WASHINGTON — House Republicans voted Wednesday to remove Rep. Liz Cheney from the No. 3 position in caucus leadership after she vocally rebuked Donald Trump, a move that strengthens the former president's grip on the party.
“We must be true to our principles and to the Constitution,” Cheney, R-Wyo., told fellow House Republicans before the closed-door vote, according to a source in the room. “We cannot let the former president drag us backward and make us complicit in his efforts to unravel our democracy. Down that path lies our destruction, and potentially the destruction of our country.”
After the vote, Cheney said that if Trump tries to run again, "I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office."
The conference, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., held a speedy voice vote to oust her, lawmakers said after it occurred. Republicans had planned to vote via secret ballot, but opting instead for a voice vote means it will be impossible to know how many in her caucus supported her removal and how many would have kept her in leadership.
"There were no speeches really. It was just Kevin standing up and then the vote happened," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., a Cheney ally who called it a "sad day."
"Truth cannot coexist with lies," he told reporters.
Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riot, responded to the former president's most recent claim last week that the 2020 election was "fraudulent," calling his words "THE BIG LIE." And she remained defiant on Tuesday evening, describing his claims as a threat to democracy.
With Cheney's ouster, party leaders have coalesced around elevating Rep. Elise Stefanik, a staunch Trump ally who represents an upstate New York district. A vote on her to take the spot is expected on Friday.
Stefanik, of New York, met with with the House Freedom Caucus on Wednesday evening. As she departed, she said, "We're going to be unified as Republicans moving forward."
The clash between Cheney and Trump has caused consternation among some House Republican lawmakers who are weary of having the leadership fight overshadow their criticism of President Joe Biden, or answering for the ex-president's ongoing false claims about the election.
"Having heard from so many of you in recent days, it’s clear that we need to make a change. As such, you should anticipate a vote on recalling the Conference Chair this Wednesday," McCarthy wrote in a letter on Monday, after days of mobilizing to oust Cheney.
Republicans have sought to cast her ouster as a move to unify the party ahead of next year's midterm elections, in which they're hopeful they can gain seats and capture control of the House.
McCarthy's letter contains some contradictions that reflect the party's struggles to navigate Trump.
He implicitly criticized Cheney for "relitigating the past" despite the fact that she was responding to Trump's ongoing statements about the past. He called on Republicans to focus their criticism on Democrats' agenda, which Trump has said little about. He labeled the GOP a "big tent party" of "free thought and debate" while arguing for the ouster of a conference chair who broke with Trump.
After the vote, Trump released a statement taunting Cheney, calling her "a bitter, horrible human being."
"I watched her yesterday and realized how bad she is for the Republican Party. She has no personality or anything good having to do with politics or our Country," he said.
GOP strategists are torn about the political impact of Cheney's removal, with some arguing it would further alienate Trump-skeptical voters, particularly in the suburbs.
"The suburban voters who’ve switched voting from Republican to Democrat are the new swing voters in American politics," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It remains to be seen whether they are permanently in the Democratic camp or come back to the Republicans. But the suburban voters who are most at risk of becoming permanent Democrats are the college-educated suburban women. And removing someone like Liz Cheney pushes them further away from the GOP."
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the party is worse off if it rejects the former president.
"We need everybody in the party but we're not going to erase Donald Trump. And she's been advocating that we can't go forward with him. And I'm saying you can't go forward without him," he told reporters Monday. "I like Liz Cheney, but the damage done from trying to drive Donald Trump out of the party is greater than keeping him in the party."
Cheney, who represents Wyoming and is the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has no plans to resign from Congress and intends to run for re-election, according to a source familiar with her thinking, despite having numerous opponents already challenging her in a party primary.
Some Democrats said the move against Cheney means Republicans are giving up on democracy and becoming a cult of Trump.
"It's appalling that the Republican Party seems to be solely captured by this big lie. They so want to please Donald Trump that they go along," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday. "In the House, Ms. Cheney — Liz Cheney spoke truth to power, and now they're firing her."
After a White House meeting Wednesday with Biden, Schumer and other congressional leaders, McCarthy downplayed the attempts within his party to de-legitimize the 2020 contest.
"I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with," the House Republican leader said. "We're sitting here with the president today."