s position something like 93 percent of the time.”
She noted that her aligned voting percentage with Trump’s preferences was greater, for example, than Rep. Jim Jordan’s. He’s the Ohio congressman whose unshakeable fidelity to Trump led to his being chosen, controversially, by Trump to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Despite her House record, the vote that couldn’t be forgiven by some was the “yes” on Jan. 13 to impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection” tied to his role in the Jan. 6 overrun of the U.S. Capitol.
In an all-afternoon riot scene, Trump supporters breached the legislative chambers and left House and Senate offices vandalized — and five people dead.
Cheney sees both institutional and historical impacts for Jan. 6.
“This was the first time since 1814 our Capitol was attacked,” she said, noting that this year’s events also represented an attack from within the nation, not an invading foreign power, as was the case in 1814 when the U.S. was at war with England.
She said the attack eroded public confidence in institutions during a viral pandemic, and in the days following a volatile election.
“This is fundamental stuff,” Cheney said. “There are very real concerns, even desperation in some parts. People have a lot of big concerns about the future.”
Cheney survived the first push to remove her from her job as leader of the Republican House Conference, but not the second.
In that role, there was just one person between her and the Minority Leader — who, were the GOP to regain the majority, would become the Speaker of the House. After that first vote, however, the situation changed.
As Trump repeatedly pressed the false claim that he actually had defeated Joe Biden in the November presidential election, Cheney repeatedly pushed back. This time, Cheney’s refusal to join that parade cost her the conference chair position.
“Between February (when she survived a no-confidence vote) and the past few weeks (when she was removed as conference chair), increasingly people started embracing this idea” that the election somehow had been stolen from Trump, Cheney said.
Trump lost to Biden by 7 million votes and trailed in the Electoral College 306-232.
To survive the second vote, Cheney said, would have meant she “would have had to go along with the idea” that Trump hadn’t lost the election, “to perpetuate the lie,” and “would have to agree to be silent.”
When she didn’t, and made it clear she wouldn’t, it meant the end of her stint in House leadership.
“Part of it was where everybody was after Jan. 6,” she said. For a while “there was agreement on what it meant. That didn’t last long.”
Now that she no longer has the conference leadership post, Cheney said her work is different — and not necessarily for the worse.
“Now, in my job, I’m much more free to speak,” she said. “I don’t have to stop and think ‘how does this sit with the other two?’” referring to Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Maryland and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. “I am freer to talk about what I believe is right.”
She said the conference chair job also had a lot of “member management, a heavy personnel piece.”
Those are someone else’s worries now.
“Given the current atmosphere, I don’t feel any real downside to not having that position” she said.
Plus, Cheney said, she is able to spend more time “focusing on Wyoming issues” without the tasks of the conference leadership. She said her trip around Wyoming in May, with the House in recess, was helpful in that aspect of her duties as she prepares for a reelection campaign next year.
“I’m taking the opportunity to do some official meetings, but mostly it’s having the chance to meet people, answer questions and hear perspectives.”
She meets people who aren’t supportive, too. A half-dozen candidates already have announced their intentions to oppose her for the Republican House nomination.
“Someone challenged me in Casper” shortly before her Fremont County visit, she said. “This person was not happy with me and said ‘you betrayed me’” with the impeachment vote. Cheney said she was able to end that conversation civilly.
But there has been conflict, too, and some real ugliness.
In her newsroom visit, she was accompanied by two professional security guards who stood watch throughout, then cased the sidewalk outside before clearing her to leave.
Did she feel safe because the security guards were there, or less safe because she needed them?
With a wry smile, Cheney deferred a direct answer, but gave a telling response: “I guess it’s just a sign of the times we live in.”