WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans facing electoral uncertainty in November turned on one another in a private meeting on Tuesday, as a small group of conservative lawmakers confronted House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney over what they said was disloyalty to President Donald Trump.
The lawmakers called out Cheney for her support of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, and for supporting a primary challenger to Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., according to people familiar with the closed-door meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio noted Cheney's criticism of Trump on defense and foreign policy and accused her of not supporting the president on his coronavirus response.
Leading the criticism was Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who recounted the confrontation on his podcast, “Hot Takes with Matt Gaetz,” shortly after it happened. He also tweeted about Cheney, who is the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and said she should step down from her post as head of the GOP conference.
“Liz Cheney has worked behind the scenes (and now in public) against @realDonaldTrump and his agenda,” Gaetz tweeted. “House Republicans deserve better as our Conference Chair. Liz Cheney should step down or be removed. #MAGA.”
Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Gaetz's message and wrote, “We already have one Mitt Romney, we don’t need another... we also don’t need the endless wars she advocates for.” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has been one of the only Senate Republicans to regularly separate himself from Trump and voted to convict him on one article of impeachment earlier this year.
The confrontation comes as the president has struggled with a response to the coronavirus pandemic and Republicans in Congress have been somewhat split on his handling of the crisis. As Trump has pushed to quickly reopen the economy and played down the importance of coronavirus testing, some have indicated they disagree with him on those points. Others such as Gaetz and Jordan have rushed to defend him.
Cheney, R-Wyo., didn’t back down in the meeting and did not apologize for breaking with Trump, according to one of the people familiar with the exchange. At a GOP news conference later in the day, she told reporters that she “absolutely” still supports Fauci, who she said she has known for many years. She also noted that Trump Jr. is “not a member of the Republican conference.”
She said she takes her position seriously and had a “great conversation” with Massie after the conference meeting.
“I think the beauty of our system, and frankly the magnificence of this country and one of the things that the founders fought for, and that so many throughout history have died for, is our freedom of speech and the right for all of us to have this kind of healthy exchange and debate,” Cheney said.
Cheney has shot up to the No. 3 GOP leadership spot since she was elected in 2016. While she has voted mostly in step with the president, she has sometimes differed with him on foreign policy as he and his allies have argued against “endless wars.” She has rarely criticized Trump by name but has separated from him on that issue and others, including the pandemic.
In a June tweet, for example, Cheney alluded to Trump’s frequent refusal to wear a mask by featuring a photo of her masked father. “Dick Cheney says WEAR A MASK. #realmenwearmasks,” she wrote.
Republican leader Kevin McCarthy stood alongside Cheney at the afternoon news conference and said he was honored to have her as conference chair. “She does an amazing job,” he said.
In addition to Gaetz and Jordan, Cheney’s critics at the meeting included Texas Reps. Chip Roy and Louie Gohmert, Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs and Massie himself. Cheney had donated money to Massie’s primary opponent, Todd McMurtry. Massie won that primary in June.
Roy specifically criticized Cheney for her support of Fauci and asked her “to consider the full breadth of research out there on the coronavirus,” according to a person close to Roy. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
All the members who criticized Cheney are members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus that often clashed with leadership when Republicans were in the majority.