WASHINGTON — Republicans are walking into uncharted territory as Donald Trump holds a post-presidency grip on their party, with no signs his influence will wane any time soon.
Rep. Liz Cheney, far from the first Republican to be brought low after criticizing Trump, was removed from party leadership Wednesday for the sin of repeatedly calling out the former president's lies that his election loss was fraudulent. For years, Trump has crushed nearly all his intraparty critics, but Cheney marks his first takedown since leaving office.
Unlike any former president in recent memory, Trump is enthusiastically wielding the full powers of a party leader from his home as a private citizen. Republicans in Congress said Wednesday that no one knows how long this state of play will continue.
“Whether people like it or not, whether they like him or not, he is a real force,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, a former Democrat who flipped to the Republican Party under Trump. “We’re in such uncharted territory, to be honest with you, because his government was so different. This conservative populism is something we haven’t seen in our recent history.”
It’s not clear exactly how high one can rise in Republican politics if you’re in opposition to Trump. Many Republicans downplayed Cheney’s demotion Wednesday, noting that she survived an initial confidence vote after voting to impeach Trump for inciting the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6. It was her repeated blasting of Trump to the media, they argue, that divided the party and caused a loss of confidence.
Others don't feel a need to parse the details.
“I respect the coalition that President Trump assembled, and any Republican elected official that doesn’t respect that is going to have problems," said Sen. Ron Johnson, a staunch Trump ally who is up for reelection next year. Asked if it was political suicide for an elected Republican to publicly feud with Trump, he replied, “Look at what happened to Cheney.”
Trump has been eager to take on perceived Republican enemies and continue to spread lies about the election, even while being banned from the major social media platforms. His office regularly sends out multiple tweet-length press releases a day castigating his opponents. Republicans like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Ted Cruz have come to Florida to pay respects. In late March, the former president wandered into a wedding at his Mar-a-Lago estate and, before celebrating the couple, repeated his doubts about the election.
One obvious elephant in the room is that Trump may one day soon formally lead the party again. He retains overwhelming support among Republicans, and other top 2024 presidential contenders may prefer to bail out of the race rather than run against him.
Even if Trump doesn’t run again, Republicans know their electoral chances are much better with his millions of die-hard supporters on their side.
“He’s got a lot of influence. He’s still got a lot of power,” Rep. Scott DesJarlais said. “We’ve got 2022 midterms coming up that are going to be, I think, heavily influenced by him. We’ll see how that goes. You’ve seen polling just like I have; he’s still the strongest frontrunner in the Republican Party.”
There is a nascent movement, led by Rep. Adam Kinzinger, to pull the party away from Trumpism. Kinzinger was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the former president, and he has since started a political action committee to raise money for anti-Trump GOP candidates.
But if there’s any sign of Trump’s hold on the party loosening, no one seems to see it. Kinzinger’s PAC quickly raised over $1 million, but that is a drop in the bucket on a national scale. “Who knows,” Kinzinger said on Wednesday when asked how long the former president will dominate Republican politics. “He had a victory today. We’ll see how it goes in the long term.”
For her part, Cheney has continued to be defiant and even seemed to embrace her ouster from party leadership. Moments after being removed as conference chair, she took to the microphones and again condemned Trump for lying about the election being stolen and said she would push to “ensure” he doesn’t return as president. It’s an open question whether she could survive a primary challenge and win reelection.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a rare Trump critic to win higher office during the former president's time in the White House, said he does not know how long his influence will last, but added it’s possible to shrug off his attacks and leave him in the past. Even if you’re a Republican.
“If there are no weddings to crash, obviously I might be the subject of an attack,” he said. “But, you know, let’s move forward.”