When Mitch McConnell was asked on Dec. 1 why he was not speaking out against then-President Donald Trump’s lies about a rigged election, he shrugged.
“The future will take care of itself,” McConnell said.
That same day, the Kentucky Republican disregarded pleas from Gabriel Sterling, the top election official from Georgia, who had warned that Trump’s rhetoric was going to cause violence and death.
McConnell’s biggest concern at the time was two upcoming Senate runoff elections in the Peach State. If he repudiated the president over his rhetoric about a “stolen” election, Republicans might not vote in the January runoffs, costing the party control of the Senate and McConnell the title of Senate majority leader.
Republicans lost both seats — and McConnell his title — anyway. Trump’s lies about the election, meanwhile, continued mostly unchallenged, leading to the Jan. 6 insurrection on the Capitol, which fulfilled Sterling’s dark prophecy.
Now, just five months after McConnell's remarks, the Republican Party’s leaders are again failing to confront Trump’s sustained war on reality and truth because they think they need his support to have a chance at winning in an upcoming election.
Trump continues to deceive his own supporters with lies about widespread fraud in the 2020 election and is unrepentant about his role in fomenting one of the worst days in U.S. history. But the blame doesn’t reside solely with the former president. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has played a major role in shielding Trump from any political consequences and in rehabilitating his image.
McCarthy’s main goal, much like McConnell’s last December, is to win the next election and ensure Republican control of a chamber of Congress. This time around, the election is the midterm contests of 2022, and the chamber is the House, but the dynamic is nearly identical to that of just a few months ago.
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., meanwhile, has taken on the role played by Sterling in the winter, warning the GOP that if it sides with Trump and his blatant mistruths, it will condone the anarchic violence he unleashed and set the table for it to happen again, with likely even graver consequences for democracy.
“As the Justice Department and multiple federal judges have suggested, there is good reason to believe that Trump’s language can provoke violence again,” Cheney wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week. “Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this.”
“The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution,” Cheney added.
But McCarthy and his deputy, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., have sided with Trump. They have cast Cheney’s insistence that the party tell the truth as divisive, and plan to hold a vote Wednesday in which it’s expected a majority of the 212 House Republicans will vote in a secret ballot to remove Cheney from her role as House Republican Conference chair, the No. 3 leadership position.
In a Monday letter to his House colleagues, McCarthy said he supported removing Cheney because of her focus on past events, including the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. "Unfortunately, each day spent re-litigating the past is one day less we have to seize the future,” McCarthy wrote.
As Cheney pointed out in her op-ed, however, McCarthy himself condemned Trump a week after the Jan. 6 insurrection. “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding,” McCarthy said then, even though he had also signed his name in support of a lawsuit seeking to throw out the 2020 election results.
Cheney still has a few allies among her GOP colleagues. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., has been an aggressively outspoken critic of Trump and McCarthy. And former House Speaker Paul Ryan hosted a virtual fundraiser for Cheney in late March and appeared with her last week at an event with donors to the American Enterprise Institute.
Ryan has also encouraged Republican donors to give financial support to the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, according to a person who has witnessed those conversations. And Ryan “will be doing an event for Ohio Congressman Anthony Gonzalez later in May,” the former speaker’s spokesman Kevin Seifert told Yahoo News. Gonzalez is one of those 10 House Republicans.
Seifert said Ryan also “has plans to help his former Wisconsin Republican colleagues in Congress in the coming weeks and months.” None of them voted to impeach Trump.
But the majority of GOP lawmakers in Washington are still following the same playbook that has been in place since Trump secured control of the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Throughout that campaign and the Trump presidency, the GOP faced several moments of reckoning when it could have rejected him. Each time, most of its members took cover instead.
The big difference between the current moment and past cycles is that Jan. 6 showed the impact that Trump’s lies can have. The Georgia runoffs also demonstrated that seeking to pacify Trump in order to retain his supporters does not necessarily work.
As for Cheney, she is expected to be even more outspoken if she is stripped of her leadership position and replaced with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.
James King, a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming, told Yahoo News that Cheney has shown herself to be a relentless campaigner in her home state, who “would go to any local Republican function that would have her come speak to talk about where the party goes in the future.”
King said Cheney is “well positioned” to win reelection in Wyoming in 2022 if she wants, even though Trump and his political operation have said they will work to defeat her.
But, King added, “there is that speculation that she is interested in running for president in 2024.”
In fact, Cheney said in late April that she was not ruling out a run for president.
“I think we have a huge number of interesting candidates, but I think that we’re going to be in a good position to be able to take the White House. I do think that some of our candidates who led the charge, particularly the senators who led the unconstitutional charge not to certify the election, you know, in my view that’s disqualifying,” Cheney told the New York Post.
“I think that adherence to the Constitution, adherence to your oath has got to be at the top of the list. So, I think, you know, that certainly will be a factor that I’m looking at and I think a number of voters will be looking at as they decide about ’24,” she added.
King said Cheney would not need to lead with a message about Trump, since that topic would come up on its own. She “clearly is trying to have the party be prospective rather than retrospective: Look forward to what the party has to offer rather than looking backward at grievances.”
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