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Cheney challenger Stefanik says GOP must work with Trump

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

In this Nov. 20, 2019 file photo, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., listens during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON – Rep. Elise Stefanik stated her case Thursday for replacing Rep. Liz Cheney as the No. 3 House Republican leader, implicitly lambasting Cheney's battles with former President Donald Trump by saying, “We are one team and that means working with the president."

The remarks by Stefanik, R-N.Y., a one-time moderate who's evolved into an ardent Trump champion, came as Cheney seems likely to be tossed from her leadership post next week. Cheney, R-Wyo., has repeatedly rejected Trump's false insistence that he lost the 2020 election because of widespread fraud, and has blamed him for inflaming followers who assaulted the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Speaking on Steve Bannon's “War Room" podcast, Stefanik said she is committed to “sending a clear message that we are one team and that means working with the president and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress.” Stefanik repeatedly used “president” in referring to Trump.

Facing opposition from Trump and the House's two top Republicans — Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise — Cheney has remained defiant.

In an opinion essay in The Washington Post, Cheney implored her GOP colleagues on Wednesday to pry themselves from a Trump “cult of personality" and declared that the party and even American democracy were at stake. “History is watching,” she said.

Trump issued a statement giving his “COMPLETE and TOTAL Endorsement” to Stefanik, 36, who’s played an increasingly visible role within the GOP.

Stefanik responded quickly, highlighting his backing to colleagues who will decide her political future.

“Thank you President Trump for your 100% support for House GOP Conference Chair. We are unified and focused on FIRING PELOSI & WINNING in 2022!” she tweeted.

The careers of Cheney and Stefanik are seemingly racing in opposite directions, as if to contrast the fates awaiting Trump critics and backers in today's GOP.

The turmoil also raised questions about whether the price for political survival in the party entails standing by a former president who keeps up his false narrative about a fraudulent 2020 election and whose supporters stormed the Capitol just four months ago in an attempt to disrupt the formal certification of Joe Biden's victory.

In her essay, Cheney denounced the “dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality,” and warned her fellow Republicans against embracing or ignoring his statements “for fundraising and political purposes.”

She said McCarthy has “changed his story” after initially saying Trump “bears responsibility” for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. McCarthy, who is tacitly backing the drive to oust her, has said Trump issued a video to try halting the violence.

Dozens of state and local officials and judges from both parties have found no evidence to support Trump's assertions that he was cheated out of an election victory.

Cheney, in the Post, agreed with Democrats that a bipartisan investigation should focus solely on the riot and not on disturbances at some of last summer’s racial justice protests. In an apparent reference to her own situation, she said she would defend “basic principles” of democracy, “no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”

Biden weighed in at the White House on Wednesday.

“I think Republicans are further away from trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for than I thought they would be at this point,” he told reporters.

Cheney, a daughter of Dick Cheney, who was George W. Bush’s vice president and before that a Wyoming congressman, seemed to have almost unlimited potential until this year. Her career began listing after she was among just 10 House Republicans to back Trump’s impeachment for inciting supporters to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, when five died.

Stefanik, who represents a mammoth upstate New York district, began her House career in 2015 as a moderate Republican.

She opposed Trump's ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, and joined Democrats in voting against Trump's effort to unilaterally redirect money to building a wall along the Southwest border. She also led an effort to recruit female candidates for her party.

Stefanik's rural district, which Barack Obama carried in his successful 2008 and 2012 presidential runs, was subsequently won twice by Trump. She morphed into a stalwart Trump defender and was given a high-profile role during the 2019 House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings.

That was widely seen as a strategic move by the GOP to soften its image by giving a woman a prominent role. Stefanik's status and visibility within the GOP have soared since then.

Cheney is the highest-ranking GOP woman in Congress. There are just 31 Republican women in the House, about one-third of Democrats’ total but up from the 13 who served in the last Congress.

There were no other visible contenders for Cheney's post, with a secret ballot by House Republicans on her fate possible next week. A vote on a replacement, seemingly Stefanik, could come that day as well.

Cheney was making little noticeable effort to cement support by calling colleagues or enlisting others to lobby on her behalf, said two House GOP aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the situation. A third person familiar with Cheney's effort also said she was not lining up votes.

Cheney’s opposition to Trump put her out of step with most House Republicans, 138 of whom voted against certifying the Electoral College vote for Biden’s victory.

Republicans say a McCarthy speech backing Cheney at a closed-door House GOP meeting in February was largely credited with her surviving an earlier push by conservatives oust her, in a 145-61 secret ballot.

A top House GOP aide has said McCarthy won’t do that this time.

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Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New York, Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Kentucky, and Lisa Mascaro, Jill Colvin, Alexandra Jaffe and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.