The fading GOP establishment moves to support Cheney as Trump attacks and McCarthy keep his distance

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Five GOP senators donated to Cheney, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, sent Cheney $5,000 from his PAC last month, the maximum he can give to what is expected to be a tense Trump-fueled primary challenge next year.

Almost the entire traditional Republican power structure is standing behind Cheney at this tough moment — but not House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

McCarthy and Cheney have not appeared publicly together since a March 11 news conference outside the Capitol in which several dozen Republicans criticized President Biden’s handling of the surge of migrants at the border.

Officially, Cheney and McCarthy have a good working relationship and both leaders are intensely focused on pushing back against the new president. Their aides say they are harmonious in trying to set Republicans up to win back the House majority in 2022.

But, as House Republicans gather Sunday for a three-day retreat meant to unify around a new policy agenda, the former president, residing 170 miles south of the GOP’s Orlando gathering, continues to be a divisive figure, pitting the small band of Republican lawmakers critical of him against the majority that remains loyal.

And the fault line in the conference runs over Trump’s role in cheering on the rioting criminals who ransacked the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6.

Cheney leads the smaller faction that views it as a foundation-shaking moment that must be dealt with, hoping to banish Trump to the political sidelines. These Republicans see her reelection as a critical marker for the party’s future.

“It is. She’s a person of character,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), whose PAC has donated two $5,000 checks to Cheney’s reelection.

The loudest House Republicans view Jan. 6 as an aberration caused by a small group of people who don’t represent Trump’s values, even though they stormed the Capitol echoing his false claims that the election was stolen from him, and demand loyalty to the former president at all costs. Still another group would just like to see if the conference could go a few weeks without clashes between those two competing wings, and they question whether Cheney unnecessarily pokes at Trump when she could be more diplomatic.

McCarthy started out blaming Trump for the riot and supporting a censure as an alternative to impeachment. Within days of the Jan. 13 impeachment vote, however, McCarthy trekked to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort to plead with him to support GOP candidates next year. He has remained Trump solicitous for months now.

Still, when Trump allies tried to toss Cheney out of her No. 3 leadership post, McCarthy forcefully defended her and she won a lopsided vote.

But three weeks later, at a Cheney-led news conference, the GOP leader said it was fine for Trump to be the featured speaker at a prominent conservative conference.

“I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country,” Cheney said seconds later.

McCarthy did not attempt to conceal his anger. “On that high note, thank you all very much,” he said.

He has not returned since to the weekly Cheney-led leadership team news conferences.

Cheney, 54, is not one to soften her edges and instead relishes her role as the highest-ranking anti-Trump Republican in Congress.

Instead of becoming the first female Republican House speaker — a more difficult task now that she has so many internal enemies — Cheney’s legacy might be defined by her success or failure in steering the party back to its conservative foundation, starting Sunday in Orlando.

“There’s going to be a very substantive policy focus. We’ve got seven different sessions that we’re running focused on issues that matter most,” Cheney told reporters Tuesday, laying an agenda focused on issues such as health care and China. “What we have to do as Republicans is get back to being the party of ideas and the substance and the policy of conservatism.”

That’s why so many pillars of the old Republican order opened their checkbooks and called friends for donations, aware that Trump was out for revenge and trying to find a primary opponent to defeat Cheney.

In three months, Cheney’s campaign raised almost 60 percent of her two-year total for the 2020 election.

Individual donors included Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor; George W. Bush’s chiefs of staff Andrew Card and Joshua Bolten; and Tom Ridge and James Nicholson, Cabinet members in that administration.

“A bunch of us said we have to be there for Liz,” said Tony Fratto, a former Treasury Department and White House adviser who co-hosted a virtual fundraiser in February with Bolten and 18 other Bush-Cheney alumni.

Fratto, an outspoken Trump critic, said many of her donors viewed Trump’s bid to overturn the 2020 election as an assault on democracy that further harmed the GOP brand.

“It’s wrong and it’s doing enormous damage to the party,” he said.

Graham views Cheney as an ally on traditional conservative national security issues. “She’s good on national defense and I believe she adds a lot of value to that issue and to the party,” he said, adding “I don’t know” if Trump is upset with him for supporting her.

While Corporate America threatened to cut off funding for some Republicans who refused to certify the election, Cheney had no such problem: PACs for Google, Toyota, Wal-Mart and GE, among others, donated, according to financial reports with the Federal Election Commission.

The 10 pro-impeachment House Republicans have formed something of a clique, trading information regularly and helping each other out financially. There’s talk of forming a joint fundraising committee so donors could write one big check that is divided among all 10.

Some of these incumbents will need these big dollars, because the first quarter showed that the fundraising energy for Republicans tilts toward those who are viewed as the most pro-Trump. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) raised more than $3.2 million as a Trump-backing renegade.

McCarthy has not donated to Cheney and he grows irritated when asked about her clashes with the former president, refusing at an April 15 news conference to address whether Trump should stop attacking Cheney.

“The number one thing I want to have happen is make sure the next century is the American century,” he said.

McCarthy has helped raised about $70,000 each for four pro-impeachment Republicans in battleground districts and donated $10,000 to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), who has a Trump-backed primary opponent next year.

On Thursday, unprompted at his weekly solo news conference, McCarthy boasted that he still regularly talks to Trump.

“I talk to him on the phone,” he said. “We talk quite often.”

McCarthy suggested that although Trump would not go to the Orlando retreat he should address House Republicans some other time.

Two days earlier, Cheney made clear she wanted no part of Trump visiting House Republicans, at the retreat or in the future.

“I haven’t invited him,” she said.