Trump, No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise throw support behind Elise Stefanik for Liz Cheney's leadership post

WASHINGTON – The second most powerful House Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise, and former President Donald Trump are backing Rep. Elise Stefanik to replace Rep. Liz Cheney in House GOP leadership.

It's the most telling sign yet the Wyoming lawmaker's position as the No. 3 House Republican is in peril after she repeatedly criticized Trump's claims of fraud in the 2020 election.

GOP lawmakers are scheduled to meet behind closed doors May 12 on Capitol Hill, where Cheney's fate could be sealed as a growing number of her colleagues are looking to boot her as conference chair, the third most powerful GOP post.

Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La, second in power only to GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, came out Wednesday to publicly back Stefanik, R-N.Y., to replace Cheney as House Republican Conference chair.

"House Republicans need to be solely focused on taking back the House in 2022 and fighting against Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and President (Joe) Biden’s radical socialist agenda, and Elise Stefanik is strongly committed to doing that, which is why Whip Scalise has pledged to support her for Conference Chair," Scalise spokeswoman  Lauren Fine said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., arrives to the chamber ahead of President Joe Biden speaking to a joint session of Congress on April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Trump issued a statement Wednesday through his Save America PAC in which he slammed Cheney as a "warmongering fool who has no business in Republican Party Leadership" and threw his support behind Stefanik.

"We want leaders who believe in the Make America Great Again movement, and prioritize the values of America First," the former president said.

More:Liz Cheney persists in pushing back on Trump's election claims despite perilous position in GOP

Asked for a response to Scalise and Trump, Cheney spokesman Jeremy Adler said: “Liz will have more to say in the coming days. This moment is about much more than a House leadership fight.”

Though Republican House members were expected to convene Wednesday, Fine said no formal vote or discussion of a vote on Cheney's future had been announced.

Cheney angered many of her GOP colleagues in January when she not only voted to impeach Trump on a charge he incited the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol but also publicly called the former president out for his unfounded claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in House leadership, has called for the ouster of the party's No. 3, Rep. Liz Cheney, in favor of Rep. Elise Stefanik.

In February, Cheney retained her post in the party during a tumultuous hourslong closed-door meeting. Her fellow Republicans voted 145-61 (with one abstention) by secret ballot to keep her as chair.

After the meeting, Cheney told reporters the vote made clear "that we're not divided and that we're not going to be in a situation where people can pick off any member of leadership. It was a very resounding acknowledgement that we need to go forward together, and we need to go forward in a way that helps us push back the really dangerous and negative Democratic policies."

More:Read the statement from GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, chair of the House GOP Conference, on why she'll vote to impeach Donald Trump

But Trump's narrative that the election was stolen prompted Cheney to keep pushing back at him.

“This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on Jan 6. Liz will not do that. That is the issue,” Jeremy Adler, a spokesman for Cheney, said in a statement Tuesday.

More:GOP Rep. Liz Cheney responds to criticism over fist bumping Biden: 'We're not sworn enemies'

Her response has continued to frustrate party leaders, including McCarthy, R-Calif. who defended the Wyoming congresswoman in February but now says the conference is losing confidence in her.

"I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message," he told Fox News on Tuesday. "We all need to be working as one if we're able to win the majority."

Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., questions former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch during a hearing before the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on November 15, 2019.

But, on a hot mic, McCarthy went a step further, telling anchor Steve Doocy off-air: "I've had it with ... I've had it with her. You know, I've lost confidence. ... Well, someone just has to bring a motion, but I assume that will probably take place." The comment was first reported by Axios and confirmed by CNN.

The standoff has been intensifying ever since Cheney led a group of 10 House Republicans voting with Democrats to impeach Trump on a charge of incitement of insurrection over the Jan. 6 siege, the worst domestic mob attack on the Capitol in the nation's history.

Not only was her effort an affront to Trump, still president at the time, but it was out of step with most House Republicans, including the 138 who voted against certifying the Electoral College vote for Biden's victory. But others, including Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who voted to impeach Trump, see Cheney as the "truth-telling" GOP leader the nation needs.

More:Fact check: Joe Biden legally won presidential election, despite persistent contrary claims

The possible ouster of Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, represents continued tension in the GOP between two distinct camps: those loyal to Trump and his voter fraud claims and more mainstream Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who reject the former president.

"Every person of conscience draws a line beyond which they will not go: Liz Cheney refuses to lie," Romney tweeted Tuesday.

"As one of my Republican Senate colleagues said to me following my impeachment vote: 'I wouldn’t want to be a member of a group that punished someone for following their conscience,'" he said, referring to his votes to convict Trump in two impeachment trials.

Related::GOP Sen. Mitt Romney defends Rep. Liz Cheney amid Republican blowback: 'Liz Cheney refuses to lie'

Romney, like Cheney, has faced criticism from those within the Republican Party for speaking out against Trump's claims about the election. 

The Utah senator was booed Saturday at his state's GOP convention, and some Republicans in Utah offered a censure of Romney. That vote failed 798-711 at the convention.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Trump loyalists vs. Trump opponents