Cracks emerge in Trump’s impeachment firewall ahead of vote

The House is set to vote to impeach Trump for a second time on Wednesday. This time, some Republicans will join Democrats.

President Trump tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall on Tuesday.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Jan. 12, 2021, 8:18 p.m.

As lawmakers debate and vote on President Trump’s second impeachment in 13 months, House Republicans are entering a critical moment that could shape the future of the caucus.

Some 20 Republicans could vote Wednesday to impeach Trump on a charge of “incitement of insurrection” introduced by House Democrats on Monday. Leadership has shied away from impeachment, instead suggesting censure for Trump, with one major exception. House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming announced Tuesday afternoon that she would vote to impeach Trump for inciting a violent mob on Jan. 6.

“Much more will become clear in the coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough,” Cheney said in a statement. “The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled this mob, and lit the flame of this attack.”

The past months have culminated in an effort to impeach and remove the president as the country braces for further right-wing violence after rioters stormed the Capitol, threatening the lives of lawmakers, resulting in the deaths of four rioters and one Capitol police officer.

The other Republicans announcing votes to impeach are Reps. John Katko of New York and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. Freshman Republican Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan said Monday he’s “strongly considering” an impeachment vote. Other Republicans will likely announce their intent to impeach throughout Wednesday.

“What we’re seeing is an outbreak of born-again vertebrates,” a veteran Republican operative with ties to the establishment wing of the party said of Cheney’s announcement.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise have hewn much closer to Trump, opposing impeachment and instead floating the idea of censuring the president. Still, House Republicans are not whipping members on the impeachment vote.

The tension between McCarthy and Cheney will help define the future of the caucus. Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is a mainstream Republican in the vein of the Bush and Reagan administrations. McCarthy has sought to cement his position among Trump-era populists.

Cheney’s decision to back impeachment is the culmination of months of ire at the president and her skirmishes with Trump loyalists in the caucus.

In recent weeks, Cheney has criticized the opposition to the Electoral College challenges, saying it would set “a dangerous precedent.” Cheney also said Trump’s call to a top Georgia election officer pressuring him to influence that state’s presidential votes was “deeply troubling.”

At a weekly meeting of House Republicans in July, members of the Freedom Caucus, a conservative group deeply allied to Trump, struck out at Cheney for her criticisms of the president. Freedom Caucus members such as Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Andy Biggs of Arizona were upset with Cheney because she spoke out in support of Dr. Anthony Fauci and backed a primary challenger to conservative Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s biggest boosters in the House, tweeted in July that Cheney should step down as conference chair. On Tuesday evening, Biggs, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters that Cheney should resign from her position as conference chair.

Cheney has been leveling criticism at Trump over the riot since the evening of Jan. 6, telling Fox News at the time that “the president’s response so far has been completely intolerable and insufficient.”

For four years, she has had to bite her lip as a survival skill: Trump is immensely popular in Wyoming, winning 70 percent of the votes last November, slightly more than the state’s only House member and third-ranking House leader.

So while Cheney has dipped her toe in the anti-Trump water by opposing his moves to bring troops back from Europe and the Middle East and carefully distancing herself from his isolationist tendencies, father and daughter have consciously stayed silent despite having very little use for Trump and his excesses.

“She’s always had a Trump problem,” a longtime confidant told National Journal, “but he gave her an opening this week.”

Her support for impeaching Trump did more than leave House Republicans gasping for breath—it signaled that Cheney and her savvy father have concluded that her hopes of being the first woman GOP speaker may have gone up, not down, as a result.

“Dick thinks this is the right thing for the party, and that it’s also a [political] plus for Liz,” the Cheney friend added.

Trump has defended his speech from the day of the riot. In his first interaction with reporters since Jan. 6, Trump on Tuesday said, “People thought what I said was totally appropriate.”

Later, at a Texas event, Trump leveled a warning at Democrats on their resolution pressing Vice President Mike Pence to oust him using the 25th Amendment. The House voted on that measure Tuesday, but Pence said Tuesday evening he does not support the move.

“The 25th Amendment is of zero risk to me, but will come back to haunt Joe Biden and the Biden administration,” Trump said. “As the expression goes, be careful what you wish for.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, according to reporting from The New York Times, has said he believes the president has committed impeachable offenses, and has said he is pleased by the House effort to impeach him. McConnell, however, has not publicly said how he would vote when the Senate concludes a trial.

Few Republicans will go on the record excusing the president’s actions on Jan. 6, when Trump whipped up a crowd of thousands outside of the White House and sent them toward the Capitol, where they sacked the building. Some who backed the president's false claims of election fraud are already facing consequences, losing donors and posts on elite university boards.

Defending Democracy Together, which runs groups such as Republican Voters Against Trump, launched a $50 million campaign on Tuesday to defend Republican members who vote to impeach Trump.

“We say to any Republican who votes to impeach or remove Donald Trump: You will not be left alone. We will help you against primary challenge,” Bill Kristol, a prominent anti-Trump conservative and a director of Defending Democracy Together, said in a tweeted statement.

Harvard University said Tuesday it would remove Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who made a name for herself with fiery defenses of Trump during the last impeachment, from its senior advisory committee at the Kennedy School of Government, citing her public comments about voter fraud.

“The decision by Harvard’s administration to cower and cave to the woke left will continue to erode diversity of thought,” Stefanik said in a statement.

Meanwhile, support among industry groups for Republicans who opposed the vote count is eroding. Marriott and AT&T have said they will cease contributions to lawmakers who backed the opposition, while JPMorgan, Coca-Cola, and other companies have stopped all donations to political action committees for the moment.

On Tuesday Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major Republican donor, leveled a broadside against the president and said his group would cease support of some election objectors.

“The president’s conduct last week was absolutely unacceptable and completely inexcusable. By his words and actions, he has undermined our democratic institutions and ideals,” Donohue said in a statement sent to National Journal. “It is for the vice president, the Cabinet, and Congress to decide whether or not to invoke the 25th Amendment or pursue impeachment or other measures—and we trust them to use those tools judiciously, if needed, to ensure our nation’s well-being and security.”

Tom DeFrank contributed to this article.

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