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Impeachment could become defining moment for Liz Cheney

WASHINGTON (AP) — Just before a mob unleashed a deadly rampage on the U.S. Capitol last week, President Donald Trump told tens of thousands of supporters that “we got to get rid” of Rep. Liz Cheney. The Wyoming congresswoman and No. 3 House Republican had already broken with the president on everything from mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic to pulling back American troops in Afghanistan. Now she's emerged as the most prominent Republican to back Trump's impeachment — the only member of her party's leadership to do so.

This could be a defining moment in Cheney's political career. Her support provided some cover to the nine other House Republicans who followed her lead and voted to make Trump the only president in American history to be twice impeached. Defying Trump also carried the historical weight of coming from the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, a conservative force in Washington for decades.

“That is not some irresponsible, new member of the Congress,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on the floor Wednesday, noting that he'd endured opposition from the elder Cheney in the chamber and elsewhere. “This is the daughter of the former Republican whip and former vice president. She knows of what she speaks.”

The number of Republicans who voted in favor of impeachment was small but significant — when Trump was impeached last year, no House Republicans supported it. Cheney represents one of the country's reliably Republican states, but her vote could prompt a primary challenge from the right in next year's election. That makes her backing impeachment all the more surprising since Cheney is seen as someone looking to build on an already strong national profile to possibly grow within the Republican Party's upper ranks.

Around 70% of Wyoming voters backed Trump in November, about the same percentage as in 2016. On a conference call with home-state reporters after Trump's impeachment, Cheney defended her decision saying, “I will continue to talk to and hear from my constituents all over Wyoming. But when it came down to it, the president of the United States inciting a mob ... is, in my mind, absolutely high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“I really don’t consider the politics at all. There are just times when those of us who are elected officials are called on to act in a way that does not take politics into consideration,” Cheney said. “I think it would be wrong to think about this decision and this vote in the context of politics.”

Still, as the only woman in House GOP leadership, Cheney has been seen as a possible candidate for House speaker should the GOP regain the majority in 2022 or beyond. That might even have portended a future presidential run.

"There will be some blowback within her state and the Trumpites in it, but I think it’s a fairly calculated decision,” said Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and congressman who was unseated in 2018 by a conservative primary challenger endorsed by Trump. “There’s some degree of risk-reward to it.”

Any hope of Cheney rising in the House GOP leadership looks bleak, at least for now. The two Republicans who outrank her, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California and Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, have generally remained supportive of Trump.

Other top members of her own party have begun clamoring for Cheney to quit — or be voted out of — her post as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, co-founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus, called her stance on impeachment “totally wrong.” Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale said Cheney “ignored the preferences of Republican voters,” proving she’s “unfit to lead.”

But Cheney has bounced back from other tough moments, including when her short-lived 2014 primary challenge against Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi was derided by the Republican establishment and conservative activists alike.

She won her state's lone House seat when it came open just two years later. Cheney later turned down invitations by top Republicans to run for Enzi's seat when he retired last year and instead opted to remain in the party's House leadership — stoking speculation that she was intent on becoming the first female Republican to be House speaker.

And Cheney has bucked Trump before, speaking out against his opposition to mask-wearing, his veto of a defense spending bill and many foreign policy decisions. That was a key reason Trump singled her out before last week’s armed insurrection at the Capitol.

Not all Republicans denounced Cheney, evidence that the party remains deeply divided between those still siding with Trump and those now willing to oppose him mere days before he leaves office. “I’m not judging anybody on this,” said Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis. Rep. Nancy Mace, a newly elected Republican from Sanford's old South Carolina district, said she’s been critical of both Democrats and Republicans for helping to create the political conditions that triggered the mob violence.

“I think it’s very important that we hold everybody accountable," Mace said, "and I hope that people are investigated to the fullest extent of the law, from the president on down.” Cheney also brushed aside any suggestion she'd quit the GOP House leadership, vowing, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“This is a vote of conscience. It’s one where there are different views in our conference," she said. “But our nation is facing an unprecedented, since the Civil War, constitutional crisis.” In a statement formally supporting Trump's impeachment, Cheney similarly didn't mince words, noting that the Capitol was overrun and ransacked after Trump “summoned the mob" and "lit the flame of this attack." “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president," she added.

Questions of a president's fitness for office isn't uncharted political territory for the Cheney family. Before he was vice president, Dick Cheney served as chief of staff to President Gerald Ford, who succeeded Richard Nixon and ultimately pardoned him, after Nixon resigned the presidency due to the Watergate scandal.

The elder Cheney also was a chief architect of many of President George W. Bush's policy initiatives that most delighted the Republican base — from lucrative tax cuts to the war in Iraq. Today's GOP has changed substantially, but still not enough, some suggest, for Cheney's impeachment vote to haunt her much back home.

“You know who Daddy is, he’s still the old-trenches Republican bunch,” said Tim Dawson, a livestock veterinarian who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. ”I wouldn’t expect her to do any different, I really wouldn’t. And I think as far as a career in Wyoming, she’s good enough.”

Associated Press Writer Mead Gruver contributed from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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