Republican Party must choose between Trump and the Constitution, Liz Cheney says in California speech

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U.S. Representative (R) Liz Cheney, the vice-chair of the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6, speaks
Rep. Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6, speaks at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Warning that America faces a "domestic threat we have never faced before," GOP Rep. Liz Cheney on Wednesday accused Republicans who ignore former President Trump's efforts to overturn the presidential election of being derelict in their duty to preserve the constitutional republic.

Cheney's remarks at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley were equally lacerating about the former president and the GOP — a broadside against her own party coming, ironically, at the monument to the late president who championed the so-called 11th commandment: that Republicans should not attack fellow Republicans.

After denouncing Republican leaders and elected officials for making themselves "willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man," the Wyoming congresswoman offered a blunt assessment of the decision awaiting the GOP.

"We have to choose, because Republicans cannot be loyal to Donald Trump and to the Constitution," she said.

The enthusiastically received address came at a moment when Cheney's profile has never been higher, and her estrangement from most of the GOP has never been more acute.

Cheney's persistent condemnation of Trump since the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot has cost her a leadership post within the House Republican Conference and potentially her seat, as she faces a well-funded and Trump-endorsed opponent in her August primary.

As vice chair of the House committee investigating the siege on the Capitol, Cheney has used her perch to issue scathing pronouncements about Republicans' fealty to Trump, further deepening the rift with her party.

In one memorable line in the panel's opening hearing, Cheney directly addressed GOP colleagues who "are defending the indefensible," telling them, "There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain."

Cheney's speech Wednesday was part of the library's "A Time for Choosing" program on the future of the Republican Party, which has featured rising stars and potential 2024 presidential contenders, including South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence.

Although those others in the series have largely avoided extended commentary on Trump, the former president was a central focus of Cheney's remarks.

Roger Zakheim, the director of the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, wryly noted the 40th president's maxim against intraparty warfare in his introduction to Cheney. But, he added, "when he felt that conservative principles were at stake, Ronald Reagan did not hold his tongue."

Cheney was similarly frank in describing America's current political moment.

"My fellow Americans, we stand at the edge of an abyss, and we must pull back," she said. "We must pull back."

The congresswoman proved to be a major draw; the library's parking lot was full more than an hour before the speech, and eager audience members trudged uphill along the canyon road where excess cars parked. The full capacity crowd skewed more Democratic than usual, and many attendees said they were inspired to come to the speech after her performances on the Jan. 6 panel.

Irene DiRaffael and her husband, Tony, both Democrats, said they have been tuning in to watch each hearing aired lived.

"I was afraid when they first started that it would turn into a circus, that they'd be catering on an emotional level to people," said the 76-year-old retired social worker from Moorpark. "But from the first session on, they've been so professional and so fact-driven."

DiRaffael said Cheney would be a fitting standard-bearer for the Republican Party.

"I'd like to see the party return to the way it used to be," she said. "They've always had really stellar people leading the party. We could disagree with on policy, but we could respect the people."

In her speech, Cheney recounted what the select committee has found, including Trump's attempts to go to the Capitol to prevent the counting of the electoral votes and his denunciations of Pence that encouraged a violent mob to pursue the vice president.

"It's undeniable. It's also painful for Republicans to accept," she said.

She also praised the committee's most recent witness, Cassidy Hutchinson, the 25-year-old former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Her bravery in testifying was, in Cheney's words, "awesome to behold."

"Her superiors, men many years older — a number of them are hiding behind executive privilege, anonymity and intimidation," she said, comments that were all the more pointed given the news hours earlier that the select committee will subpoena Pat Cipollone, former White House counsel, to compel public testimony.

By comparison, Cheney's critiques of President Biden and his stewardship of the economy were pro forma — blaming his policies for surging inflation. But Democrats were largely portrayed as allies, not adversaries, throughout her speech.

"One of my Democratic colleagues said to me recently that he looked forward to the day when he and I could disagree again," she said to laughs. "And believe me, I share that sentiment."

Cheney was greeted warmly by the audience, which gave an extended standing ovation upon her entrance. And although Zakheim warned of potential hecklers, her speech went uninterrupted.

The sharpest critique from audience member Robert Impellizzeri, a retired Army colonel from Moorpark, was that it had taken her so long to break with her support from Trump. The 69-year-old Republican said he disliked Trump from the start.

Still, ahead of her speech, he was mostly full of praise for Cheney.

"She's standing for what is true, what is factual, what is necessary to promote decency in this country," he said. "Our leaders should behave and act responsibly with dignity, honor and integrity. And Donald Trump acted with none of that for four years."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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