Liz Cheney’s Revenge on Donald Trump—and Her Own Party

Liz Cheney’s Revenge on Donald Trump—and Her Own Party

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So now we can answer the question: How does democracy die? It dies not in darkness, as the Washington Post’s Trump-era slogan would have it, but in the White House itself, in the private dining room off the Oval Office, with the sound of Fox News blaring in the background.

That private dining room was Donald Trump’s de-facto headquarters for much of his Presidency. It was where he watched television and where he tweeted about what he watched on television—two of the activities that, perhaps more than any others, defined his tenure. It was also where Trump, on January 6, 2021, remained holed up for a hundred and eighty-seven minutes, as his followers stormed the U.S. Capitol, until he finally, reluctantly, released a video urging them to go home and telling them that he loved them.

On Thursday night, the House select committee charged with investigating January 6th concluded a two-month run of blockbuster hearings with a searing, minute-by-minute account of what Trump did—and didn’t do—in the dining room that awful afternoon. The words “dereliction of duty” came up a lot, as did phrases like “stain on our history” and “betrayed his oath of office.” It all added up to a portrait of something that the United States has not seen in its more than two hundred and forty years: a President who abdicated his role as Commander-in-Chief, having unleashed a violent mob of his own making and then chosen to sit by and do nothing as his nation’s Capitol was besieged and overwhelmed by that mob. “President Trump did not fail to act,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, the renegade, anti-Trump Republican from Illinois, who presented much of the evidence on Thursday, said. “He chose not to act.”

The hearing, like the seven that preceded it, was, in all honesty, a bit of a mishmash. There were damning new revelations, greatest-hits reprises, earnest and preachy lectures about the fate of the Republic. There were even moments of cringe-inducing comedy, like the blooper reel of Trump balking, on January 7th, at reading words that his staff had written for him renouncing his rigged-election crusade after the previous day’s debacle. “ ‘Yesterday’ is a hard word for me,” he says. It was as if the screenwriters for “Veep” had conjured the moment. But it was both revelatory and deadly serious to hear Trump, in that previously unreleased footage, refuse to give up his lies. “I don’t want to say the election is over,” he says. Which might as well be Donald Trump’s petulant political epitaph. As unbelievable as it still seems, a year and a half later, America had a President who was willing to burn down democracy itself rather than admit he lost an election.

Of course, the hearing started out with a built-in problem: we already knew that Trump did not do a damn thing to stop the attack on January 6th, and that he had, in fact, incited and encouraged it. It is hard to produce a season-ending cliffhanger when the conclusion is never in doubt. And yet it was still transfixing, and terrifying, to listen as the committee played newly revealed audio and video detailing how Vice-President Mike Pence’s security detail feared they were about to be overrun by the mob—fears so acute, the committee revealed, that some even called their loved ones to say goodbye. We knew, but still it was something to hear the rising terror in their crackling voices, to understand that they had seconds to decide whether to race Pence through to safety or get stuck and risk being overwhelmed by the fast-approaching mob. They chose right, as it turns out, but what if they hadn’t?

A lot of what passes for televised drama in our politics is not much more than manufactured artifice: a faux reveal of something we already know, an embarrassing gaffe that is soon forgotten, and the like. But this, it seemed to me, was the real thing.

When the hearings began, in June, Representative Liz Cheney started them out with a rousing admonition to her Republican colleagues, almost all of whom have refused to join her and Kinzinger in robustly and publicly condemning Trump for the disaster that he brought on himself and the nation. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain,” she warned then.

Much of Thursday’s session was about forcing her fellow-Republicans to wallow in that dishonor, and this is why the hearing both began and ended with clips of the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell condemning Trump’s actions. Cheney and Kinzinger, of course, are both G.O.P. outcasts now. Kinzinger, faced with an unwinnable new gerrymandered district, chose not to run for reëlection, and Cheney is a distinct underdog to a Trump-endorsed candidate in her upcoming primary. Unshackled from any further demands of partisan loyalty, they were both unsparing in reminding their prime-time national-television audience of the perfidy of their own party.

Both seemed to take particular delight in tweaking House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who initially blamed Trump for January 6th and then, weeks later, abjectly sought his favor once again. Kinzinger seemed almost gleeful as he recounted how, during the riot, McCarthy was “scared and begging” Trump to call off the mob. As for Josh Hawley, the young Republican senator from Missouri, who led the objections to the electoral count on January 6th, the committee showed him pumping his fist in support of the mob—followed by a shot of Hawley fleeing for his life from the rioters down a Capitol hallway. This was the congressional hearing as revenge play, an epic troll of the trolls.

But the real villain of the hearing, as in all the others, was the former President. Cheney and the other committee members went to great lengths, in fact, to repeatedly point out that Trump did nothing to stop the mob despite the pleadings of his own aides, advisers, and family members—all loyal Trumpists who had stuck with him to the very end of his disastrous four years in office. They knew, as Trump knew, that he had lost the election. “The case against Donald Trump in these hearings is not made by witnesses who were his political enemies,” Cheney pointed out—it came instead in the form of “confessions” by his own team. The committee brought two members of that team into the hearing room in person—Matthew Pottinger, Trump’s former deputy national-security adviser, and Sarah Matthews, his former White House deputy press secretary—to testify how they were so disgusted by the President’s refusal to take action on January 6th that they quit in protest that same afternoon.

I’ll leave the final word, though, to Cheney, who as a direct consequence of her insistence on not shutting up about Trump and the tragedy of January 6th will likely lose her House seat in Wyoming’s Republican primary next month, before the House committee convenes again, in September. “We must remember that we cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation,” Cheney said. And yet Republicans—the vast majority of them—have chosen Trump’s Big Lie over the hard truths that would enable our democracy to endure. For now. So there is a cliffhanger ending to the committee’s work after all. ♦

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