Cheney chats with Mary Anne Madeira

Former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, right, talks with Mary Anne Madeira at 2024 Kenner Lecture.

Liz Cheney: ‘We Can't Survive a President who Goes to War With the Constitution’

The outspoken Trump critic and former U.S. Representative delivers the Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding in talk titled ‘Defending Democracy.’

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

Speaking before a capacity crowd at Lehigh University Tuesday night, former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney said the threat that former President Donald Trump poses to the Constitution is “very real” and that those who believe in the Constitution have an obligation to make sure he loses his bid for the presidency in the November general election.

“When you're thinking about what is going to be required of all of us over the next eight months, I ask you to remember both the power and the obligation we have as individuals,” Cheney said. And, no question, “the vast majority of citizens of this great country want our kids to grow up and to live in a nation that is characterized by the peaceful transfer of power.”

If everyone works and votes together, she said, “we will be able to say that when this time of testing came, we stood up, and we did our duty because we love this country more.”

Cheney—who at great political cost became an outspoken critic of Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021 attack at the U.S. Capitol—came to Lehigh to deliver the Kenner Lecture on Cultural Understanding. The lecture, titled “Defending Democracy: A Conversation with Liz Cheney,” was hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences and held in Baker Hall in Zoellner Arts Center.

Cheney received a standing ovation after speaking directly to the audience for about 40 minutes. She received another standing ovation following a question-and-answer segment with Mary Anne Madeira, assistant professor of international relations.

Though Trump is likely to be the eventual Republican nominee, Cheney said he faces “some real warning signs” in a matchup against President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, as 30% to 40% of Republicans say they won’t vote for Trump.

“That is not a winning recipe for him going into a general,” Cheney said. For those who believe in the Constitution, she said, what’s key is “to make sure people understand that no matter how frustrated you might be with Joe Biden's policies—and I certainly disagree with many of them, and I'm not endorsing anybody tonight— ... we can survive bad policies. We can't survive a president who goes to war with the Constitution.”

A Political Legacy

Cheney was introduced to the audience by Robert Flowers, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“She has been a steadfast advocate for the principles that underpin our system of governance, and has consistently demonstrated commitment to truth, accountability and preservation of democratic norms,” he said.

Cheney opened her lecture with stories from her childhood, including one in which then-President Gerald Ford had stayed at her home in Wyoming after campaigning for her father, Dick Cheney, who was running for Congress at the time. A gaggle of school friends had lined up outside, encouraged by her sister, to try to get the president’s autograph.

She talked too about the 2000 presidential election, when her father was the vice presidential candidate, and expressed admiration for Democrat Al Gore, who had conceded with grace in a very close race against Republican George W. Bush. At the time, Gore quoted Stephen Douglas’s remarks to Abraham Lincoln in saying, “Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism.”

She recalled how Gore had told the American public at the time that the election had been “resolved” after a Supreme Court ruling—“as it must be resolved through the honored institutions of our democracy. Our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country.”

When Bush and her father were sworn into office a few weeks later, the significance of the moment was not lost on her. She remembered thinking how amazing it was that “as Americans that we've been through that, and yet we were all participating in the peaceful transfer of power. And it's such an amazing and fundamental underpinning for our democracy, because of how powerful the office of the presidency is.”

Beginning with George Washington, she said, every president has upheld their fundamental oath of office to ensure that peaceful transfer of power—until Donald Trump.

Despite having lost the 2020 election to Biden, she said, Trump decided that he would not concede and would instead oversee a multipart plan focused on “corruptly” pressuring state legislatures to change their votes from Biden to Trump, pressuring the Department of Justice to help spread his stolen election lies, pressuring Vice President Mike Pence to take “illegal and unconstitutional action” to overturn the election, and summoning an angry mob to Washington, D.C., and sending them to march on the U.S. Capitol.

She said witnesses told the select committee that he didn’t stop watching televised news of the attack or call off the mob, even when he learned that a civilian had been shot at the entrance to the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I don't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent, that's depravity,” Cheney said. “And we cannot become numb to what that means for this country.”

Cheney at Kenner Lecture

Cheney spoke to a capacity crowd in Baker Hall at Zoellner Arts Center.

She said Trump has been using the tools and the tactics of an autocrat, including threats of violence, as he seeks to delay his criminal trials. To succeed, Trump needs enablers and collaborators “who will help him spread his lies” but also “good people to be silent,” she said.

For those who argue that America’s institutions would be a check-and-balance against Trump in a second term, Cheney said that members of Congress won’t stand up to him now, even though he’s not the presidential nominee. And, she said, the courts have power only if the chief executive enforces their rulings, “and Donald Trump won’t do that.”

Cheney also expressed concern about Trump’s disregard for the country’s NATO allies and his praise of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

“As we meet right here today,” she told the audience, “we have an obligation to do everything possible over the next eight months to make sure that Donald Trump loses the election and that he's never again anywhere near the Oval Office.”

That mission, she said, will require the American people to commit to rising above partisanship and to vote for candidates they know will be responsible and do their duty. Cheney said the country needs more people becoming candidates for public office, and she called on women, in particular, to seek office.

A Need for Reforms

In the conversation with Madeira that followed the lecture, Cheney was asked whether Trump should be disqualified from office. In referencing the 14th amendment and the Jan. 6 attack, Cheney said that “it’s clear” he should be disqualified. Asked also whether a representative democracy can survive with only two parties if one doesn't recognize the legitimacy of elections, she said it underscores a need for “serious reforms” of the Republican Party.

Cheney also expressed regret for past tweets and the times she had been “so partisan” while a member of Congress​​. She said there is a reflexive instinct in Congress for members of each party to immediately launch into a partisan battle when legislation is introduced.

“I think that it's pretty clear that that doesn't serve the country,” she said. “Now that doesn't mean that we won't have debates. You have to have debates, and we should, and that's how you get to the best policy for the country.”

She recalled that former speaker Nancy Pelosi, in choosing to put her on the select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, had brushed away a staffer who tried to dissuade her from placing Cheney on the committee because of her past tweets against the speaker. “I think she understood what I understood, which was, our policy debates are irrelevant when we have a five-alarm fire about the Constitution,” Cheney said.

Many times while serving on the committee, she said, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, had said to her, “I really look forward to the days when you and I can disagree again.” And Cheney said, “It's a really good point, because that will mean that our democracy has righted itself and then we're back to debating issues and not feeling the threats that we're in today.”

 Cheney with Anthony DiMaggio, professor of political science

Cheney met with a group of students prior to the lecture. Anthony DiMaggio, right, professor of political science, moderated.

Prior to the lecture, Cheney met with a group of about 20 students for an hour-long roundtable discussion. The discussion was
moderated by Anthony DiMaggio, professor of political science.

Before losing her last election, Cheney was the U.S. Rep for Wyoming’s at-large congressional district from 2017 to 2023. She rose to the third GOP leadership position in the House in 2019. In Congress, she had chaired the House Republican Conference, the third-highest position in the House Republican leadership, and had served as vice chair of the congressional committee that investigated the attack.

The Kenner Lecture Series was endowed by Jeffrey L. Kenner ’65 ’66 and established in 1997. Kenner, who studied industrial engineering and business administration at Lehigh, became involved in private equity and venture capital after a career as a management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers (then Price Waterhouse & Co.).

Previous lecture speakers include Pulitzer Prize-winning author and staff writer at The Atlantic Anne Applebaum; New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, PBS News Hour Anchor Judy Woodruff and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent.

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

Story by

Mary Ellen Alu

Photography by

Christa Neu

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