Rep. Liz Cheney has suddenly become one of the most outspoken GOP critics of Donald Trump.
Even more surprising: The Wyoming Republican hasn’t faced any serious blowback from the president.
Criticizing Trump is not new for Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican. But she has increasingly called out Trump over his foreign policy decisions and leadership during the coronavirus crisis — a risky move in today’s GOP, where any break with Trump can fuel a primary challenge or nasty Twitter tirade from the president.
But Cheney’s found a balancing act that few Republicans have been able to achieve. And as the prospect of a post-Trump GOP begins to come into view, her relative independence from the president could position her for another rapid rise in party leadership.
“She’s got values, she’s got guts, and she says what’s on her mind. That resonates with a lot of people,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).
In her latest rebuke of Trump, Cheney openly questioned whether the president was aware of reports that the Russians offered Afghan militants bounties to kill U.S. troops and demanded the administration take a more aggressive posture toward the Kremlin.
And a few days before, Cheney took a veiled shot at Trump by tweeting out a photo of her dad wearing a mask with the caption: “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK. #realmenwearmasks” — the same phrase that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been using to take digs at Trump, and one that touches on a sensitive subject for the president: his manhood.
Cheney’s colleagues say she’s avoided Trump’s wrath because there’s no question about her credentials — the name Cheney is practically synonymous with conservatism — and because she’s strategic about her battles with Trump.
Plus, Cheney aggressively defends the president in the spots where it matters to the White House, like impeachment, and spends far more time attacking Trump’s favorite foes, such as Pelosi or China. That has enabled Cheney to carve out her own space in the party, without alienating Trump’s base or jeopardizing her bona fides on the right.
“I’ve never known our conference chair to not speak her mind, in a professional and thoughtful way,” said retiring Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). But, he added, Cheney is also “a strong defender of the president where they agreed. So she calls it when she sees it — sort of the Wyoming spirit, I guess.”
Cheney’s office declined to make her available for an interview, and she refused to answer questions from POLITICO in the Capitol this week.
Cheney’s allies insist her public critiques of the president are not motivated by her future political ambitions, but rather by her personal convictions.
Still, some GOP lawmakers and strategists believe that putting some distance between her and Trump — in contrast to her fellow Republican leaders in the House, like Kevin McCarthy of California and Steve Scalise of Louisiana — could come in handy if Trump goes down in November.
“If the elections are as dismal for Republicans as they appear today, the finger-pointing will begin immediately,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “That presents an opportunity for someone like Cheney to say that, while they supported much of the agenda, they were a truth-teller when the party needed it.”
Added one Republican lawmaker, who requested anonymity to speak frankly: “I believe she is trying to establish her own lane for the future, distinct from Trump and his acolytes.”
Cheney, the elder daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and one of the party’s most hawkish national security voices, has already quickly climbed the leadership ranks in a GOP conference long dominated by older men.
In only her second term in the House, Cheney, 53, was tapped by her colleagues to serve as the party’s conference chair — a key messaging post within the House GOP, especially with Republicans in the minority. Cheney also signaled where she saw her political future when she declined to run for an open Senate seat, instead opting to remain in a House leadership role that could catapult her to the speakership one day.
“Remember, she had a chance to run for Senate and decided to stay in the House, which I think shows a lot of where her passion lies,” said Rep. Drew Ferguson of Georgia, the GOP’s chief deputy whip.
Since arriving in Congress in 2017, Cheney has earned a reputation for clashing with members of her own party: She confronted then-Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin over defense spending, duked it out with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky over military action toward Iran, called for Rep. Steve King of Iowa to step down for making racist remarks and briefly launched a primary bid against Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming.
So it has come as no surprise to Cheney’s colleagues that she has tangled with Trump, too. But in recent months, her public criticism has seemed to grow louder.
In one notable incident last month, McCarthy — a close Trump ally the president calls “My Kevin” — repeatedly dodged questions during a news conference about Trump’s baseless tweets suggesting MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a former aide. Cheney, however, went out of her way to make clear how she felt: she vehemently disagreed with the attacks.
“I do think the president should stop tweeting about Joe Scarborough. We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Cheney told a group of reporters after the news conference ended. “He’s the commander in chief of this nation. And it’s causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died.”
For some, it was reminiscent of when Cheney stood up for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, two impeachment witnesses who were both publicly attacked by Trump on Twitter.
Cheney has also positioned herself as a voice of reason in the GOP when it comes to the coronavirus crisis. When Trump was calling to reopen the economy as early as Easter, she warned against it. And when many on the right were attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, Cheney rushed to his defense.
“Dr. Fauci is one of the finest public servants we have ever had. He is not a partisan. His only interest is saving lives,” she tweeted. “We need his expertise and his judgment to defeat this virus. All Americans should be thanking him. Every day.”
Cheney is even more outspoken when it comes to foreign policy and national security issues. She called Trump’s recently announced plans to remove U.S. troops from Germany “dangerously misguided,” blasted the president’s idea to host peace talks with Taliban leaders at Camp David, and said it would be a “very serious mistake” if Trump failed to retaliate against Iran for downing an American surveillance drone.
But unlike some of the other Republicans who have lambasted Trump, Cheney has managed to remain unscathed. Trump’s base is notably not driven by issues of foreign policy.
And in fact, the president has repeatedly praised the two-term congresswoman and singled her out at White House events, declaring that Cheney has an “unlimited future” and that Wyoming is “lucky” to have her as its representative.
“She’s never personal about it,” Ferguson said of Cheney’s criticism of the president. “It’s an honest discussion about how she feels about the policy. And so many people attack the president on personality.”