Liz Cheney: ‘There Is Actually Precedent for ... Vice Presidents to Testify’
The outgoing GOP rep discusses the possibility of Mike Pence appearing before the January 6 committee.
JACKSON, Wyoming—Liz Cheney lost her primary election in Wyoming on Tuesday, to Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman. The outcome was no surprise: Wyoming is, as we noted in a piece on Tuesday, the Trumpiest state in the U.S. Cheney had earned the ire of Donald Trump and his supporters first for voting to impeach him after January 6 and subsequently for her work on the House select committee investigating January 6. But while Cheney was defeated, she is hardly deflated. She spoke to Steve Hayes about the election, the work of the January 6 committee, “strange new respect” from the left, and her political future from Jackson, Wyoming. The transcript below has been edited for grammar and clarity.
Steve Hayes: How many of your Republican colleagues have called to talk to you since the race was called?
Liz Cheney: I’ve heard from all the impeachers—and that’s it.
Hayes: Any other notable people reach out?
Cheney: I’ve gotten lots of text messages, talked to a number of people. A wide range of people. And a lot of people are saying: “Sign me up. What’s next? We’re with you.” I mean, the people who are not with me are unlikely to be texting me (laughter). It’s a self-selected group.
Hayes: Fair. Well, let’s talk about those people. You’ve been pretty aggressive in calling out your colleagues who haven’t been as outspoken in their condemnation of Trump. Some of those people agree with you—and we’ve talked about this before—and are quietly cheering you on. You don’t seem to like their quiet support. The line you had at the end of the June [January 6 committee] opening statement, where you said, “Your dishonor will remain.” Do you risk alienating future would-be allies by being as critical as you are of them?
Cheney: I guess I look at it as laying out the facts. And I don’t view it as support or opposition for me—or against me. When people say “the political climate is what it is and you just have to accept that”—my view is that’s not actually what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to do what’s right and work to change the political climate. And there’s no way—I think the threat is so grave that there’s no middle ground. There’s no gray area here. And you can’t be sort of unclear about that. So, I think that everybody has to make their own decision about how they’re going to operate in this current environment and everybody’s going to have to explain that to their kids and live with themselves.
Hayes: We’ve talked before about when the turn came for you—it was the post-election period and it was, of course, January 6. When you look at what some of your Republican colleagues are doing, the ones who are reluctant to speak out. I think it’s a pretty big group. They don’t like Trump. They think he’s lying about the election. They think what he did between the election and January 6 was awful. And they hated what he did on January 6 and since, but they’re not saying that. And some of them are affirmatively saying, “Well, there were these election irregularities,” with sort of a wink and a nod. When you see that, is it more frustrating to you because you know what it was like to have to go along to get along? Because for your first four years, you were more critical than most, but you did defend him at times, you did avoid giving comments at times when you might have been expected to do that. Do you see that in them and you’re more easily able to recognize it?
Cheney: The way that I think about it is that there’s no defense post-January 6. And even if you go back and look at what he was doing in the third week of November, the fourth week of November. The first statement that I put out was around the third week of November when I was saying, “Look, if you have evidence of fraud, show it. Otherwise, the election is over and you have to respect the outcome of the election.” I think that once you get to a place where you see what he did and—I don’t understand how you can not see the danger. Some people don’t see the danger because they don’t want to. Some people don’t see the danger maybe because they really don’t know history. Maybe they really haven’t studied the rise of authoritarianism in other countries around the world. Maybe they really just tell themselves it can’t happen here. But we saw it happen. I can’t really explain why people are acting the way they’re acting.
Hayes: And you don’t buy the argument from some of these people who say: “Look I need to stay in my seat so in the future I can be a check on this”?
Cheney: No. Because at this point—and look, you can make the argument, and different people made different decisions, and you made a different decision obviously about completely opposing him and when to completely oppose him, but in my view it’s indefensible once he launches a violent assault on the Capitol.
Hayes: Speaking of that violence, last night in your speech you accused President Trump of willfully endangering the lives of FBI agents and deliberately stoking political violence more broadly—January 6, of course, but it sounded like you were talking about the things he’s saying and doing contemporaneously.
I’d make the argument that nobody is a bigger target than you are. Does that factor into your thinking about what to do next?
Cheney: I don’t think you can let it. I think what he’s doing now is—violence is a direct and foreseeable consequence of what he’s doing. I think it’s malicious when he releases the search warrant with the names of the FBI agents on it. When he reportedly has somebody call the Justice Department in a way that sounds very much like mafia tactics. All of that—it can’t be something that we accept in American politics.
Hayes: Former Vice President Pence said this morning that he’s open to talking to the January 6 committee if he’s invited. And there were some more [qualifications] around his answer but that’s more or less what he said. Are you going to invite him?
Cheney: I haven’t seen specifically what he’s said. We’ve had discussions with his attorneys previously and that was not his position, so I’m interested to see what he’s said now and see if there really has been some kind of change. Previously, his view has been that there were serious constitutional issues involved with having a vice president testify in front of Congress.
Hayes: (Reading Pence’s exact words) Pence said, “If there was an invitation to participate, I would consider it. Any invitation that would be directed to me, I would have to reflect on the unique role I was serving in as vice president. It would be unprecedented in history for the vice president to be summoned to testify on Capitol Hill. But as I said, I don’t want to pre-judge. So if any formal invitation was rendered to us, we’d give it due consideration.”
Cheney: We’ll continue our engagement with his counsel and make a determination going forward about any conditions under which he would come and testify. I would point out that in fact you have had situations where, for example, in the aftermath of 9/11, you’ve had the president and the vice president testify to the 9/11 commission. After he granted Nixon’s pardon, President Ford testified before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. So there is actually precedent when you have a national crisis for presidents, vice presidents to testify. The 9/11 commission obviously was different—it wasn’t technically Congress. But certainly the subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee was.
Vice President Pence played a critical role on that day. His comments in the aftermath have varied in terms of his willingness to talk about the seriousness of the crisis the nation faced—or in terms of his description of the seriousness of the crisis.
Hayes: Some of the people on his staff, the people who were with him, have provided pretty compelling firsthand testimony about what happened that day.
So, why don’t you just tell me everything you want to ask him.
Cheney: (laughter) Let me just pull up my notes.
Look, we’ve had very clear testimony from a number of individuals including testimony, for example, from Ivanka Trump’s aides about the vehemence and the anger that Donald Trump expressed towards Mike Pence on that phone call from the Oval Office. We have heard—the nation has heard—the reports that the vice president’s security detail thought that they were going to have to call their families because when the Capitol was under assault they thought they might not make it. And we know that President Trump never once tried to call Mike Pence to say, “Are you okay?” I think there’s a lot that Vice President Pence knows. I think that this is a situation where you do have serious constitutional issues in terms of executive privilege, but executive privilege is not an absolute immunity. And when you have the kind of dereliction of duty and likely crimes that were committed here I think everybody who was involved has a responsibility to tell the truth.
We’re also in a situation now where we know that a number of Vice President Pence’s staff have been subpoenaed and have testified in front of a grand jury. So I think there’s a lot more going on here than just the committee’s work.
Hayes: You mentioned “likely crimes.” There’s an argument—as we learn more about what President Trump has done, as the proceedings in Georgia seem more serious, as the Mar-a-Lago raid happens last week—there’s a growing argument, including by some who I wouldn’t describe as Trump supporters, that says: “We can’t prosecute him because what it would do to a country in a political situation as volatile as this moment is would be worse than punishing him—if he has committed crimes—worse than punishing him for crimes he has committed. Do you buy that argument?
Cheney: No. I think it’s just the opposite. And I touched on this a little bit in my speech last night. Obviously, the Department of Justice has to make a decision about whether they’ve got the evidence. I think the fact that Judge Carter says it’s more likely than not that two crimes were committed is significant. I think we’ve certainly provided significant evidence in our hearings. But if the Justice Department has the evidence and they make a determination not to prosecute, then it is essentially a signal that you are excusing the behavior, that you’re accepting it, that you’re legalizing it.
And I think that changes America forever.
If a president can ignore the rulings of the courts and can try to overturn an election, and call local officials and pressure them to find votes, send an armed mob to the Capitol—if a president can do all those things and face no legal consequences for it, then it is difficult to say we’re a nation of laws, and that really no one is above the law.
Hayes: This is not an exact parallel for a hundred reasons, but when you look back at the pardon that President Ford gave to Richard Nixon it was in part to start this process of healing. Would this in any way be akin to that? Would you favor President Biden doing something like that if the prosecution went forward?
Cheney: As you said, there are so many differences, but President Nixon resigned from office. And President Trump continues to do the things that he did that caused the violence on January 6. And so I think that’s a very big difference. I also think that what we’ve laid out in the hearings in terms of President Trump’s multipart plan to overturn the election is a far more significant threat to the Republic than Watergate was.
President Trump has expressed no remorse. In fact, when he himself says he’s going to pardon the people who were in the Capitol, when he himself says that the election was the insurrection, that’s a sign of how different the situation is and how dangerous the current one is.
Hayes: There are likely to be more hearings.
Hayes: Where does this go?
Cheney: So, we’re still in the process of interviewing a whole range of people including Cabinet officials. We just interviewed [then-Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo last week. We’re in the process of putting together what the topics will be in the hearings and the additional material we’ll cover. There’s obviously a lot more information about the Secret Service. More witnesses coming forward from inside the White House that day, on the 6th, more documents.
There’ll be additional hearings. I’m not sure how many, I’m not sure how we’ll frame what the topics are for each one, but we’ll have them.
Hayes: What did you learn from Pompeo?
Cheney: I can’t talk about that.
Hayes: On to politics. You told Savannah Guthrie this morning that you’re thinking about running for president. I think you could make a pretty good argument that your defeat last night is more evidence that the Republican Party is a very Trumpy party—not that that was particularly surprising. And you specifically spoke this morning about putting together a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Are you considering running as an independent?
Cheney: Right now, I’m not focused on that. I’m not focused on the kind of horse-race specifics of it in that way.
Hayes: The Republican Party doesn’t seem like a very friendly place for you these days.
Cheney: Ummm—true. But I guess I think about it more in terms of the substance of what has to be done. And if I look at the next—obviously the time from now until January, and the work that’s got to be done on the select committee and my responsibilities as Wyoming’s representative until then. That sort of takes up how I’m thinking about the next several months. There’s also a lot of work that has to be done educating people around the country about why this matters so much. And so I’m not sitting here thinking about, okay, what does a run look like, am I going to run or not going to run? At some point you have to make that decision, but I look at it much more through the lens of preventing Donald Trump and I think that there’s—what we’ve seen in the last 18 months is a huge, not just the last 18 months, is a huge deficit in people’s real understanding of what it takes to make our system work. And so I want to do whatever I can do to help fix that.
Hayes: There’s a notable gap, really a gulf, between what you on the committee are hearing from these high-level Republicans who worked alongside Donald Trump and the seriousness of it all, and what rank-and-file Republican voters think, I think in part egged on by their elected representatives in the Republican Party.
Cheney: My opponent’s campaign here in Wyoming is a perfect example of that. Because you had the leadership of her campaign, people like [Trump’s White House political director and 2020 campaign manager] Bill Stepien and [Trump communications adviser] Tim Murtaugh—who testified to the committee under oath: The election wasn’t stolen, wasn’t rigged, we told Donald Trump. At least Stepien said he told Donald Trump. Murtaugh expressed significant concern about the fact that Donald Trump wouldn’t honor the law enforcement who were injured and killed that day.
Under oath, Stepien went so far as to say that there was “Team Normal” and “Team Crazy.” And Team Crazy were the ones that asserted that the election was stolen. And of course the person that he’s working with here in Wyoming is clearly on Team Crazy.
Hayes: And said directly that the election was rigged.
Cheney: Right. So that cognitive dissonance, I guess you’d call it, where under oath they tell the truth, it seems, but for political purposes candidates are willing to make these claims they know not to be true. There’s just such a difference between making that claim—making the claim that the president is illegitimate, that the election was stolen, Trump making that assertion and using it to get people to invade the Capitol—it’s a dereliction of duty by all of those people.
I think that people really do believe it. And people believe because politicians are lying to them.
Hayes: More than half of the Republican Party, right?
Cheney: Yeah, right.
Hayes: You have very high approval ratings from Democrats and independents.
Cheney: Did you ever think you would say that sentence?
Hayes: No. It’s bizarre to think that I’m talking to you where you not only have high approval Democrats and independents, you’ve also become something of a darling of the media. That is something nobody ever would have predicted.
Cheney: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Steve.
Hayes: It’s the “strange new respect”—when you were conservative focused on conservative policies there was more skepticism that the media brought to a lot of the things you were saying.
But, obviously, you don’t have high approval ratings from Republicans. Given that your objective, restated again last night in your speech, is to keep Donald Trump from ever getting to the White House again, if you were to run and it became clear to you or was indicated in public polling that you were drawing more votes away from Democrats than you were from Trump, thereby making him more likely to win reelection if he were the Republican nominee, would you quit? Would you stop?
Cheney: I think that kind of analysis and assessment it’s not the way that I think about a potential race. I think you run for president because you think you should be the president. And the determination that Donald Trump cannot be the president is something that a lot of us have to achieve through a lot of means. But thinking about whether I’m going to launch a campaign and how am I going to launch the campaign and what’s it going to look like—it’s not something that I’m prepared to talk about or that I have the information to make judgments about at this point.
Hayes: Your opponent in this race hit on these couple of questions and conservatives of Washington took notice of a couple of votes on abortion and guns that you took at the end that critics have said were evidence of your playing to your friends in the media. She’s loved by liberals and independents and she’s already walking away from her conservative views. How do you answer that criticism?
Cheney: I can only do what I think is the right thing to do and I think that you’d be hard pressed to say I was making very sophisticated political calculations here. (laughter)
I’m pro-life. I believe there have to be exceptions. I think that the issue of abortion is one that when you hear politicians argue about it in a political setting, it strikes me that there’s not enough compassion about all sides of that issue. But I’m pro-life.
After the Dobbs decision, it was a difficult choice—the vote on access to contraception. And it was a difficult choice because of questions about impact on religious freedom, impact on RFRA [The Religious Freedom Restoration Act].
Hayes: I think RFRA was really what made pro-lifers say: This really problematic.
Cheney: I ultimately came down after a lot of thought about it on the side of saying, look, we’re not preventing access to contraception. I felt that was the right thing to do. It was a vote I took with a lot of thought and a lot of discussion with some of my colleagues about how does this really work, how does this affect things like RFRA? I think what you saw happen in Kansas was interesting. I was troubled by [Justice Clarence] Thomas’ concurrence, suggesting that now we’re going to see rollbacks in a number of areas. I think that in all of these issues there’s a reflexive political, partisan talking point and then there’s sort of the reality in people’s lives. And you want elected officials to take the time to think through the real impact of these decisions.
On the gun vote, again I’m a strong proponent of the Second Amendment. I believe in it. I think the Democrats have usually done everything they can to take steps to infringe upon the Second Amendment, including the assault weapons ban that was up two weeks ago. But I also think that as a country when you have something like the shootings in Uvalde—when you have an 18-year-old who can buy two AR-15s on his 18th birthday, clearly someone who’s mentally ill—I have five kids and when they’re shooting little children in our schools, slaughtering little children, and it happens again and again and again, I think we really have to think about what we need to do. We can’t let that happen. And there were a whole bunch of issues there—when you look at the video, the police officers in the school for an hour while the shooter was killing little kids? Many things we need to address. I thought that the bill on the floor addressed those in a way that was responsible.
In both of those cases, they were decisions that I made because I thought they were the right thing to do.
Hayes: Is it liberating to be able to make decisions because you think it’s the right thing to do?
Cheney: I think I’ve always done that. I would say I always have done what I think is right. I am less reflexively embracing partisan talking points. I’m not sure if that’s me changing or if it’s my party changing. And, look, the Democrats do it, too.
If you look at the extent to which every single issue that comes up, it really is easy to say, okay, what are the talking points that have been put out and I’m going to go with those talking points. But I also think—we’ve talked about this before—when I was growing up and my dad was in office and was running for office, I think now a lot of what I thought was politics was actually policy. Because the way that he does politics is policy. And so I’ve always thought very carefully about these issues. Today, these issues are really serious and the reflexive partisanship becomes dangerous.
Hayes: Last question. It’s been a little more than 12 hours since the race was called. Put yourself on the couch.
Cheney: That’s great (laughter).
Hayes: I know you love doing that.
Cheney: This is going to go well, Steve.
Hayes: What are your feelings like? I’m not going to ask you if you regret it because you lost, because you expected to lose and you don’t regret it. Does it feel different today than when you were thinking about it theoretically?
Cheney: It feels like moving to the next step in this battle. As I said last night, it was clear what I needed to do to get 73 percent and clearly I wasn’t going to do that. It’s not a surprise and I do think that there’s a public focus among some parts of the population on the danger that we face. I don’t know how ultimately the politics plays out. It matters because that’s how we decide who’s in charge, but I think the substance of this battle is much more important.