The chairman of the House Jan. 6 committee is out with Covid-19. So after giving opening remarks by video when the panel convenes its final scheduled prime-time hearing of the summer on Thursday night, he will turn the gavel over to Representative 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 J. Trump betrayed the Constitution out of hunger for power.
In an even, measured voice, belying the outrage she feels, Ms. Cheney has confronted the leader of her party and called out those who enabled him, becoming Mr. Trump’s most prominent antagonist even as the Justice Department takes its time considering what to do and President 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 in an interview 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 Ms. Cheney forward as its most visible presenter and questioner. She was a Republican long before Mr. 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 Mr. Trump and his allies nonetheless brand her a traitor, used by Democrats to tear him down. She gets under Mr. Trump’s skin more than most. Watching the hearings on television, Mr. Trump has railed about Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Mr. Trump, said this week. “A sad and bitter end to a storied political family.”
Key Revelations From the Jan. 6 Hearings
Making a case against Trump. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack is laying out evidence that could allow prosecutors to indict former President Donald J. Trump, though the path to a criminal trial is uncertain. Here are the main themes that have emerged so far:
An unsettling narrative. During the first hearing, the committee described in vivid detail what it characterized as an attempted coup orchestrated by the former president that culminated in the assault on the Capitol. At the heart of the gripping story were three main players: Mr. Trump, the Proud Boys and a Capitol Police officer.
Creating election lies. In its second hearing, the panel showed how Mr. Trump ignored aides and advisers as he declared victory prematurely and relentlessly pressed claims of fraud he was told were wrong. “He’s become detached from reality if he really believes this stuff,” William P. Barr, the former attorney general, said of Mr. Trump during a videotaped interview.
Pressuring Pence. Mr. Trump continued pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to go along with a plan to overturn his loss even after he was told it was illegal, according to testimony laid out by the panel during the third hearing. The committee showed how Mr. Trump’s actions led his supporters to storm the Capitol, sending Mr. Pence fleeing for his life.
Fake elector plan. The committee used its fourth hearing to detail how Mr. Trump was personally involved in a scheme to put forward fake electors. The panel also presented fresh details on how the former president leaned on state officials to invalidate his defeat, opening them up to violent threats when they refused.
Strong arming the Justice Dept. During the fifth hearing, the panel explored Mr. Trump’s wide-ranging and relentless scheme to misuse the Justice Department to keep himself in power. The panel also presented evidence that at least half a dozen Republican members of Congress sought pre-emptive pardons.
The surprise hearing. Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House aide, delivered explosive testimony during the panel’s sixth session, saying that the president knew the crowd on Jan. 6 was armed, but wanted to loosen security. She also painted Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, as disengaged and unwilling to act as rioters approached the Capitol.
Planning a march. Mr. Trump planned to lead a march to the Capitol on Jan. 6 but wanted it to look spontaneous, the committee revealed during its seventh hearing. Representative Liz Cheney also said that Mr. Trump had reached out to a witness in the panel’s investigation, and that the committee had informed the Justice Department of the approach.
It is that family that has driven her to this point, in some ways. When Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 Qaeda 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Ms. Cheney said of spending so much time with Democrats. She has grown close to some of them, especially Representative 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.
In a separate interview, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and another committee member, acknowledged that teaming up with Ms. Cheney tested expectations. “It was certainly surreal at the beginning,” he said.
But he said Ms. Cheney and her fellow Republican on the panel, Representative 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.
If Ms. Cheney feels the stress of the moment, Mr. Schiff added, she hides it well.
“She doesn’t show it,” he said. “She’s tough. She’s tenacious. She’s smart. She has tremendous work ethic. She knows who she is, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say she has remained true to her conservative ideology. It’s that so many in her party have moved away from conservatism to embrace Trumpism. She’s been incredibly consistent.”
One intriguing exception came just this week when Ms. Cheney voted for a bill that would enshrine the right to same-sex marriage into law along with nearly four dozen other House Republicans. Ms. Cheney made headlines in 2013 during a brief Senate campaign when she opposed same-sex marriage even though her sister, Mary, was married to another woman. Liz Cheney said last year that she had been wrong, and Mary publicly praised her courage.
Liz Cheney, who turns 56 next week, has long been one of the most hawkish voices in her party on foreign affairs and a vocal supporter of the Iraq war, much like her father, but not an enthusiastic culture warrior. She earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and practiced for a while at the firm White & Case and worked as a State Department official in President George W. Bush’s administration before winning her father’s old seat in Congress in 2016.
As the hearings have played out this summer, she has become a household name as never before, stopped in hallways and airports for selfies or a handshake. “It’s almost entirely friendly and really moving,” she said. “People across the political spectrum who say thank you, especially young people.”
But there is a reason she has had to travel with a security detail for the last year, and the anger she has stirred up is not lost on her.
As much or more than any member of the panel, she participated in most of the interviews and her questioning has been shown in video snippets at times. Her look of incredulity as Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if he believed violence was justified on Jan. 6 spoke volumes.
Ms. 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.”
Ms. Cheney has also shaped committee strategy. When Democrats wanted to use pieces of Ms. Hutchinson’s explosive testimony in earlier hearings, a Democratic aide said Ms. 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 Mr. Schiff delivered righteous prosecutorial oratory during Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial and Mr. Raskin offered engrossing professorial storytelling during the second, Ms. 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. Mr. 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 Ms. Hutchinson after her testimony out of admiration for the grit it took a 26-year-old to speak out.
Ms. Cheney will be front and center again on Thursday night, taking the gavel as Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat leading the committee, recovers from Covid-19. While Mr. Thompson will offer an opening statement by video, Ms. Cheney as the vice chairwoman will 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 in the interview. “The forces that want to drag us over the edge are strong and fighting. But we have to.”