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Former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney visits Lehigh University to talk Trump, political power and threats to democracy

A file photo of former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. Lecturing at Lehigh University on Tuesday, Cheney warned of what she called Donald Trump's continuing threat to American democracy.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
A file photo of former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney. Lecturing at Lehigh University on Tuesday, Cheney warned of what she called Donald Trump’s continuing threat to American democracy.
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Her role in the congressional inquiry into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack earned Republican stalwart Liz Cheney the enmity of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement and cost her the U.S. House seat she occupied for six years as a representative from Wyoming.

That fallout has done nothing to silence Cheney, who remains one of the most prominent voices warning of what she and other critics say is the danger the twice-impeached former president — a man under criminal indictment in four jurisdictions — could pose if he makes it back to the White House.

The defense of democracy was the theme of Cheney’s Tuesday night lecture at Lehigh University. The main character in her narrative was the former president, whose yearslong battering of democratic norms culminated in the bloody attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election.

It was a deadly serious topic. Cheney opened with a joke.

“I learned something at dinner that made me like Lehigh even more,” she said. “I didn’t know you had rescinded your honorary degree to Donald Trump.”

The line drew a roar and long round of applause from the crowd of about 1,000 gathered at the Zoellner Art Center’s Baker Hall for the annual Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding.

The rescinding of the degree bestowed on Trump in 1988 came two days after the insurrection, when the nation was still grappling with the images of the Capitol swarmed and invaded by rioters trying to disrupt what had always been a routine ceremonial rubber-stamping of presidential election results.

Cheney contrasted Trump’s post-election scheming with Al Gore’s behavior in the 2000 presidential race, which turned on the counting of a few hundred votes in Florida and ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gore’s speech after the court handed the White House to George W. Bush was “one of the finest speeches in American political history,” Cheney said — a gracious concession that put love of country ahead of personal disappointment.

In Trump, she said, the nation was confronted by a different creature entirely, one who corruptly pressured state legislators, governors, Justice Department officials and his own vice president in an attempt to retain power.

Despite everything, Cheney said — the uprising, the criminal indictments, a civil jury’s finding that he sexually assaulted writer E. Jean Carroll in a department store decades ago — Trump remains a singular power in the GOP, able to stall vital legislation in the Republican-controlled House because he believes it will help his reelection bid.

“One of the terrifying things is how many elected Republicans have been willing to make themselves hostages to this dangerous man,” said Cheney, the daughter of Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, congressman and, most notably, vice president under George W. Bush.

Cheney praised current and former legislators from Pennsylvania — she admires Democratic U.S. Rep. Susan Wild and former Republican Congressman Charlie Dent, counting both as friends — but said the state “has sent us some real doozies.”

“I’m not going to mention any names except maybe Mike Kelly and Scott Perry,” she said, singling out two Trump allies who were involved in the effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Cheney encouraged the crowd to do whatever it can to restore equilibrium to American politics — voting, campaigning for candidates, even running for office. Women especially should consider the third option, she said.

Cheney voted for Trump in 2016, believing the real estate mogul would grow into the office. She voted for him again in 2020, saying his policies helped the energy and agriculture sectors where many of her former constituents make their living.

“Where we have been since Jan. 6 is not a debate about policy anymore,” she said, adding later: “Our policy debates are irrelevant when we have a five-alarm fire about the Constitution.”

“We have an immediate, near-term and urgent responsibility,” she said. “To make sure Donald Trump loses the election and is never again anywhere near the Oval Office.”

Cheney, a traditional conservative, is at odds with most of President Joe Biden’s policies, “but we can survive bad policies,” she said. “We can’t survive a president who goes to war with the Constitution.”

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Daniel Patrick Sheehan can be reached at 610-820-6598 or dsheehan@mcall.com.

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