Emboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes

Donald Trump claimed his first victim of the campaign cycle this week, forcing Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (Ohio) — a rising GOP star and one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach the former president — into an early retirement.

An emboldened Trump will now focus his energy and attention on purging the remaining Republicans he views as disloyal, backing primary challengers to those on his impeachment hit list such as Reps. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.). 

“1 down, 9 to go!” Trump said in a statement Friday. 

He followed up with a second statement: “RINO Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who has poorly represented his district in the Great State of Ohio, has decided to quit after enduring a tremendous loss of popularity, of which he had little, since his ill-informed and otherwise very stupid impeachment vote against the sitting President of the United States, me.” 

The stunning move by Gonzalez, a 36-year-old Cuban American former NFL player, underscores two obvious truths about today’s GOP politics: Those who want to rise in the Republican party must pledge absolute fealty to Trump, and Trump’s power and influence over the party is only growing as he and his staunch loyalists take their revenge on political enemies one by one. 

Indeed, the 212-member House GOP Conference — already closely aligned with Trump — will almost certainly be more Trumpy after the 2022 midterms as critics like Gonzalez head for the exits and Trump acolytes win primary races, and then general elections, across the country. 

Trump had moved quickly against Gonzalez. Just weeks after the former wide receiver voted to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Trump endorsed a primary challenger, his former aide in the White House, Max Miller.

Gonzalez “couldn’t win the primary. Trump got him,” said one House GOP colleague. 

“Trump remains hugely popular with our base. Many of the objectors are in for a long tough fight,” said GOP Rep. Billy Long, a Trump ally who is running for the Senate in Missouri and would love to have Trump’s endorsement.

In a statement Thursday night, Gonzalez didn’t mention Trump but said the “toxic” state of GOP politics weighed heavily on his decision. And he said he hoped the “chaotic political environment that currently infects our country will only be temporary.”  

“While my desire to build a fuller family life is at the heart of my decision,” Gonzalez said, “it is also true that the current state of our politics, especially many of the toxic dynamics inside our own party is a significant factor in my decision.” 

But in an interview with The New York Times, he took direct aim at Trump, calling him a “cancer for the country.” He also said he worried about the safety of his wife and two small children, recalling the moment after his impeachment vote when his family was greeted at the Cleveland airport by two uniformed police officers in response to threats on his life.

“That’s one of those moments where you say, ‘Is this really what I want for my family when they travel, to have my wife and kids escorted through the airport?’ ” Gonzalez told the Times. 

While Gonzalez is mild-mannered and likeable, few in the party rushed to his defense. The one exception was Cheney, the ringleader of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach who was ousted from a top leadership post for continuing to oppose Trump. She suggested this saga won’t mark the end of Gonzalez’s political career.  

“America needs serious principled leaders of character like my friend and colleague, Anthony Gonzalez,” said Cheney, who is serving on the special committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. “His courageous dedication to the Constitution has been an example for all Americans. He will be a major force in our nation’s politics and government for many years to come.”

However, with Gonzalez out of the way, Trump and his allies can now devote more of their time, energy and resources toward ousting the remaining dissidents. After meeting with several possible contenders, Trump just last week threw his support behind Wyoming attorney Harriet Hageman in the GOP primary against his most high-profile GOP foe, Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Trump also has endorsed at least two other Republicans seeking to unseat incumbent GOP congressmen who backed impeachment in January. Trump’s going all in with Joe Kent, a Washington state Republican and Army Special Forces veteran, in his bid to unseat Rep. Herrera Beutler in her GOP primary next year. And Trump endorsed state Rep. Steve Carra in his primary challenge to longtime Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a former Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. 

Trump has not yet endorsed primary challengers to some of the other pro-impeachment Republicans, including Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), David Valadao (R-Calif.) or Peter Meijer (R-Mich.). But Katko, a leader of a moderate bloc of Republicans, acknowledged to his local newspaper this week that it’s “difficult” for him to remain in a Republican party dominated by Trump.

“There’s no question about it. I don’t think he should be our leader going forward. I obviously made that pretty clear,” Katko told The Post-Standard of Syracuse, N.Y. 

The Trump dynamics are a bit different in the Senate, where lawmakers run for reelection statewide and tend to have their own unique brand of politics. Seven GOP senators voted to convict Trump for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his role in the Capitol riot, but three of them — Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) — are retiring. And three others are not up for reelection this cycle.

Of the seven, only Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is running for reelection in 2022. And Trump has already backed a primary challenger, former state official Kelly Tshibaka, who has hired a number of Trump 2020 campaign advisers to help her unseat Murkowski.   

"Lisa Murkowski is bad for Alaska," Trump said earlier this summer. "Murkowski has got to go!”

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