Justin Amash, a former Republican congressman, argued that propping up GOP Rep. Liz Cheney as “some sort of hero” for breaking with her party about former President Donald Trump “is a bit misguided,” criticizing her for not speaking up sooner.
“We had four years where she could have stood up and said, ‘There’s a problem here. What Donald Trump is doing is wrong,’” Amash told CNN’s David Axelrod in an episode of “The Axe Files” podcast released Thursday.
During his time in office, Amash left the Republican Party in 2019 and became an independent as he argued that Trump had engaged in impeachable offenses.
Amash said Cheney never came to his aid during that time when he was speaking out against Trump.
“For a long time, I was warning that the president’s approach could lead to things like violence, could lead to a lot of animosity and contempt, and all sorts of things that would be harmful to our country. She didn’t stand up for that view,” he said.
Now, Cheney, a conservative who voted in line with Trump’s agenda nearly 93% of the time, finds herself an outlier in her party for voting to impeach Trump over the January 6 Capitol insurrection and refusing to embrace the former Republican President and his falsehoods about the 2020 election, resulting in her ouster from her party leadership position last week.
On “The Axe Files” podcast, Amash questioned why Cheney chose now to speak up about Trump after years of backing the former president during his first impeachment trial and the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I say that not as someone who’s saying you can never change, you can never grow, you can never learn, but I’d like to see some real development when people learn. Like, what is it that changed your mind? Liz Cheney, what is it that you saw that made it so different for you versus how Trump was behaving, say, before January 6th? I mean, I don’t think there was any radical difference there. It was the same, what, because the outcome was different? Because that was the one time they stormed the Capitol?” he said.
He argued that “one of the biggest problems we have in politics is that when someone is inconsistent like that, where they’re doing the wrong thing for four years and then they flip on a dime, there’s a tendency to turn them into heroes. And I think that’s a huge problem because it lets people get away with things.”
“With that said, I also think we need to be careful, because you want to give people the room to learn and change,” he added.
Amash was a five-term GOP congressman from Michigan when he decided in 2019 to abandon the Republican Party after months of criticizing Trump and his Republican colleagues for not holding the president to account for the actions detailed in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 election.
He later voted with Democrats that year to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress after a House investigation into allegations Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals while withholding US security assistance and a White House meeting. Having decided not to seek reelection in 2020, Amash retired from Congress at the end of his term.
A few days after Amash left Congress, Trump supporters, fueled by Trump’s lies that the election was stolen from him, stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to stop lawmakers from certifying Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election. Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, charging him with “incitement of insurrection.” She continued to publicly reject Trump’s election lies, leading her House GOP colleagues last week to vote to remove the Wyoming Republican from her position as chair of the House Republican Conference.
On the podcast, Amash theorized that Cheney made a “miscalculation” in believing that the Republican Party was turning away from Trump after the January 6 insurrection, with several Trump allies in Congress like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham laying blame on Trump for the riots and denouncing him, only to backtrack.
“I really believe that if she had not seen the whole party moving, she would not have moved either. And that, to me, is indicative of the problem we have in Congress that people are waiting until they feel they’re safe. I think she thought she was safe. She moved. Now she’s got no choice, she can’t backtrack,” Amash said.
When Axelrod pointed out that Cheney released a statement ahead of her impeachment vote, Amash suggested that Cheney did not grasp that others would not stand with her against Trump.
On Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
Amash said that’s why he respects Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez – for “staying true” to herself – despite having very different views from the progressive New York congresswoman.
“I see her, like a few others in Congress, as people who will stick to their principles, stick to their guns, who are up front with people about who they are and are willing to challenge the leadership, are willing to stand up for their views and their principles and their constituents, regardless of the pressure they’re facing. And I don’t see many members of Congress like that,” he said.
He said he believes Ocasio-Cortez “has a set of principles” and “brings those to the House floor and tries to fight” for policies.
“And there are other people who I think are mostly there for self aggrandizement, and to do a little bit of entertaining, and raise some money for their campaign committee,” he said.
On the Republican Party
During the podcast interview, Amash was critical of his former party, including its pivot to Trumpism and stance on immigration, and slammed the House Freedom Caucus he co-founded for morphing into a “tool for one man,” as its members became Trump’s loudest defenders in Congress.
Amash acknowledged that, as a libertarian, he was always an anomaly in the GOP and broke with Republican leadership at times, particularly on issues like surveillance and fiscal policy.
He said he had a “tendency to stick with the Republicans on committee votes,” but was booted from the House Budget Committee for disagreeing with the GOP leadership at the time.
“Today you can say the most outrageous things. You can threaten other members. You can be, you know, spreading all sorts of lies and propaganda, smearing people, you can do all sorts of things and they won’t boot you from the committee,” he said.
Asked by Axelrod why the GOP leadership appears “frightened” by members like Georgia Republican Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, who have espoused dangerous conspiracies and use inflammatory rhetoric, Amash replied, “They’re afraid of Donald Trump’s voters.”
“In a lot of districts in this country, if you’re not, you know, totally aligned with Donald Trump, you’re in trouble. You’re going to get voted out of office,” he said.
He argued that Republicans have since embraced Trump because they attempted to maintain a distance from him during the 2018 midterm elections and “got wiped out.”
“That reinforced in their minds, maybe Trump has the formula,” he said.
On President Joe Biden
Amash, who didn’t support Trump for president, said he was also concerned about Biden becoming president, not because of his character nor “so much about his policies.”
“It’s that I don’t think he, like a lot of other people in politics, recognize what is the true problem in our politics — that concentrated power, centralized power has really done a lot of damage to our legislative system and to our representative system,” he said.
He argued that politics will remain partisan “unless we correct that problem.”
“Like, he can be the kindest, gentlest man in the world, but if we have a legislative body where members of Congress do not feel like they are active participants in it, where they feel beholden to just a few leaders, you will have massive partisanship, and it will permeate then into society and then it feeds back up,” he said.
He said, “Democrats are not understanding of why Trump rose up, why Republicans are so angry. It is because they do feel the system is totally broken, and they viewed Trump as a weapon against this broken system.”
On presidential aspirations
During the 2020 campaign, Amash had explored a run for president as a Libertarian Party candidate, but decided not to jump into the race.
Asked about whether he would run for president in 2024, Amash told Axelrod, “I won’t rule anything out like that.”
He also wouldn’t rule out returning to politics, but said “I’ve been very happy with my non-Congress life.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story inaccurately transcribed Justin Amash’s quotes. The story and headline have been updated to add context and clarify his remarks.
CNN’s Rafeena Ahmad contributed to this report.