Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) Congresswoman Liz Cheney said police who defended the U.S. Capitol from violence incited by then-President Donald Trump prevented a massacre on Jan. 6 — but she said democracy is still in danger.

Cheney, who spoke Thursday to a full house at the Dennison Theatre of the University of Montana, pointed specifically to Rep. Jim Jordan as evidence of the ongoing political crisis.

The former Wyoming representative said Jordan helped Trump and failed to alert Capitol police of impending violence, and the Ohio Republican’s candidacy for Speaker of the House shows democracy remains in crisis.

Cheney, who served as vice chairperson of the Jan. 6 committee that investigated Trump, said when people think about that day, they should remember not just a date, they should look back on the fight to defend the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s important for the American people not to let the ferocity of that battle leave our consciousness,” Cheney said. “It’s important to go back and remember, to look at the video of that battle, particularly along the west front of the Capitol.

“And if the doors had not held, if those police officers had not fought so valiantly, we would have had a massacre that day.”

Cheney, a conservative Republican, represented Wyoming in the U.S. House from 2017 to 2023, but she earned the status of pariah in her own party when she became an unequivocal spokesperson against Trump after he tried to steal the 2020 election.

Thursday, she spoke to 1,100 people for the 40th Anniversary Mansfield Dialogues at UM, and the crowd in left-leaning Missoula gave her a standing ovation. For roughly an hour and a half, Cheney took questions from Gov. Marc Racicot, who served in Montana from 1993 to 2001, and then she answered audience questions presented by UM political scientist Rob Saldin.

Saldin said he wanted to start with an observation that came out of a conversation with his wife. She told him that if someone said 20 years ago she’d be enthusiastic to attend a political address by Liz Cheney, she wouldn’t have believed it.

Cheney interjected, to laughter: “It’s weird for me too.”

The talk honors the legacy of U.S. Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana, known for his respectful and bipartisan leadership. Up until this year when Sen. Mitch McConnell eclipsed his record, Mansfield was the longest-serving Senate leader. Cheney said her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, worked with Mansfield.

She said Sen. Mansfield and Gov. Racicot embody the type of substantive leaders the nation needs, and Racicot, in turn, said he’d work with Cheney if she chose to campaign. Cheney, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, has said she’s committed to working against Trump, but also has not announced her own political plans, including whether she’d run for president. (She said she wasn’t sure if she should use the present tense in describing herself as a Republican, but she also was certain she wouldn’t be serving politically as a Democrat.)

At the talk, Cheney said both parties exhibit vitriol and political toxicity, but she said just one candidate running for president has called for violence against his political opponents, and just one has called for the execution of the joint chiefs of staff chairman: “This is not moral equivalence.”

“We have to really make sure, as a nation, we think about what that means, and that we stand together to make sure that violence is not part of our political process,” Cheney said, in her advocacy against Trump.

Trump was indicted in August on four criminal counts, including conspiring to defraud the United States, in charges that reflect the findings of the committee on which Cheney served. He’s expected to be in court for the next year, including in a civil trial that started this month in New York.

Former Rep. Liz Cheney and former Gov. Marc Racicot speak at the 40th Anniversary Mansfield Dialogues at the University of Montana. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)
Former Rep. Liz Cheney and former Gov. Marc Racicot speak at the 40th Anniversary Mansfield Dialogues at the University of Montana. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Racicot, former head of the Republican National Committee, said recent polls show that as many as 70% of Americans believe the country is in crisis and at risk of failure, and he wanted to know Cheney’s views. Cheney, a lawyer, said she agreed.

Cheney said she believes there’s no question democracy will survive, but she also said it will be a struggle. To right the ship, she said society needs to do a better job of teaching both young people and elected officials about the U.S. Constitution, members of the media need to ask questions about what’s politically acceptable, and Republicans need to choose the Constitution over Trump.

Prior to Jan. 6, she said members of the Republican party, including just-ousted Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, kept acquiescing to Trump and agreeing to do “just one more thing” for him. She said that included objecting to electoral votes without any constitutional authority.

Their actions led to violence, she said, and Jordan, since endorsed for speaker by Trump, was on the phone with Trump and knew his plans in advance: “The notion that the Republican party is anywhere close to contemplating putting Jim Jordan into the position of Speaker of the House is something that tells you the level of risk we face in our democracy today.”

She reminded the audience that when police officers were fighting to hold off the mob, Trump was watching the battle on television in the White House. She said he not only ignored pleas that he tell the crowd to go home, he sent a tweet that led to a surge in activity and directly contributed to the violence.

“We need to remember that what Donald Trump did is as evil as you can imagine and as much a dereliction of duty from an American president as we’ve ever seen,” Cheney said.

But Racicot wanted to know why other Republicans stay silent, why there’s a “herd mentality,” and Cheney said it’s an important question. She said the number of people who truly believe the election was stolen is small (“maybe two,” she joked) — and “one of them might be one of your representatives here in Montana.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale has defended Trump, who stumped for him in Montana when Rosendale tried to unseat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, in 2018. Rosendale, a popular hardliner who may take another shot at the U.S. Senate in 2024, also supported Cheney’s ousting from political office last year.

Cheney said some people cave to political pressure, and she also pointed to a lack of leadership. She said the situation is difficult to explain, but she also said it is due to “a complete lack of courage” in members of the Republican party choosing Trump over the Constitution.

She agreed with Racicot’s characterization of Trump as lacking character and being cruel and deranged, and she also said politics are driven in part by a “cult of personality” rather than regard for the rule of law.

But she said if Republicans abandon their values, “the party becomes dangerous to democracy.”

People who have taken for granted that political institutions held in the face of the crisis are wrong, Cheney said. She said they only held because specific people stopped Trump, and she said none of the people who worked for him then will work for him again.

As for how she views the current crop of Republican nominees for president, Cheney said she didn’t want to say too much to criticize anyone in case she inadvertently helps a candidate. But she said she believes former governors Chris Christie, of New Jersey, and Asa Hutchinson, of Arkansas, along with former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, have been honest with the American people; the three also are critics of Trump.

If Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president, she said the Republican party won’t be the Republican party anymore. She said politics are shifting, and she urged students and citizens in the audience to recognize their own power and work across party lines for the good of the country.

“One of the casualties, frankly, of the Trump era has been not having leaders who talk about the tremendous goodness of this country and remind us of the blessings of America,” Cheney said. She said the thought makes her emotional. “ … It doesn’t mean that we’re without flaws, but my God, what an amazing place.”