What Kind of Leaders Do Republicans Want?

The party faces a stark choice.

When Republicans in Congress vote on impeaching and removing the president in the hours and days ahead, they will be voting, in the literal sense, on the specific charges in the article before them. It’s a solemn obligation, and the conduct of the president is plainly the most important consideration in their votes. In my view, the case for impeaching and removing the president is overwhelming.

But the decision by Rep. Liz Cheney Tuesday to announce that she will vote to impeach, along with the events of the last two months, and the last four years, places before Republicans another question: What kind of leadership do you want for your party?

It is a stark choice.

On January 1, 2021, five days before Congress was scheduled to vote to accept the electoral votes certified by the states, House Republicans held a caucus-wide conference call to talk about the days ahead.

For eight weeks, President Donald Trump had sought to convince the country that he, not Joe Biden, had actually won the election. He was lying and everyone on the call—with perhaps a handful of exceptions—knew it. His conspiracies were embarrassing and often delusional—fact-checked and abandoned quickly by supporters of sound mind. His cases were so flimsy that many were summarily tossed out of court. Others, litigated on the merits, were quickly knocked down, often accompanied by a scolding from a judge—in some cases a judge that the president himself had appointed. Despite all of this, the president insisted that he’d won and demanded elected Republicans’ continued support—not only rhetorically, but in a formal objection to the electoral vote count on January 6. After four-plus years of subservience, it probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that many Republicans were willing to go along.

Cheney, a representative from Wyoming and the third-ranking Republican in the House GOP conference, was an exception. On the call with her GOP colleagues, many of whom had spent the past eight weeks amplifying the president’s made-up claims, she made a straightforward case that few of them wanted to hear: The president didn’t win the election, he’s wrong to ask us to object to seating the electors, and it would be a serious breach of the oath we took to serve the Constitution if we support him.

When she was finished, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, spoke up. “Just to be clear,” he said according to five sources on the call, “Liz isn’t speaking for leadership. She’s speaking for herself.”

But McCarthy didn’t counter her argument with one of his own. So, Rep. Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin asked McCarthy for his view. McCarthy wouldn’t provide one on the call and seemed put off to have been asked. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, the former NFL player from Ohio, pressed McCarthy aggressively, saying “we need leadership.” McCarthy snapped at him, wondering aloud sarcastically if his members just wanted to provide him with their voting cards so he could cast their votes for them. Gonzalez spoke up a second time, expressing his frustration that McCarthy was refusing to lead.

McCarthy’s move to isolate Cheney was a surprise only in its aggressiveness. While he’d declined to make his position public on the call, McCarthy had been actively working with those preparing to object to count in some states, just as Trump had instructed. "Kevin McCarthy’s part of the team," Rep. Mo Brooks, the Republican from Alabama who was whipping colleagues to support the president, would acknowledge two days later. Rep. Jim Jordan, Republican from Ohio, confirmed this: “Kevin’s been great on this whole process."

McCarthy nonetheless told Republicans who sought his advice that the vote to object was an “easy” vote—it’d keep them from being targeted by the president and there was no chance the election would actually be overturned. Take it and move on.

It was all an act. McCarthy knew Trump’s case was bogus and had admitted as much in talks with some of his colleagues and even reporters. In public, he pretended Trump had been victorious and rallied the public to the cause. “President Trump won this election!” he told Laura Ingraham in an appearance on Fox News November 5. “So, everyone who’s listening: Do not be quiet. Do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes. We need to unite together. You don’t need to be a Republican. If you believe that every legal vote needs to count. If you believe in the American process, join together and let’s stop this.”

In private, though, he said the opposite. McCarthy told Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report and NBC “multiple times” that “there was no doubt as to Biden's victory.”

McCarthy continued to encourage colleagues to support the president even after the Washington Post released audio of a phone call between President Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which the president pressed Raffensperger to “find” enough vote to declare him the winner in Georgia and threatened him if he refused. On January 6, McCarthy voted with 120 of his Republican colleagues to object to the seating of electors in Arizona. And he voted with 137 of them to object to Pennsylvania even after the violent insurrection at the Capitol, encouraged by the lies of the president and his own willingness to amplify them.

Cheney didn’t join McCarthy and the majority of Republicans in the House. After her pitch on the New Year’s Day conference call, she distributed a 21-page memo to her colleagues making the case against objecting. And then on Tuesday, in a statement of piercing moral clarity focused on the events of January 6, she announced her intention to support impeachment, declaring “there has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

Here it is, in full:

On January 6, 2021 a violent mob attacked the United States Capitol to obstruct the process of our democracy and stop the counting of presidential electoral votes. This insurrection caused injury, death and destruction in the most sacred space in our Republic.

Much more will become clear in coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.

I will vote to impeach the President.

This was a decision driven by conviction, not expediency. Suggestions that it’s a quick play to become minority leader are absurd.

The politics of this decision are dicey, at least in the short term. As noted, 138 Republicans had voted to object to electors in Pennsylvania, despite her efforts to persuade them otherwise. Wyoming voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden, 69.9 percent to 26.6 percent. Late last week, Jonathan Martin of the New York Times asked Wyoming GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne whether Donald Trump was still an effective leader of the Republican party after stoking the insurrection at the Capitol. Eathorne replied: “The way Wyoming sees it, yes.” Trump adviser Jason Miller is touting a poll from Trump pollster John McLaughlin that allegedly found “80% of Trump voters and 76% of Republicans are less likely to vote for a member of Congress who votes for impeachment.” In a poll for Vox, 72 percent of Republicans say they question the results of the election and 49 percent don’t want Joe Biden inaugurated.

Mike DeBonis, congressional correspondent for the Washington Post, put it this way:

The long-term politics, however, may be different. Cheney is right when she says “much more will become clear in coming days and weeks.” The facts around Trump’s efforts to subvert the election and block the peaceful transfer of power—that he threatened Raffensperger for not fraudulently declaring him the winner in Georgia, that he pressed his vice president to take unconstitutional steps to block Joe Biden’s victory, that he incited the mob that assaulted the Capitol and continued to lobby members of Congress as it was happening—are not going to get better. I suspect in two years, in five years, in 10 years, the overwhelming majority of the country and even the majority of Republicans will look back on this moment and wonder how anyone could have voted against impeaching the president on substantive grounds. And the procedural arguments against doing so—there’s no time, the Senate isn’t in session, his presidency is almost finished—will feel even smaller than they feel today.  

The impeachment vote will be a vote on the president and these things. But it’ll also tell us a lot about the kinds of leaders Republicans want. Do they want leaders willing to amplify lies and deceive their constituents in the interest of political expediency? Or do they want leaders who will act out of conviction, who will do the right thing and try to persuade others, even when the short-term politics are daunting? 

Any party that chooses the former doesn’t deserve to survive.