Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney had never interacted one-on-one before a deadly insurrection thrust them onto the same political path.
But these days, the progressive raised in the segregated South and the conservative scion are inseparable as they lead the Democrat-driven investigation into the Capitol riot and former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. They call and text daily, often while darting between airport gates. When the select committee’s work is behind him, Thompson hopes to join Cheney for an elk hunt in her home state of Wyoming.
Unusual alliances are fairly common in Washington, despite its increasing gridlock and polarization. Thompson and Cheney are more than strange bedfellows, though — their partnership on the Jan. 6 panel is thriving to a degree that neither seems to have predicted. That give-and-take between the GOP’s most influential Trump critic and a respected lieutenant of Speaker Nancy Pelosi gives their probe a real shot at yielding results, despite a compressed timetable.
“This is really how a legislative committee should operate,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said of the nine-member Jan. 6 panel he also sits on. “We do not engage in constant partisan crossfire and polemical attacks on one another.”
The collegiality between the committee’s two Republicans and seven Democrats, Raskin added, “does give you a glimpse of what we could do if we didn’t have one wheel stuck in the mud.”
In separate interviews with POLITICO about their relationship, the chair and vice chair of the Jan. 6 panel piled on the plaudits for each other. Alluding to Trump acolytes and other conservatives’ jabs at Cheney as insufficiently loyal to her party, Thompson said anyone who’s “tried to paint her other than a great patriot, a great American, a good family person, then they don’t know Liz Cheney.”
Cheney said that she’s “enjoyed getting to know Bennie” and compared them to heads-down colleagues in any American office, as opposed to the brutal combatants who tend to populate the Capitol.
“You do what is important, and you do what’s right and you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about partisanship,” she said.
Their comity was evident when Thompson tapped Cheney as the panel’s vice chair earlier this month, a position he created purely to elevate her and underscore what Democrats have emphasized as the committee’s bipartisan cooperation. Since then, they’ve navigated decisions remotely while Cheney hopscotched around the west for family commitments.
Thompson said one of the reasons they speak so frequently is to present a united front to the broader committee when it comes to critical investigative calls. The committee is also notably interactive given pandemic-era constraints, holding regular Zoom calls for members and staff that have allowed a free exchange of ideas.
That marked contrast to the grandstanding and stasis of the typical high-profile congressional investigation — what Cheney called “seamless” movement — is in part due to the bond at the top of the select panel.
“He has a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for Cheney,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said of Thompson. “If he didn’t have, he never would’ve named her vice chair. Nancy Pelosi didn’t do that.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), another Jan. 6 panel member, said Cheney and her fellow anti-Trump committee Republican, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, raise ideas “that we might not think through completely” without them in the room.
“What’s surprised me a little is, she not only is strong on these issues, she’s passionate, she cares,” Aguilar said of Cheney. “But she also does a lot of the diplomacy that is important if you want to be successful.”
Part of that comes from Cheney’s substantive value to the committee, having held senior executive-branch posts and gotten unique insight into the workings of the West Wing from her father’s role as George W. Bush’s vice president. As House GOP conference chair prior to her ouster, Cheney also acquired valuable knowledge about Trump’s relationship with her colleagues and interactions with members of leadership.
None of it was a given. Some House Democrats privately said they didn’t know what to expect when Pelosi first agreed to put Cheney on the panel after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vowed to boycott the probe following the speaker’s veto of two of his picks. Some lawmakers in both parties still suspect that the good feelings won’t last, particularly when it comes time to craft a final report or draw politically volatile conclusions.
But Thompson, Raskin and others say with each day, as they’ve worked alongside her, their trust in Cheney has deepened.
“Obviously, our politics are diametrically opposed, but I have always considered her a real constitutional patriot,” Raskin said.
And the Thompson-Cheney bond, simultaneously genuine and strategic, is bound to be challenge as the panel digs into the assault on the Capitol and the forces that led up to it, including Trump’s months-long campaign to overturn his election loss. Their inquiry is escalating just as Trump revs up his political machine for a potential 2024 bid and seeks to punish Republicans like Cheney who openly opposed his baseless claims of fraud.
On one front, time will test the duo: Thompson said he hopes the committee can complete its work by “early spring” of next year, but that’s a tall order when juxtaposed with the breadth of the investigation.
Politics also could easily get in the way as Cheney fights for her political life against a Trump-backed challenger. Some former GOP allies rankled by Cheney’s unsparing criticism of Trump now claim privately that she could bail on Democrats if it serves her politically.
“[I] expect her to turn on Democrats when she needs to. I was a close ally of her and she turned,” said one House Republican, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. “It is just what she does.”
But Cheney’s connection to committee Democrats is strengthened by her willingness to place the blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection on Trump and his allies in Congress who continue to empower him. Her first joint statement with Thompson included a broadside at McCarthy for threatening companies that might cooperate with the committee.
She reiterated in an interview that it was “shameful and despicable” that many of her GOP colleagues had enabled “President Trump’s ongoing use of language that’s meant to incite violence, that incited violence in the past.”
Raskin was also helpful in building a bridge between Cheney and other House Democrats, in part due to a rapport they formed as freshmen in 2017. As they exchanged niceties on the House floor that year, Cheney asked him about a recent book he had written that included a harsh takedown of “conservative judicial activism.”
Raskin recalled Cheney needling him as she introduced him to her daughter: “This is the guy who wrote the book that said Bush v. Gore was the worst Supreme Court decision.”
Their relationship took on new weight on Jan. 6, when Raskin and Cheney took cover in the House chamber as the pro-Trump mob encroached.
“Somebody sent me the picture of the insurrectionist carrying the confederate battle flag in Statuary Hall,” Raskin recalled. “I leaned over to Liz and I said, ‘It looks like we’re under new management.’ We looked at it and said, ‘My God, what have they done?’ At that point, all hell broke loose.”
That sort of mid-insurrection bond, combined with Cheney’s pre-Jan. 6 reputation as a stalwart conservative, is enough to convince other Republicans of her sincerity working alongside Democrats — no matter what obstacles Trump may try to toss in her way.
“My guess is she’ll be an honest broker with him. I mean, that’s just how she is. She’s a professional,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.). “She may push for things they’re not comfortable with, but I don’t think she’ll surprise them.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.