Liz Cheney, front and center in the Jan. 6 hearings, pursues a mission
By Peter Baker
The chairman of the House Jan. 6 committee is out with COVID-19. So after giving opening remarks by video when the panel convened its final scheduled prime-time hearing of the summer Thursday night, he was to turn the gavel over to Rep. Liz Cheney. But for all intents and purposes, it has been the Liz Cheney show all along.
Through six weeks of televised hearings in this season of reckoning, she has emerged as the lead narrator and chief accuser, coaxing reluctant former officials to come forward, issuing stern warnings against witness tampering and drawing out the story one damning fact at a time to argue that former President Donald Trump betrayed the Constitution out of hunger for power.
In an even, measured voice, belying the outrage she feels, Cheney has confronted the leader of her party and called out those who enabled him, becoming Trump’s most prominent antagonist even as the Justice Department takes its time considering what to do and President Joe Biden largely sits on the sidelines. She has become the unlikely hero of many who once vilified her family and a pariah to fellow Republicans she once worked closely with, possibly sacrificing her political career in the process.
“I don’t look at it through a political lens,” she said this week in between drafting statements for Thursday’s hearing. “I look at it through the angle of: People need to understand how dangerous he is and how unfit for office he is.”
“I believe this is the most important thing I’ve ever done professionally,” she added, “and maybe the most important thing I ever do.”
It is no accident that the committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans has thrust Cheney forward as its most visible presenter and questioner. She was a Republican long before Trump was, supported most of his policies and voted for him twice. For the most part, she remains as conservative as ever, making it harder to dismiss the investigation as a liberal, partisan witch hunt.
But Trump and his allies nonetheless brand her a traitor, used by Democrats to tear him down. She gets under Trump’s skin more than most. Watching the hearings on television, Trump has railed about Cheney to friends and allies, lashing out on social media and belittling her as “a despicable human being.”
He hopes to take his revenge in next month’s Wyoming Republican primary, in which one of his supporters is favored to oust Cheney from her seat in Congress.
“It’s a shame that Liz Cheney’s last act in politics will be to aid Democrats in the midterm elections,” Jason Miller, a longtime adviser to Trump, said this week. “A sad and bitter end to a storied political family.”
It is that family that has driven her to this point, in some ways. When Cheney watches the video showing Vice President Mike Pence being hustled by Secret Service agents away from a mob of Trump supporters threatening to hang him, she sees another vice president on another day of danger.
“Every time I see it, it brings to mind the image of Jimmy Scott, the Secret Service agent who evacuated my dad down the steps,” Cheney said, recalling how Vice President Dick Cheney was rushed to an underground bunker as a hijacked airplane hurtled toward the nation’s capital on Sept. 11, 2001. “That evacuation was because al-Qaida was targeting Washington, D.C., and Mike Pence was evacuated because a violent, armed crowd that Donald Trump had sent to the Capitol was invading the Capitol.”
For Liz Cheney, Trump is similarly an existential threat to the institutions of American society, and she has made it her single-minded mission to expose what the former president did and stop him from doing it again.
She is like her father in that sense, driven and determined and unmoved by waves of criticism, and she cites him as her inspiration even now. They speak almost every day and he counsels her on how to approach these hearings. He accompanied her to the Capitol on the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack when other Republicans stayed away.
On the wall of her office, visible in some of the deposition videotapes shown during the hearings, is a photograph of her father when he was defense secretary sitting with President George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser; the president was holding a book on Soviet military power. She sees the image as a reminder that politics requires serious people.
All of which has made for a strange-bedfellows alliance with Democrats who agree with her on little other than her disdain for Trump. She understands perfectly well why they want her out front, that a Republican face is useful to them. But she has come to believe that the Democrats she is working with are serious about saving the country, too, as she sees it.
“I’m sure it’s as weird for them as it is for me,” Cheney said of spending so much time with Democrats. She has grown close to some of them, especially Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and several have told her they cannot wait for the day when they can disagree with her again.
“That’ll mean our politics have righted themselves,” she said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., another committee member, acknowledged that teaming up with Cheney tested expectations. “It was certainly surreal at the beginning,” he said.
But he said Cheney and her fellow Republican on the panel, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, have helped Democrats understand better how to frame their arguments to appeal to open-minded Republicans and make a politically charged inquiry less partisan.
Cheney persuaded Republicans to testify when Democrats might not have. They included Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to Mark Meadows, the former White House chief of staff. “Two witnesses who spoke with the committee shared with me that a major factor in being willing to come forward publicly was that Liz made them feel comfortable and empowered to speak,” said Alyssa Farah, a White House official who resigned after the election rather than be part of the effort to overturn it. “She has an innate ability to connect with people.”
Cheney has also shaped committee strategy. When Democrats wanted to use pieces of Hutchinson’s explosive testimony in earlier hearings, a Democratic aide said Cheney pressed to save it for a hearing entirely featuring her, believing that it would have more impact that way.
Throughout the hearings, her tone has been purposefully restrained. Where Schiff delivered righteous prosecutorial oratory during Trump’s first impeachment trial and Raskin offered engrossing professorial storytelling during the second, Cheney has favored the just-the-facts approach of a litigator.
Yet as flat as her voice has often been, her words have been forceful and uncompromising. Trump “is a 76-year-old man” and “not an impressionable child,” she declared, and therefore responsible for his actions. She warned fellow Republicans that “there will come a day when Donald Trump is gone but your dishonor will remain.”
One of her few moments of emotion came when she hugged Hutchinson after her testimony out of admiration for the grit it took a 26-year-old to speak out.
Cheney was to be front and center again Thursday night, taking the gavel as Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat leading the committee, recovers from COVID-19. While Thompson was to offer an opening statement by video, Cheney as the vice chair was to run the hearing.
The stakes, she said, remain enormous. “As a country, we’re at a moment where we really do have to step back from the abyss and it’s not totally clear to me that we’re going to,” she said. “The forces that want to drag us over the edge are strong and fighting. But we have to.”