How Trump is hunting down the GOP’s leading families

In the civil war between Donald Trump and the GOP’s waning establishment, no Republican has crossed the former president and come out ahead.

Yet as Rep. Liz Cheney’s likely ouster from House leadership lays bare, Trump has reserved a special fury for the scions of the GOP’s leading families in his attempt to exercise full dominion over the Republican Party.

Whether it’s the Cheneys, the Bushes or the lesser bloodlines — such as the Romneys or the Murkowskis — Trump has been relentless in his efforts to force them to bend the knee. Even Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCain — who herself has never run for office — has been knocked down, censured by Trump allies who run the state Republican Party in Arizona.

It’s the clearest sign that the modern Republican Party hasn’t just broken with its traditionalist past. It’s shredding every vestige of it.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Arne Carlson, a former two-term Republican governor of Minnesota. “The problem with the revolution is they continue to get more and more extreme. Whereas Liz Cheney was on the right, she now finds herself being pushed into the middle and, ultimately, off the cliff.”

As a prominent link between the old GOP and the new party of Trump, Liz Cheney is more than just another name on Trump’s enemies list. If his supporters in the House ultimately oust the Wyoming Republican from her leadership post, as expected, it will mark the repudiation of decades of Cheney family influence on the Republican party, dating back to her father’s time in the Nixon and Ford administrations, in GOP House leadership and as vice president.

Trump’s erasure of the institutions of the pre-Trump GOP was, of course, the promise of his presidency — his anti-establishment fervor a feature of Trumpism, not a bug. Long before Trump ran for office, he publicly criticized Ronald Reagan, called Pat Buchanan a “Hitler lover,” and wrote of the Bush family in 2013 that “we need another Bush in office about as much as we need Obama to have a 3rd term.”

Even so, Trump’s feats of political engineering — his felling of family legacies that once defined the party — are remarkable. He has almost single-handedly managed to sever the Bush family line, brutalizing “low energy” Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, in the 2016 primary and depriving the Bush dynasty of a third presidential nominee. Once in office, Trump even described himself as a “far greater” president than Reagan.

“He shits on everybody, even former presidents,” said Mark Graul, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin who oversaw George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign in the state.

Cheney, he said, just “happens to be the daughter of the [former] vice president.”

For the GOP’s base, it doesn’t matter who Cheney’s father is, or that she herself is the highest-ranking Republican woman in House history. The party that was once grounded in tradition is, after four years of Trump, in the process of abandoning the modern pillars it’s built on.

Take Sen. Mitt Romney, the son of former Michigan Gov. and presidential contender George Romney, and himself the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee.

Prompted by Trump’s longstanding animus toward Romney, a measure by Utah Republicans to censure the senator failed over the weekend. But Republicans in his home state still booed him at their party convention. Afterward, Trump wrote, “So nice to see RINO Mitt Romney booed off the stage at the Utah Republican State Convention. They are among the earliest to have figured this guy out, a stone cold loser!”

There’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the daughter of Frank Murkowski, the former U.S. senator and governor of Alaska. After Murkowski voted with six other Republican senators to convict Trump at his impeachment trial — repeating Cheney’s sin in the House — Trump pledged to travel to Alaska ahead of the 2022 midterm elections to campaign against “a disloyal and very bad Senator.” The Alaska Republican Party censured her in March.

And then there’s George W. Bush, Bush’s former vice president, Dick Cheney, and Cheney’s daughter Liz. In his deconstruction of that lineage, Trump has not only ostracized Cheney for her impeachment vote, but repeatedly branded her as a “warmonger,” as he did again on Wednesday, revisiting the wounds of the Iraq War and capitalizing on the schism between the party’s non-interventionists and neocons.

Taking stock of the rift between Trump and the Cheneys, Richard George, a former Republican National Committee member from Wyoming said, “I think that family politics has made a mistake, and I think Liz made a mistake.”

“Most people in Wyoming, they like the Cheney family, but they’re really disappointed with the way Liz voted in the impeachment hearing,” he said.

George looks at Cheney like many Republicans do — in pre-Trump impeachment and post-Trump impeachment terms. Though George said, “I like her very much as a person, and she’s done good things for us in the state of Wyoming,” he said she let her constituents down on “one of the most important, if not the most important votes.”

If the result is that Trump undoes the Cheney legacy — or others — he said, it will be cause for celebration, not grief.

“The undoing of political dynasties,” George said, “is a great thing.”

Trump himself, however, is not averse to dynastic politics — that is, if it involves his own family. The former president’s children are fixtures in the MAGA world and could have political futures. Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law, has considered running for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina, and Donald Trump Jr. is liked by activists enough that he finished a distant third in a 2024 presidential straw poll run without his father’s name on the ballot at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Ivanka Trump drew frequent mention as a prospective primary opponent to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio until passing on a bid earlier this year.

Trump’s former campaign manager Brad Parscale once predicted the Trumps would become “a dynasty that will last for decades.”

But that’s a Trump dynasty. The old dynasties — the ones that were rooted in an ideological or governance brand, rather than in a style or personality — have been torched.

The scions of traditional political families who have survived have largely done so by choosing Trump when it came to a dispute between the former president and their families. George P. Bush, Jeb Bush’s son, is still a viable politician in Texas, the Trump-supporting state where Bush is the state land commissioner. But that would likely not be the case if he hadn’t split with much of his family and endorsed the former president.

Mitt Romney’s niece, Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, is in Trump’s good graces. But she had to break with her uncle’s criticism of him — and jettison the family name — to stay there.

“In the electorate, I think that there is a growing distaste for political legacies because it provides a hint of elitism that’s going out of style,” said Mark Weaver, a Republican strategist and former deputy attorney general of Ohio.

For Cheney, he said, “She inherits both the enemies and the friends of her father, and in this modern Republican Party, there are more enemies than friends.”

That’s a Republican landscape turned upside down from where it stood before Trump took office — so much so that some legacy Republicans who have not traded their moorings for Trump hardly recognize the party anymore.

The modern GOP, George W. Bush told NBC’s “Today” show earlier this month, is “isolationist, protectionist, and to a certain extent, nativist.”

“It’s not exactly my vision,” Bush said. “But, you know, I’m just an old guy they put out to pasture.”

Cheney has not been discarded yet. But a vote to oust her from her position at the House GOP conference chair — a post once held by her father — is expected to come next week. And Trumpian Republicans are already preparing to challenge her in the Wyoming primary next year.

In part, that’s an outcome Cheney could have expected. Hal Daub, a former Republican congressman from the neighboring state of Nebraska who served in the House with Dick Cheney, said if Liz Cheney believed that the party could “sort of disconnect from Trump,” as she has suggested, “then she’s smoking dope.”

“That’s not reality,” Daub said. “Because his presence as a former president and active, visible Republican is going to help a lot of House members, and it’s going to help a lot of Republicans take back the House.”

In her leadership role, he said, Cheney had an obligation “to toe the party line” as it related to Trump — and say less about their points of disagreement.

The party’s willingness to punish Cheney for not doing so is a major part of Trump’s own legacy. But that endowment — dependent largely on Trump’s whims — is more malleable than the establishment lines the GOP is hacking off in service to him.

Carlson, the former Minnesota governor, has some experience with being banished by the GOP, hung out to dry by his own state GOP for his moderate politics in 2010. In a party that is wholly Trump’s, he said, no legacy — and no politician hoping to create one — is safe.

“What [House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy] doesn’t realize is he may be the next one to go,” Carlson said. “The people who set the guillotines in motion ultimately have their necks under it, as they get into these endless battles about who’s more loyal, who’s more pure.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated Jeb Bush’s position at the time of his 2016 presidential bid. He was a former governor.
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The GOP’s answer to its post-Trump blues: More Trump

For a moment, it looked like Donald Trump might be losing his iron grip on the GOP. In the wake of the deadly Capitol riot, 10 House Republicans joined Democrats in their vote to impeach him. Several other Republicans openly suggested at least censuring the president.

Not anymore.

Local and state Republican parties are censuring Republicans for disloyalty in states across the country. The lawmakers who broke with him are weathering a storm of criticism from Trump-adoring constituents at home, with punitive primary challenges already taking shape. In Washington, party leaders who once suggested Trump bore some responsibility for the Jan. 6 violence are backtracking.

On Tuesday, 45 Republican senators — all but five members of the GOP conference — voted that putting a former president on trial for impeachment is unconstitutional, all but guaranteeing the Senate won’t convict him. If the Republican Party seemed to be at a crossroads about its post-Trump future, it now appears to have concluded in which direction to travel.

“There is a level of support for this president more than during the election,” said Don Thrasher, chair of Kentucky’s Nelson County Republican Party, which recently voted to censure minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentuckian, for what Thrasher called “impugning the president’s honor” in debate over certifying the election results.

Of the post-presidential fervor for Trump, he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The devotion to Trump, however, comes at great expense. The party risks tying its future to a one-term president whose deeply polarizing style cost the party both the House and the Senate during his four years in office. And he blew a hole in the party’s suburban foundation that might be irreparable.

Trump’s place in the party’s landscape appeared less certain after his November defeat and the Capitol insurrection that he helped to fuel with his false claims of a stolen election. Polls suggested Trump’s influence over the GOP was beginning to fade.

But the GOP is still a party in which Trump’s approval rating stands at about 80 percent. For Trump loyalists, Trump’s second impeachment has been taken less as an indictment of the former president’s behavior than a cause to rally around him — a martyr for an aggrieved populist base.

“There are 74 million people who voted for him,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist. “You’re not going to get a mass exodus … At the grassroots level, he’s very, very popular, and I think the party as a whole understands that in order to be a majority party, it’s going to have to include those Trump enthusiasts.”

The real question now may not be how long Trump looms over the GOP, but whether there is room beneath his shadow for anyone else.

In Washington state, several Republican Party county chairs called Monday for the resignation of Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, who voted for impeachment. The Republican Party of Oregon formally condemned “the betrayal” of the 10 House members who voted to impeach. Over the weekend, Arizona Republicans, despite watching their party founder during the Trump era, voted to censure Cindy McCain, former Sen. Jeff Flake and Gov. Doug Ducey, while reelecting a Trump loyalist, Kelli Ward, as state party chair.

And in Wyoming — a state that went 70 percent for Trump in November — the Republican Party of Carbon County voted to censure the state’s representative, Liz Cheney, for her vote to impeach Trump.

Joey Correnti, the Carbon County chair, ranked Trump in his “top five” presidents of all time.

As for the GOP’s posture toward the former president, he said, “If you’re going to receive the benefit of the brand, you ride with the brand.”

In recent weeks, the party’s governing class appears to have taken note of the base’s sustained fealty to Trump — and the impact it could have on their own political prospects. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said after the insurrection at the Capitol that Trump bore some responsibility for the riot. But then the California Republican said “everybody across this country has some responsibility,” and he otherwise labored to mend his relationship with Trump.

Nor are the Republican Party’s leading contenders for president in 2024 eager to cross Trump. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley lit into Trump following the Capitol riot, telling Republican National Committee members that his “actions since Election Day will be judged harshly by history.”

More recently, on Fox News, she said, “I don’t even think there’s a basis for impeachment.”

“At some point, I mean, give the man a break,” Haley said. “I mean, move on.”

Many traditionalist Republicans are hoping that’s exactly what GOP voters will do. Republicans down-ballot were more successful than Trump in the November election. Scores of Republican voters cast ballots for candidates not named Trump — and do not concern themselves with the local party operations that are fuming at more moderate Republicans.

“The crackpot base that are Trump’s people, that are Trump’s wing men and wing women, will never leave him,” said Barrett Marson, a Republican political strategist in Arizona. But though “Trump still has a hold on the core base of Republicans,” Marson said, “In the larger Republican Party, that is not the case.”

Still, the most Trumpian, activist wing of the party controls many state and county party operations. And the once-fringe forces unleashed during the Trump era have metastasized within the party.

Millions of Republicans bought into Trump’s lie that the November election was stolen from him, with a large majority of Republicans saying after the election that they did not think it was free or fair. In Hawaii, a Republican Party official resigned recently after posting tweets sympathetic to subscribers to the QAnon conspiracy theory. The Texas Republican Party continues to use the “We are the storm” slogan, despite criticism about the phrase’s links to QAnon [The party has denied a connection].

Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses, suggested Trump’s pull on the party was so great that “you have to ease out of Donald Trump.”

Many in the party kind of quietly hope that he goes away, and they can transition to the future,” Walsh said.

However, he said, “Elections are decided on such a thin margin in states, you don’t have to make too many activists angry to where it has a real meaningful and life-altering impact on your electoral future if you’re a politician. Darwin and politics are very similar: You have to survive to move on. And you can’t survive if you go out and dump on Trump hard.”

For Republicans who bucked Trump and faced recriminations from within the party, that has been the lesson of the last three weeks. Trump, despite his departure from Washington, remains close to the center of the GOP political universe.

Solomon Yue, the Republican national committee person from Oregon who pushed the resolution in his state condemning the 10 impeachment-supporting House Republicans, described the Republicans’ pro-impeachment vote as reflecting a lack of courage, which he said is “not made out of chickens---.”

Like other Trump supporters, Yue suspects Trump’s stature in the party will only improve over time, as Republicans who held off voting for Trump recoil from the Democratic agenda advanced by Joe Biden.

In Kentucky, where McConnell is the godfather of the state party, he nevertheless faced the prospect Saturday of a resolution urging him to oppose impeachment. While the state party ruled it out of order, the mere challenge to his authority raised eyebrows. And he was still taking flak at the county level, where Thrasher said he has been coordinating with other county chairs on a measure to rebuke him. The chair of a neighboring county party told Thrasher one of his constituents, an elderly woman supportive of Trump, asked if they couldn’t have McConnell “tarred and feathered,” while volunteering to “pour on the tar” herself.

Trump has kept an unusually low profile since leaving office, but he has indicated a desire to remain a force in Republican politics. If he rises up — whether supporting pro-Trump Republicans in primaries in 2022 or as a candidate himself in 2024 — whole swaths of the party may bend at his direction.

Trump “can intervene in pretty much any state operation — or at least 90 percent of the states,” Thrasher said. “If he interjected himself in any of the state party elections, it would go in his favor … I know in Kentucky, if he called for the removal of the whole apparatus, we’d vote them out.”

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Capitol riot fueled by deep network of GOP statehouse support

One month before the riot at the Capitol, more than 60 Republican state lawmakers from Pennsylvania signed onto a letter urging the state’s congressional delegation to object to results of the presidential election. Across the border in Maryland, a Republican state legislator helped organize buses to take people to the protest that preceded the riot. A West Virginia lawmaker went even further, donning a helmet as he filmed himself rushing the Capitol.

As the Republican Party begins to reckon with the fallout from the deadly insurrection, it’s being forced to confront a disquieting truth: the lie that ultimately led to the violence — that the election was stolen from President Donald Trump — drew far-reaching support from the party’s governing class at every level, extending far beyond Congress and reaching deep into America’s statehouses.

Lawmakers from more than a dozen states attended the Jan. 6 rally, while scores more cheered on the “Stop the Steal” movement from afar. And in the days since the insurrection, these Republicans continued to question the election while giving air to debunked claims that Antifa or other leftist agitators — not pro-Trump rioters — were primarily responsible for the destruction that followed.

“I wouldn’t trust a word that comes out of the FBI’s mouth at this point,” Mark Finchem, a Republican state representative from Arizona, said when asked about an FBI briefing of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy that suggested no reason to believe Antifa was involved.

Like many other Republican state lawmakers elected by pro-Trump Republicans who remain distrustful of the election, Finchem, who attended the rally but did not storm the building, said his job is to represent his constituents, and “if that means I need to fight off the establishment types, I’m good with that.”

One week after the deadly insurrection and the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, institutionalist Republicans are desperate to move the party past the events of last week. But in statehouses across the country, the prospect of a clean break has never seemed more remote.

In Nevada, newly elected Assemblywoman Annie Black, facing calls to resign after attending the rally preceding the riot, told her supporters, “I’m not going anywhere,” defending her attendance at an event she said was “marred by some fringe elements.” In Florida, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini on Tuesday was tweeting lists of Republicans “WITH courage” and those without, the latter group including Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, who have been critical of Trump. He called Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who plans to support Trump’s impeachment, a “national security threat.

Pat Garofalo, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, said that in the riot last week “there was a political epiphany for most Republicans that this is over, this is ridiculous … this is banana republic s---, we don’t do that.”

But even if “no one is standing up and saying that this was justified,” as Garofalo said, the idea that Trump had been robbed of the election was not far from home. Several of his colleagues had participated in a reportedly peaceful “Storm the Capitol” rally in Minnesota the same day the national Capitol was desecrated.

For Republicans involved in promoting Trump’s claims about election fraud, the recriminations have been swift. Major corporate donors have announced they will withhold contributions from Republican lawmakers who objected to certifying the Electoral College votes last week. Facebook and Instagram permanently banned a top organizer of the “Stop the Steal” protest on Capitol Hill. One Republican group pledged to raise $50 million to help Republican lawmakers fend off potential primary challenges if they vote to impeach Trump, and as many as 10 Republican House members are reportedly considering doing just that.

But Trumpism was never primarily a feature of Washington, as state lawmakers who are attuned to their GOP constituencies know. A large majority of Republicans said after the election that they did not think it was free or fair, and fewer than one in five Republicans said after the riot last week that Trump should resign.

The physical violence represented a fringe element of the party. But the reason that Republicans were in Washington — loyalty to Trump, frustration with the election — is a fairly mainstream GOP position in many places. And so, too, is disbelief in the party’s culpability.

“I don’t know that widespread means it’s a majority opinion or a prevailing opinion, but there are certainly a significant number of Republicans who have fallen for the myth that this was some Antifa-instigated event, which it was not,” said Ron Nehring, a former California Republican Party chairman who served as Sen. Ted Cruz’s spokesman in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Nehring compared the moment for Republicans to one confronting the GOP in the 1960s, when William F. Buckley helped distance the party from racists and “kooks.” “Today, the same must be done again with adherents of QAnon and the Proud Boys and similar groups,” Nehring said.

Lamenting that “not enough Republican leaders have made clear that, ‘No, the election in fact was not stolen,'” he said, “I’ve spent 32 years in the Republican Party, and I’m not going to allow it to be defined by a bunch of racists and lunatics just because they put on a MAGA hat.”

There have been sanctions for elected officials present at the Capitol as the mob breached the building. Del. Derrick Evans, the West Virginia lawmaker who entered the Capitol, faces criminal charges and resigned. Maryland Del. Daniel L. Cox, who helped organize buses to the rally and who called Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor,” was rebuked by the state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan. And Democrats in states across the country have appealed for Republicans who participated in any part of the rally to leave office, as well.

But Republicans are largely more accommodating of their ranks. In Arizona, Finchem said he’s been getting encouraging emails from around the country. He and other lawmakers who attended the rally are finding support in their own caucuses, as well.

In Alaska, where a Republican state lawmaker, David Eastman, has come under scrutiny for attending the rally and promoting claims about Antifa, longtime state Sen. John Coghill regretted that rhetoric in American politics had reached a point where “people are accusing each other of inciting a riot.”

Like other Republicans, Coghill places blame for what he called a “revved up” political climate on Democrats as well as Republicans. Despite courts finding no evidence of widespread fraud, he said that in the absence of a more rigorous examination of the vote, “conspiracy theories, accusations, they can run rampant.”

Coghill, whose father was a signer of the state Constitution and who will leave the Senate next week after 22 years in elected office, said, “I think there’s enough blame to go on both sides.”

In the Republican Party’s base in the states, that view appears likely to have more currency than any interest in rooting out.

In Maryland, Del. Neil Parrott, called it “very unfortunate” that his colleague, Cox, was facing criticism for attending the rally.

“The vast majority of people were simply there to support fair elections,” said Parrott, who traveled to Pennsylvania to observe ballot counting after the election. “They had no idea that some people were going to try to take over the rally and make it violent.”

Parrott said that “party infighting is not going to help us now” and that, instead, “it’s time for Republicans to get back to the basics, like why do we care about less government, lower taxes, giving power back to the people.”

Likening the political options available to Republicans to sports, he said, “Sometimes your plays get too complicated, you need to go back to the basics.”

Matt Dixon contributed to this report.

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