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Liz Cheney on 2024 and Beating Trump

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Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Former congresswoman Liz Cheney lost her political party and her job after she tried to hold Donald Trump accountable for his unconstitutional attempt to remain president after losing the 2020 election. In her new book, Oath and Honor: A Memoir and a Warning, Cheney details her own experiences before, during, and in the political aftermath of January 6, and makes her case for why Trump and his allies remain a very real threat to America’s democracy. In the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, Kara speaks with Cheney about the cult of Trump within the GOP, the sexism she encountered from her colleagues, and — in the below excerpt — why she’s very worried about her former friend Mike Johnson being Speaker of the House, as well as what she thinks about running for president herself in 2024.

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kara Swisher: So in the 2022 midterms, you endorsed a number of Democrats facing Trump-backed Republicans. You told Judy Woodruff it would be better for the country if Republicans didn’t regain control of Congress. What’s your take on what’s going on in Congress now?

Liz Cheney: Um, you know, it’s a mess. And that’s a technical political term.

Swisher: Thank you, appreciate it.

Cheney: But we have huge challenges, as you know, huge threats facing this country on a whole range of issues. And then if you think about this really complicated set of challenges and issues, and we elect people that really are not up to the task — what’s happened on the Republican side is we have let the most radical group of people who support Donald Trump, frankly, take over. And watching the good people leave, I think today you have had, for example, Congressman McHenry, the chairman of the Financial Services Committee — he’s said that he’s not going to run again, and you see that among a number of the impeachers. So it’s a sad moment and I think a moment where we really need to look at how we can bring change and bring some of the good people back into office.

Swisher: So let’s talk — the obvious person is House Speaker Mike Johnson, someone probably you never thought would be a House Speaker. He was fairly unknown nationally until the fall. You worked with him, and you’re friends with him, I think.

Cheney: I was.

Swisher: You wrote extensively in the book about how he rallied Republicans to support Trump’s stolen election. You have called him, in this book tour, a collaborator and an enabler. “Collaborator” is a very loaded word. Talk to me about how concerned — a Trump collaborator — how concerned you were about him in this leadership role, and be specific. What is your greatest worry about him since you liked him and you were a friend of his previously?

Cheney: My worry about him is that he is willing to do things he knows to be wrong, and I was very, very surprised at the way that he operated and the extent to which he would call himself a constitutional lawyer. And in many cases, with respect to the amicus brief, with respect to the objections afterwards, when I would speak to him, he would acknowledge that what I was saying was correct with respect to the Constitution or the law. But then he would go on again and advocate for these things that were constitutionally unsound to our colleagues. And it was the way that he operated, it was the extent to which he was willing to do things that, not just I, but others — you know, Kevin McCarthy’s own chief counsel wrote to me that she had talked to him and that he knew what he was doing was constitutionally infirm, but he still did it. And so it’s one thing to have somebody who’s — he was then vice-chair of the conference, sort of working behind the scenes in some ways to help do Trump’s bidding.

And of course when I wrote the book and finished it in September and sent it off to the printer, I had no idea that he would be elected Speaker. And it’s particularly dangerous to have somebody like that wield the gavel.

Swisher: Dangerous.

Cheney: Yeah, dangerous.

Swisher: Because why?

Cheney: Dangerous because the Speaker of the House, first of all, is second in line to the presidency. The Speaker of the House is someone that you have to be able to count on as somebody who is going to uphold the Constitution. And the combination of Johnson calling himself a constitutional lawyer, and then taking these steps that were unsupportable — and I know a lot of real constitutional lawyers, conservative ones, and none of them agreed with what Johnson was doing during this period. But the fact that he was willing to do it, when he knew it was wrong, presents a threat — including, if you think about counting the electoral votes in 2025. If you think about the possibility that we could have a contingent election, the election might be thrown into the House if no candidate gets 270 electoral votes. And in those circumstances, the Speaker of the House could do real damage if he’s simply trying to do Trump’s bidding.

Swisher: Again, this happens over and over again, whether it’s Kevin McCarthy, who you obviously have no admiration for. At this moment, Donald Trump is still the clear GOP presidential front-runner in 2024, even though he faces a number of legal challenges. I’d love to get your idea of why he remains so popular, if you were looking at it from a political perspective. He may be Orange Jesus, but Jesus is still in that name. You know, orange or whatever color he happens to be. So why is that, from your perspective?

Cheney: I think it’s a number of things. I think that there is an element of a cult of personality. I think that he is particularly skilled at telling the big lie and convincing people to believe it. And I mean, really, if you stop and think about the millions of hardworking Americans from whom he has stolen money — the fraud that he’s perpetrated, the lies that he’s spread, in order to try to overturn the election, and also in order to fundraise, and he’s gotten people to give them, people who don’t have much, to give them their hard-earned income for a complete lie. And so that ability to do that is something that you can’t discount, and I think that’s a part of what we see here. I think that another part of it is —

Swisher: I’m just curious if you have any sense of why. I just interviewed [Trump’s former secretary of Defense] Mark Esper; he could not explain it himself, at all, why that was the case, besides political power.

Cheney: I mean, I think it’s power, but I also think there really are people who feel like they haven’t been heard. You know, I will never forget, there was a constituent of mine who came to see me early in my first term, who was a member of the Boilermakers Union in Wyoming, and he said to me — this is like 2017 — he said, “I’m a man without a party.” And I asked him what he meant, and he said, you know, “The Democrats have left me,” you know, to embrace what he viewed as sort of radical environmentalism. And he looked at me and he said, “And you Republicans, you never liked the unions.” And he said, “The only person who’s ever spoken for me is Donald Trump.” And, and I think there are millions of people who have bought into this sort of con-man approach that Donald Trump has taken.

I also think that there are elements of it that are cultish. I do think the term “cult of personality” is very apt, and I think that the real risk that we run in 2024 is that there are people who don’t fall into either of those categories, but people who are very worried — whether it’s about the economy, whether it’s about national security, America’s role in the world, about our border. People that are sort of independent, or maybe moderates, who get to the point where they think, “Well, you know what, Donald Trump is the lesser of two evils here,” and think that he’s an acceptable option.

And I think that’s a very, very real potential threat and something that — we’ve got to make sure people know that he’s not an acceptable option.

Swisher: So one of the things that’s happening is another option: independent bids, especially the prospective bid from a conservative Democrat like West Virginia senator Joe Manchin. Do they help or hurt Trump?

Cheney: I think it depends.

Swisher: And obviously you’ve noted that you might have that in you too, a third-party run.

Cheney: Yeah, I think my view of the situation is: It’s so important that we defeat him that we have to be willing to look at any, sort of all possible ways to do that. And, you know, in every election cycle, presidential cycle until now, that’s not really something that I think most people on either side of the aisle would have considered. But I think this is a different moment, and I think the question about whether an independent run helps or hurts Trump is fundamentally important. Nobody ought to go down that path if it’s going to help Trump. I certainly would not. But I also think that we have to make sure that we have the best people on the field.

Swisher: So you are weighing a decision yourself? What are the factors in that?

Cheney: I haven’t ruled it out, I guess is how I would put it.

Swisher: Okay.

Cheney: But the factors really are what’s necessary to defeat Trump, I don’t look at it so much as a personal question about what I’m going to do or not do, because I, everybody’s got to be very much focused on ’24 and defeating Trump.

I think there are a whole range of questions about what happens after ’24. And, look, I also don’t think it’s a done deal completely that Trump’s the Republican nominee. I think it looks pretty likely, but nobody’s voted yet. So there’s still a chance that he isn’t. There’s also a chance that Joe Biden’s not the Democratic nominee. We don’t know for sure yet who those candidates are going to be on both sides.

Swisher: So why not rely on someone who’s gaining momentum, like Nikki Haley? How do you look at her candidacy?

Cheney: Look, I think there are a number of Republicans who could potentially defeat Trump. I think that defeating him at each step of the way is something we all ought to be looking to do. I don’t want to endorse any Republican over another. I don’t think that helps those people necessarily. But there are a number of Republican candidates. It’s not a big number, but there are some that I know would abide by the Constitution, and certainly would —

Swisher: Would you consider backing one of them, or do you think it’s sort of, at this moment, a kiss of death for them to say, “Backed by Liz Cheney.”

Cheney: I mean, again, I would never want to do anything that would help Trump. And so, I think certainly, we’ll see what happens. I may back one of them, but again, I’m very, very sensitive to the fact that I don’t want to create ammunition for Trump to use against anybody on the Republican side.

Swisher: And again, you said a number of weeks when you were — is there any significance to a timeline deciding within a few weeks? So if not announcing by January, you’re ruling it out?

Cheney: No, I don’t think January is the date, actually. I think that we need to know more about how the nominations are gelling on both sides. And so I think, it’s going to be within the next couple of months, is how I’m looking at it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.


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