McCarthy sends letter to House GOP: We're voting Wednesday on whether to recall Cheney from leadership

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Two thoughts on how this is going to play out for Cheney via two anonymous sources who’ve been whispering to media outlets today. One comes from a former Republican lawmaker who spoke to The Hill: “She’s done as a member of leadership. I don’t understand what she’s doing… It’s like political self-immolation. You can’t cancel Trump from the Republican Party; all she’s done is cancel herself.”

The other comes from a Republican strategist who spoke to NBC: “There’s no incentive for her to be a part of the team, no advantage of being in leadership… The leverage comes from being the other center of power in the conference. So by attacking her, they’re in essence helping her.”

There’s truth to both. By volunteering to be the focus of Trump’s ire, Cheney’s almost certainly talked herself not just out of a leadership job but out of Congress. (Her sixth primary challenger announced his candidacy today.) But she’s also established herself as the most prominent and outspoken Trump critic in the GOP, probably exceeding even Mitt Romney. It’s possible that Cheney was holding back on Trump as a member of leadership, not speaking out as frequently as she might have liked or organizing to counter him. As of Wednesday, she’ll be free to do what she wants, including partnering with Democrats to make sure that the commission that investigates the insurrection is a serious inquiry. McCarthy and his new political director, who was working for Trump on January 6, both have strong professional reasons to want it to be unserious instead. McCarthy doesn’t want to have to testify under oath about his phone call with Trump during the insurrection, or this:

He told his caucus in a letter this afternoon to get ready to dump Cheney.

“Each day spent relitigating the past is one day less we have to seize the future.” Say that to Trump’s face, Kevin. More than any other Republican, he’s the one incessantly relitigating the past by issuing statement after statement about the election, yet McCarthy wouldn’t dream of telling him to pipe down for the sake of party unity.

As for embracing free thought and debate, a House Republican aide told NBC, “I think it’s dumb when we always try to claim that we’re this big party that we’re pushing out someone who has a slightly different opinion. It’s just absurd to me.” He should have clarified, though: You’re allowed to have a different opinion about whether the election was stolen or the insurrection was a travesty, you’re just not allowed to talk about it depending on what your opinion is. (Most of the House GOP caucus, which doubtless shares Cheney’s opinions about November 3 and January 6 but keeps quiet about it, understands this.) Trump, the undisputed leader of the party, is free to talk about either subject as much as he likes but the rest of the party has to move on — if they disagree with him. If, like Elise Stefanik, they agree that he was robbed and the riot at the Capitol was really just a “kinetic sit-in” or whatever, they’re welcome to chatter about the subject as much as they like.

Believing that the election was rigged is the true litmus test for advancement in the party, even more so than liking Trump is, because believing that Biden won fairly raises the intolerable prospect that Trump is a loser at the ballot box. “More Trump” is the direction the party base insists on going and Cheney insists on trying to talk them out of it, and ultimately there was no room for her to “debate” that while remaining in leadership.

Even pro-impeachment Republicans and their staff are divided on what to do about her. Some of them want it made clear that there’s room for Trump skeptics at the top of the party, others think she’s become a distraction that’ll lead to a backlash in the primaries against the caucus she’s supposedly trying to lead.

“I think [ousting Cheney is] very much viewed as a massive defeat,” said one of the 10 lawmakers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share candid views in a tense political climate. “Having someone in leadership was validation and proof . . . that even though Trump was attacking us, we still have leadership backing us and are allowed to survive within the conference.”…

“It’s not entirely effective to go after Donald Trump every time he puts out a statement because we understand he’s a force in the Republican Party,” said a Republican aide who works for one of the 10 members and, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak on the record. “When pure falsehoods are said, you have to call that out, but at the same time, doing so repeatedly gets you into this vicious cycle where eventually constituents will really start to wonder, ‘What are you actually focusing on and doing in Congress?’ ”

The most interesting question about Wednesday’s vote isn’t whether Cheney has a shot at winning it but whether it’ll be secret ballot, as the first vote to oust her in February was, or public record. I can’t imagine McCarthy would try to depose her if he wasn’t certain he had enough votes to do so, and Cheney reportedly isn’t lobbying colleagues to stick with her. The result looks to be a fait accompli, which may be how she wants it since she seems to have resigned herself to martyrdom at the hands of MAGA. Because of that, though, she has an incentive to have everyone vote on the record. If she’s going down, make the cowards in the caucus who agree with her privately about Trump show their faces publicly as they stab her in the back.

Trump has an incentive to have everyone vote publicly too. Obviously he wants to know who the pro-Cheney voters in the caucus are in order to punish them afterward. McCarthy also has an incentive to make the vote public, since Cheney somehow surviving on a secret ballot vote might mean the end of his reign as caucus leader. Her winning the vote would be a searing humiliation for him, tantamount to a vote of no confidence at a moment when he’s asking the caucus to rid him of Cheney. If they choose loyalty to her over loyalty to him, he’d be the most pathetic figure in Washington. There’s no chance of that happening on a public vote, though. Too many members would fear Trump’s wrath if they sided with Cheney to give her a majority.

Of course, Republican voters of all stripes also have an incentive to want this vote to be public. Everyone from MAGA to Never Trumpers wants to know where each House Republican stands on whether Liz Cheney should continue in leadership.

The only group that wants a secret ballot vote is … the caucus itself, at least the non-MAGA parts of it. Every member who’s sympathetic to Cheney’s position wants to avoid having to betray her in the light of the day; they’ll sleep better if they can knife her anonymously instead of having to look her in the eye and do it. And every Republican from a swing district who has to go on record on a vote like that risks pissing off one constituency or another depending on how they vote. If they vote against Cheney, the centrists back home might disdain them for their Trump loyalty. If they vote to keep her, the MAGA voters will be furious. For that reason alone, I think McCarthy will insist on a secret ballot *even though* it marginally raises the odds of Cheney surviving. Those odds are slim at best, and his caucus will be grateful that he didn’t make them walk the plank by making them go on the record.

I’ll leave you with this.