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Liz Cheney, a key voice in House Republican leadership, increasingly breaks with Trump

(CNN)Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third ranking Republican in the House, is publicly taking on President Donald Trump — and unlike with most of his other critics, the President seems wary to hit back. 

Cheney, who is the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, has broken with Trump on policy before, but she has become increasingly outspoken in recent months.

This week, she demanded to know why Trump was unaware of intelligence pointing to Russian bounties on American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
And last week, she indirectly took a swipe at Trump by tweeting a picture of her father wearing a face mask, with the hashtag "#realmenwearmasks."
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Cheney has taken a different tone than the President. When Trump claimed he had total authority to lift restrictions governors imposed on their states to limit the spread of the virus, Cheney hit back on Twitter: "The federal government does not have absolute power."

Cheney also pushed back when Trump was considering ending lockdowns for the sake of the economy in March.

"There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what's necessary to stop the virus," she wrote.

She certainly isn't a maverick in the style of the late Sen. John McCain. And she hasn't been one to vote against Trump on hot button issues — such as his seizure of military funds for the construction of a border wall, like retiring Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd. Instead, Cheney's criticism of the President often comes without explicit mention of him. But in a Republican Party that has coalesced tightly around Trump and driven out dissenters since his election, even the slightest deviations from his stances, especially from GOP leaders, are notable.

As Politico's Melanie Zanona first reported earlier this week, Cheney's approach could point to a post-Trump strategy ahead of the November election.

Republican sources close to Cheney told CNN they believe her recent posture towards the White House could be an attempt to carve out her own distinctive lane, positioning herself well in case Trump loses reelection. She would be able to make the case to her GOP colleagues that she was one of the few who pushed back on the President's excesses — but without doing so in a way that antagonized him or his supporters.

Cheney seems to have struck a balance that has eluded so many others over the past three years. Despite her public comments rebuking the President, he has not lashed out at her. Instead, Trump has repeatedly praised her in public.

Some members believe this is because Cheney has unique name recognition and outsized independence based on national support. Republicans also point out that Cheney is very strategic about which issues she wants to pick a fight on — and she avoids personal attacks.

Unsurprisingly, Cheney's criticism of the administration tends to gravitate toward foreign policy and national security concerns. She has waged a campaign this month against Trump's plan to remove American troops from Germany, calling it "dangerously misguided."

Earlier this year, she also slammed Trump's idea to bring Taliban leaders to Camp David for peace talks, saying "no member of the Taliban should set foot there. Ever."

And when Trump was attacking witnesses who testified during his impeachment hearing, she defended them. In some cases, she has even gone out of her way to distance herself from the President's rhetoric. On Capitol Hill last month, without being prompted, she chastised Trump's unsubstantiated claims suggesting that former congressman Joe Scarborough murdered a former congressional aide.

"I do think the President should stop tweeting about Joe Scarborough," she said. "We're in the middle of a pandemic. He's the commander in chief of this nation. And it's causing great pain to the family of the young woman who died."

Her remarks were in stark contrast with House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who sidestepped questions about it at the time and said he didn't know enough about the subject.

Cheney chose not to run for the Senate earlier this year, saying she wanted to stay in the House to stop "socialist Democrats." Some of her colleagues say they view her as a potential House speaker if Republicans regain the House in the future.

"I believe I can have the biggest impact for the people of Wyoming by remaining in leadership in the House of Representatives and working to take our Republican majority back," she said when she announced her decision.

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