‘I Remember Being Very Angry’
Rep. Liz Cheney reflects on January 6.
Good morning. We hope you had a peaceful end to last year and a gentle start to this one.
The D.C. region is blanketed in snow, leading the Senate to delay a vote on a judicial nominee last night. The chamber is expected to resume business today, but as of this morning some members were still having trouble with travel. Alarmingly, many motorists have been at a standstill along I-95 in northern Virginia since yesterday. Sen. Tim Kaine is among those stuck; he tweeted this morning that his typical two-hour commute has lasted longer than 19 hours and he was still not near the Capitol.
The House is out this week, although some lawmakers plan to be in town for events commemorating the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol this Thursday.
Today’s Uphill features a Q&A with Rep. Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the committee investigating the events leading up to and on January 6. She spoke with The Dispatch about the panel’s work, her experience that day, the state of the Republican Party, and her reelection race.
The transcript of the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Haley: The anniversary of January 6 is coming up soon. You were in the chamber when the Capitol was breached. What do you remember most vividly about those events now, a year later?
Rep. Liz Cheney: I remember being very angry. In the chamber, I remember the disbelief that it could possibly be happening. I remember, certainly, Representative Raskin telling me that there was a Confederate flag flying inside the Capitol. And just the disbelief that we were there at the heart of our constitutional republic and that we had a violent mob attempting to break into the chamber. And after we were evacuated, being absolutely committed and working with Hakeem Jeffries, my Democratic counterpart, and members on both sides of the aisle to make sure that we got back in that night to count the electoral votes. It was just crucially important that we not allow the violence to delay us from carrying out our constitutional duties.
Haley: I've spoken with some members and it's been reported elsewhere—there was just a general sense among people that “maybe this is a breaking point.” And it seems like it certainly was for you and some others in the House GOP conference. But in the end, it did not seem to be much of a breaking point in terms of the party's support for former President Trump. Do you remember having that feeling, that maybe this is where things are going to change drastically? And how do you feel that it didn't turn out that way?
Rep. Cheney: Well, I certainly understood and knew from the moment that we were under attack and that we were being evacuated, I believed then that we needed to move articles of impeachment. I believed that President Trump was presenting a danger to the nation. And I think that we were unified as a party, if not 100 percent, but the vast majority of Republicans. If you go back and look at what many of my colleagues, almost all of them were saying, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was clear that this was the kind of line that can't be crossed if you believe in our constitutional system. And it's dangerous for the country and it's dangerous for our party that people seem now to have lost their courage. They seem to be willing to minimize and whitewash what happened. And so many of my colleagues in the House Republican conference—too many of them, certainly not a majority—but too many of them are willing to try to obfuscate, for example, the work of the select committee, trying to hide and delay. And they won't be successful. But I think that it's a dangerous moment for the country because people's oath to the constitution has to mean something. As I said, what happened in the lead up to January 6 and on January 6, that's just a line that can't be crossed. And we have a duty as elected officials to make sure that people are held accountable, and that the American people know what happened in its entirety that day.
Haley: Have you spoken to Mike Pence at all since that day?
Rep. Cheney: I don't believe that I have. I spoke to him that night. It probably was early on the seventh, actually. I don't really want to specifically comment on that.
Haley: How do you define success for the January 6 committee? What is your primary objective and what do you think will make it successful?
Rep. Cheney: There are several important things. We have a very clear responsibility in terms of our legislative purpose to look at the events that led up to that day and on that day and determine whether or not there's legislation that could help us to prevent those things from ever happening again. That means things like: Do we need enhanced penalties for dereliction of duty by a president of the United States? Do we need changes to the Electoral Count Act? Are there things that we could do legislatively that would help prevent that from happening? We also have an obligation to make sure the American people know every aspect of what happened in the lead-up to that day and on that day.
What we've certainly seen since the committee's establishment is a real concerted effort by President Trump to hide the truth, to hide behind executive privilege claims, and to try to convince others to do his bidding and prevent the committee from getting information. But that has been more than outweighed by the patriots who've come forward to talk to the committee, over 300 people now. We've interviewed some in depositions, some informal interviews, who understand what happened that day and who have firsthand knowledge and who want to help the committee get to the truth. Telling the story of what happened and making sure people understand the gravity of what happened. I think it's also really important for us as a committee to help remind people about what it means to be faithful to the rule of law, what the rule of law means in this country. And to walk through the abuse of the rule of law, violation of the rule of law, by many of the people who were involved in the planning and carrying out what happened that day.
Haley: You mentioned it in a hearing and there have been reports that the committee is considering referring former President Trump to the Justice Department for criminal violations. Do you believe at this point that he criminally obstructed Congress?
Rep. Cheney: That's certainly a question that we're asking, and that's part of our investigatory process. We know that efforts to obstruct an official proceeding of Congress certainly would carry with it criminal penalties. But determinations about criminal referrals haven't been made yet. That’s certainly a question that we're asking and an area that we're looking at.
Haley: One of the goals of the 9/11 commission was to provide a clear picture of what happened that would be respected by people across the political spectrum. It doesn't seem like this will be widely accepted by most Republicans at this point, because it has just two Republican members and how GOP leadership has largely rejected its validity. How are you approaching that dynamic?
Rep. Cheney: First of all, a really rigorous commitment to the facts and making sure that people have access to information and access to as much information as we can provide for them about the day-to-day of what happened. It's important to remember that Minority Leader McCarthy made the decision not to appoint people. He withdrew all of his appointees to this committee. Ultimately I have tremendous faith in the American people. And based just on what we know now, which is that there was a violent assault on the Capitol, the president had summoned those people to Washington. He told them to march on the Capitol. It was the culmination of months of effort on his part to at first legitimately, through the court process, but then after that, through other means, to try to stay in office. And when you compare that and the additional details that we are learning on a near daily basis with the fact that the Republican leader in the House of Representatives is attempting to obstruct the work of this committee and attempting to hide from the American people what happened and continuing to defend the president, who we know at a minimum sat and watched TV while the mob invaded the Capitol, I think his actions and the actions of those people who continue to defend president Trump will not be judged well by history. And so part of our committee's responsibility is to get the facts for history, to make sure people have all of those on which to make judgements going forward.
It's also a really important part of what the committee needs to do is to remind people that at the end of the day, our government depends upon individual Americans. And I think often about the inscription that's on the fireplace in the state dining room in the White House, which is from a letter that John Adams wrote to Abigail Adams. And it says, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” We are dependent upon the duty and the commitment to duty of the people we elect, and we need on both sides of the aisle, we've got to elect serious people who are going to take their oath seriously. And we can have deep substantive disagreements. I have really deep policy disagreements with every Democratic member of the select committee, but ultimately it's about the Constitution and fidelity to the Constitution.
Haley: Do you regret at all that you supported Trump for most of his time in office? And I know a lot of that was policy, but there were instances, you know, where he may have done something that it was easier just not to comment on or just to ignore a tweet or that sort of thing. Do you regret supporting him most of the time while he was president?
Rep. Cheney: I voted with his policies something like 93 percent of the time, and I did have serious disagreements with him in a number of areas. I spoke out about those. You know, when he stood next to Vladimir Putin and said he trusted Putin and not his own intelligence services, as one example. Some of his other policy areas I did disagree with clearly. So there's no question that this isn't about policy. But what we saw in particular, in the weeks after the election, was somebody who was willing to go through all the guardrails of democracy. And we know now that's what he's willing to do, and he's done it. That is why it's so important that we make absolutely sure that he can never be anywhere near the Oval Office again. He is not somebody that can ever be trusted with the reins of power, because he's demonstrated that he doesn't respect the Constitution. He doesn't respect our form of government and the checks and balances that are so critical to the survival of the republic.
Haley: I've only been covering Congress as long as you've been in Congress. In that time, I've watched the people who oppose Trump dwindle. There were only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach, and they see Anthony Gonzalez isn't running for reelection, for example. I don't know if you read Tim Alberta's profile of Peter Meijer, but he sort of hit the nail on the head when he wrote about how Meijer was really outspoken after January 6, but it seems like he has sort of given up on trying to change everything within the GOP. In the past you've said that you want to be a leader in a fight to restore the Republican Party. How do you do that when you're sort of facing overwhelming odds?
Rep. Cheney: I don't think, actually, that the House Republican conference reflects where the vast majority of Americans are. I don't even think it reflects the vast majority of Republicans. We have now members of our conference who are avowed white supremacists. We have members of our conference who've espoused antisemitic perspectives. The conference itself needs more serious people. And look, I would say the Democrats need more serious people, too. But I know what's right. And I know that the country needs a Republican Party that's based on substance. We need to have a party that can defend the principles of a strong national defense and limited government and fidelity to the constitution. Those substantive issues are what matters, and the ideals the party has had in the past are the ones that I believe deeply in.
And I believe that to go forward as a party, we have to understand exactly what happened after the last election and on January 6. The people who did that need to be held accountable. As a party, we need to say it's never going to happen again. And the fact that too many of my colleagues have either embraced President Trump or decided to look the other way may mean that it takes longer for the Republican Party to get back to being a party of strength and a party substance, but it's a fight that we have to fight and a fight we have to win.
Haley: Wyoming has laws to prevent those who run in a primary and lose from running in the general election through a petition effort. Some people have suggested that you start laying the groundwork now to run as a candidate for a third party that already exists, or to form your own party in advance to be able to run in the general election if you lose the Republican primary in your reelection race. Have you considered doing something like that? Would you rule that out as a course of action at this point?
Rep. Cheney: I have not considered it, and I would rule it out. I believe in the Republican Party, and I'm going to fight for the Republican Party. We've seen in too many instances people try to take control of the party apparatus who have pledged allegiance to Donald Trump ahead of their allegiance to the Constitution, and I'm not willing to cede our party to that. It's toxic and wrong. I'm going to fight for the Republican Party and for the future of the Republican Party.
Haley: One last fun question. Okay, not super fun, but it is not as un-fun as the other ones. If you could make one institutional change to make Congress run better, like paying staff more or expanding the House, or some other kind of reform, what would you do?
Rep. Cheney: I think we need to restore power to committee chairs. A big part of the dysfunction of Congress is there's too much power that's held in leadership. When we're passing legislation that has like a $1.7 trillion price tag attached to it, and we have an hour of debate, that's not a legislative process. We really do need to get back to the time when we're debating actual substance and policy on the floor. I'd like to see us be in a position where we have more bills that come up under open rules, so you can actually have real amendments that are offered and force people to defend their positions. I think that serves the country and certainly would make the House function more effectively. So I guess my one thing would be: restore some of the power to the committee chairs that was basically taken by leadership under the Gingrich era and get back to real legislating and real debate on substance.