WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy refused to say Tuesday whether Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming should be on the Republican leadership team, a renewed sign of internal strife that began during former President Donald Trump's impeachment.
Cheney, who is the third highest-ranking Republican in the House, voted to impeach Trump earlier this year, prompting calls from some fellow Republicans that she be removed from her leadership post. She defeated the challenge in February and kept the position.
McCarthy, R-Calif., was one of Trump's staunchest allies and has continued to publicly support the former president, including by voting hours after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to block the counting of some electoral votes for President Joe Biden. Cheney has become one of Trump's loudest Republican critics and voted to impeach him for his role in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the capitol.
Speaking Tuesday at a retreat for House Republicans in Orlando, Florida, McCarthy punted on the issue of Cheney's future with the leadership team.
“That’s a question for the conference,” McCarthy said when asked if Cheney was a "good fit" for the leadership team.
Pushed further to offer his own opinion, McCarthy instead talked about the purpose of the retreat, and said, “I think from a perspective, if you're sitting here at a retreat that's focused on policy and focused on the future of making American next century, and you're talking about something else, you're not being productive.”
McCarthy has tried to balance conflicting pressures: avoid intra-party warfare and maintain loyalty to Trump, who he sees as pivotal to helping Republicans take control of the House in the 2022 congressional election.
The tensions between Cheney and McCarthy illustrate a larger struggle within the party over whether to continue aligning with Trump, who has suggested he could run for president again, or to chart a new path.
Cheney's approach has support, as evident in the lopsided vote of 145 to 61 to keep her on the leadership team after she voted to impeach Trump. But that was a secret ballot vote, and few Republican lawmakers want to speak out against Trump publicly for fear of alienating his voters.
Trump, who still polls strongly among Republican voters, released a statement late Tuesday afternoon sharply criticizing Cheney.
"Liz Cheney is polling sooo low in Wyoming, and has sooo little support, even from the Wyoming Republican Party, that she is looking for a way out of her Congressional race. Based on all polling, there is no way she can win," Trump said in a style reminiscent of his tweets. "She’ll either be yet another lobbyist or maybe embarrass her family by running for President, in order to save face. This warmongering fool wants to stay in the Middle East and Afghanistan for another 19 years, but doesn’t consider the big picture—Russia and China!"
At the Orlando retreat, Cheney also broke with McCarthy's calls for broadening the scope of a bipartisan commission to study the Jan. 6 riot, which is being pushed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
McCarthy has said the commission should examine other instances of violence, part of a Republican argument that liberal protests in some cities should be investigated alongside the deadly mob that attacked the Capitol in an effort to stop the counting of some Biden electoral votes.
"I think it's very important that the January 6th commission focused on what happened on January 6th and what led to that attack," Cheney said.
She said she's "very concerned" about "the BLM the antifa violence we saw last summer," but described that as "a different set of issues" unrelated to the Capitol attack, which she said was "unprecedented in our history."
McCarthy was also asked about Trump's previous promise to endorse a primary challenger to Cheney and whether the House leader would help her. McCarthy — who previously said that Cheney had not asked for his help in her re-election campaign — responded by saying, “I haven’t talked to her about it.”
Cheney, who organized the retreat, was asked last week whether Trump would be attending the House GOP conference. “I haven’t invited him," she said.