Good afternoon and happy Friday.
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik won a secret-ballot election this morning to replace Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney as House GOP conference chair. While it’s not a hugely important role in practice, and much of the drama won’t have any real impact for the vast majority of Americans, we may look back on this week as a decisive moment for the trajectory of the Republican Party ahead of the 2024 presidential election. By ousting Cheney and installing Stefanik, members chose once again to embrace Donald Trump’s election fraud conspiracy theories for the sake of political convenience.
Election Denialism Rampant Among Hill GOP
As House Republicans continue to prop up former President Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election, they’re increasingly adopting another revisionist view—that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was no attack at all.
Just hours after the insurrection at the Capitol, 147 Republicans voted to reject Electoral College results from either Arizona, Pennsylvania, or both. More than half of the conference had already signed onto an amicus brief for the state of Texas’s attempt to overturn the election by throwing out millions of ballots in states Trump lost, so voting to throw out the electoral votes of a couple key states was a natural progression.
At the time, many members claimed they were simply representing their constituents who had concerns about the election. Some Republicans hoped their party’s embrace of conspiracy theories and profoundly anti-democratic behavior would mellow out once Trump had left office, especially after seeing firsthand the devastating consequences of his lies.
But Trump’s grip on the party has only become tighter. Election denialism is widespread among congressional Republicans, even as House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy publicly insists it isn’t.
“I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election,” he said, somehow with a straight face, after meeting with Biden Wednesday afternoon. “That’s all over with.”
His members—and more importantly, the former president—disagree.
“A lot of people question it, to be frank with you,” conservative House Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Andy Biggs told HuffPost Wednesday when asked about the election results. “I think we have some election integrity issues that we need to resolve.”
New York Rep. Claudia Tenney argued that “no one knows about what happened in the election.”
“We don’t know if it was stolen or not,” she told CNN’s Manu Raju.
State and federal courts have dismissed more than 50 lawsuits alleging fraud from Trump and his allies. And Trump’s attorney general at the time, Bill Barr, said in December there was no evidence of widespread fraud. “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election,” Barr told the Associated Press.
Still, Trump regularly claims the election was stolen. He released a statement to that effect as recently as Monday. And in another statement last week, he said the “Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!”
When lawmakers and allies visit Trump in Florida, he obsesses over the election results during their conversations. He crashes guests’ events at Mar-a-Lago and gives speeches about how the results were rigged. McCarthy, of course, is well aware of this, and he has done nothing to push back on it. Instead, he organized the effort to oust Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from her leadership role this week after she refuted Trump’s lies about the election one too many times.
Republican lawmakers—who see Trump as essential to their efforts to retake the House—are wary of contradicting him. If you ask them whether Joe Biden lawfully won the presidency, most won’t give you a straight answer.
“I mean, obviously the law was followed,” Rep. Warren Davidson, an Ohio Republican, told The Dispatch this week. “Now, the law wasn’t followed in lots of states, but ultimately the process took place. You know, the Electoral College voted and the House accepted the results—I mean, not everyone, you know, there were objections—but the votes were cast and in Congress, you fight by voting. The votes were called and he got the votes.”
Davidson supported the objections to Arizona and Pennsylvania’s Electoral College results after Trump supporters mobbed the Capitol on January 6. His tortured response to a yes or no question is similar to newly elected House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik’s stance. Biden currently is the president, she tells reporters and her colleagues, but she has a lot of concerns about election fraud.
Stefanik has played her part in spreading bogus claims about the election. She continues to allege widespread fraud in Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and she voted for the Republican objection to Pennsylvania’s results on January 6. She said last week she supports the Republican state legislature’s recount of votes in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where auditors are giving careful scrutiny to whether some of the ballots have “bamboo fibers” in them—part of a conspiracy theory that they were shipped in from Asia to sway the results to Biden.
As we mentioned in last week’s Uphill, she also falsely claimed on the House floor that more than 140,000 votes in Georiga’s Fulton County “came from underage, deceased, and otherwise unauthorized voters” alone. That would be more than 25 percent of the votes cast in Fulton County. The Republican Georgia secretary of state’s office rejected her allegation as “ludicrous,” noting they “found only 2 votes credited to dead voters” across the entire state and there were no underage voters.
Stefanik was given the chance to step away from that assertion last week, but didn’t.
And when my former Weekly Standard colleague John McCormack pressed her this week on whether she still stands by her claim, Stefanik said she does. The basis for her statement that 140,000 votes were illegitimate, she told McCormack, is that it “was filed in a court case.”
“I think there are questions that are important for the American people to hear answers to,” Stefanik replied when given yet another opportunity to rescind her lie about illegitimate ballots in Georgia.
Her rise to the party’s number three role in the House this week solidifies the conference’s ongoing refusal to accept the 2020 presidential results. It also emphasizes this fact: House Republican leaders aren’t going to do anything to curb their members’ rhetoric about the election or the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
In a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on the events of January 6 with testimony from former officials who were involved in the response, several Republicans downplayed the severity of the violence that day and expressed sympathy toward the rioters. Rep. Paul Gosar—who recently attended a conference organized by a white nationalist and has ties to prominent organizers of the Stop the Steal rally—made the case that there is something improper about federal law enforcement’s efforts to identify rioters who may have violated the law.
“Outright propaganda and lies are being used to unleash the national security state against law abiding U.S. citizens, especially Trump voters. The FBI is fishing through homes of veterans and citizens with no criminal record and restricting the liberties of individuals that have never been accused of a crime,” Gosar said.
“The government has even enlisted Americans to turn in their own neighbors,” the Arizona Republican added. The FBI has asked for help identifying suspects by sharing photographs taken during the attack on social media. Many of the rioters have been indicted after being caught in pictures and videos that day—or after a relative or friend alerted authorities to their social media posts about being there.
In the same hearing, freshman Rep. Andrew Clyde, a Georgia Republican, portrayed the intruders as largely peaceful.
“There was an undisciplined mob. There were some rioters, and some who committed acts of vandalism. But let me be clear: There was no insurrection, and to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a bold-faced lie,” he said. “Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion, staying between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures. You know, if you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the sixth, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.”
Needless to say, it was not like a “normal tourist visit.” 138 police officers from the U.S. Capitol Police force and the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department suffered injuries that day. Officers sustained fractured ribs, concussions and shattered spinal disks. One lost the tip of his right index finger. Another was stabbed with a metal fence stake. Others were attacked with baseball bats and flag poles. Videos from the siege are gruesome and disturbing. The police officers who responded to the attack have faced mental health challenges in the months since.
Two police officers died by suicide in the days after they played a role in the response on January 6. Another, Brian Sicknick, died in the hospital a day after physically engaging with the rioters. A medical examiner ruled last month that Sicknick had two strokes and died of natural causes, although he added that “all that transpired played a role in his condition.” The Capitol Police still classifies his death as a line-of-duty loss.
Once the rioters made it into the building, they sought the lawmakers inside. Luckily, members of Congress were able to make it to safety, thanks to Capitol Police—lawmakers huddled barricaded in their offices and other undisclosed secure rooms for hours until the building was cleared. Others weren’t as fortunate: Some of the assailants physically attacked a female photojournalist who was in the building. As she was thrown to the floor and berated, she thought she could be killed.
The rioters shattered windows. They ransacked offices and destroyed furniture. They stole laptops. They smeared blood and other bodily fluids on the walls. They scratched “murder the media” into a door.
“I don’t know a normal day around here where people are threatening to hang the vice president of the United States, or shoot the speaker, or disrupt and injure so many police officers,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded Thursday.
“It was beyond denial,” she added of Clyde’s statement. “It fell into the range of sick.”
McCarthy, for his part, has brushed off questions about Clyde’s remarks. The GOP leader has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no interest in policing his members’ words or actions—unless they differ with Trump.
Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who was booted from House GOP leadership this week, argues the growing revisionist history of January 6 and Trump’s ongoing insistence that he won the election poses a threat going forward.
“Whatever it takes to make sure that he’s nowhere near the Oval Office again is what’s required,” Cheney told The Dispatch in a podcast recording Friday morning. “He’s really dangerous. And his determination—his lack of faithfulness to the Constitution—is something we’ve never seen before.”
Only a few other Republicans are willing to raise fears about the situation publicly.
“We have to deal with this narrative at some point,” Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, who supported Cheney, told reporters after the vote to oust her. “To suggest that the American people in 2022 won’t consider the fact that we were unwilling to stand up to a narrative that the election was stolen—I think will be taken into consideration with their vote.”
Asked how many of his colleagues genuinely believe Biden was not duly elected, Buck said he hasn’t talked to any who think that. “I haven’t taken a poll. I haven’t talked to a lot of them, but I have not heard a single person,” he said. He suggested Republican leaders are hoping that other issues, like border security and government spending, “supplant or overwhelm” Trump’s election conspiracies.
“I don’t know how long that continues,” he said of Trump’s lies. “Honestly.”
Cheney on The Dispatch Podcast
Rep. Liz Cheney sat down with Steve and Sarah this morning for The Dispatch Podcast. We’ve included a few highlights here in advance of the episode’s release later today.
How many of your colleagues believe the election was stolen?
Cheney: “I think it’s a very, very small number who really believe it. I think clearly there’s a larger number who are willing to sort of go along with it. I think that you’ve seen that, including from Elise Stefanik, the willingness to continue to make claims that are just not true. And then I think you have, you know, a large number of members of the conference who really just want to focus on Biden, which I completely agree with, and hope that this will go away. But you’ve got another fundamental problem, which is our leadership, Kevin McCarthy, going to Mar-a-Lago, rehabilitating the former president. The extent to which the NRCC, you know, is basically sending out loyalty oaths around the former president. The rehabilitation of him and the embrace of him and talk about him as the leader of our party makes this a different kind of choice. This isn’t sort of, ‘Be silent and he’ll go away, or stand up against him.’ This is, ‘You’ve got to embrace it.’ And fundamentally for me, at the end of the day, if being in House leadership on the Republican side requires the embrace of that lie, that’s simply not something I’m willing to participate in.”
Does Kevin McCarthy know that Trump lost?
Cheney: “He knows Trump lost, yeah… He also knows, as he said on the floor of the House on January 13, Trump was responsible for the attack on the Capitol and that he should have immediately taken action to stop it. And I think that it’s important for us all to look at January 6 as, that’s the line that can never be crossed. And no matter what you thought about Donald Trump’s policies, no matter what you thought about the politics, no matter what you thought about the tweets and all of those things, you know, during the presidency that we talked about so much—and again, the policies were good ones, in large part—January 6 changes everything. And if we’re really committed to our oath, if we’re really committed to the Republic and the Constitution, then we have to be willing to say we’re not going to allow someone who provoked an attack on the Capitol to try to steal the election to continue to be heralded as the leader of our party.”
What does the Republican Party stand for right now except an increasing distance from any specific policy goals and an increasing closeness to Trump?
Cheney: “That is at the heart of the problem. And I think if you look at what we have to do as Republicans and what I think is my obligation—and I would argue the obligation of elected Republican officials, but also Republican voters around the country—we have to get back to standing for policy. We have to get back to standing up and being able to convey to people, ‘Here’s what we believe and why you ought to vote for us.’ … And I think that if you look at the extent to which, for example, in the hearings that are going on with people who have been arrested for January 6, and the numbers of people who say, ‘Well, I was there because Donald Trump told me to be there. He is the commander-in-chief, he told me.’ You really do have a situation that is dangerous, and one where the party is oriented around an individual. You know, I’ve said it’s a cult of personality and it’s anti-democratic. And I think that what we’ve seen in the conference and what we’ve seen more broadly is exactly the reason why you can’t be silent right now. You have to stand up and say, ‘No, this is what this party is and what we stand for and what we fight for.’”
Why are you still a Republican?
Cheney: “Well, I view this as the opening battle of a much longer war… I believe in this party. I believe that the country needs this party, and I’m going to fight to restore the party as a party of ideas. And there are people who say, ‘Well it’s time to leave the party,’ Republicans who certainly have left the party. I’m going to fight to try to bring those people back. I think it’s a battle that’s worth having.”
What’s it like that you’ve become sort of a media darling?
Cheney: “I’ve been around long enough I know anything good that anybody says about you is probably going to be countered tomorrow with something bad. And, you know, if it had been about getting good press, there are a lot of things I clearly could’ve done a lot sooner.”