WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republican leaders insisted that purging Trump critic Rep. Liz Cheney from their ranks was necessary to unify the party ahead of next year's midterm elections.
But former President Donald Trump, who celebrated Cheney's ouster by calling her a "bitter, horrible human being," has made clear he has no interest in putting the hostilities behind him as he continues to seek vengeance and lie about the 2020 election.
"Whatever the rest of the country thinks or whatever his opponents in the news media think, he believes that he lost the White House illegitimately, and that's a pretty big grudge, so I don't think he's going to give up that sense of grievance very easily," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump friend and informal adviser.
Six months after losing reelection, Trump has emerged more emboldened than ever after House Republicans voted Wednesday to remove Cheney -- the Wyoming congresswoman and a daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney -- from her post as the No. 3 Republican over her repeated criticisms of the former president.
It's the latest sign of how firmly Trump has cemented his grip on a Republican Party that now has little room for those who dare to confront his election delusions -- rejected in the courts and by Trump's own attorney general and homeland security officials -- even after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
His posture is forcing some Republicans into an awkward straddle of pledging allegiance to Trump while acknowledging the presidency of Democrat Joe Biden. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who has courted Trump and led the purge of Cheney, acknowledged after a meeting Wednesday at the White House that Biden's election was legitimate.
"I don't think anyone is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election," he said.
But that's precisely what Trump has been doing.
Indeed, Trump in recent weeks has only escalated his attacks on the election outcome, obsessing over a partisan Arizona audit and releasing a flurry of statements denouncing what he now calls a "fake Presidential Election."
"If a thief robs a jewelry store of all of its diamonds (the 2020 Presidential Election), the diamonds must be returned," he said in a statement this week.
There remains no evidence to support Trump's allegations of mass voter fraud, claims he began to make long before Election Day as polls showed him losing to Biden.
But that hasn't stopped Trump from continuing to try to convince his supporters that he was the rightful winner -- ongoing attacks on the democratic system that Cheney warned could incite further violence as she delivered a defiant floor speech Tuesday night ahead of her colleagues' vote to oust her from her leadership position.
"Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar," she said in a mostly empty chamber. "I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president's crusade to undermine our democracy."
After the vote, Cheney vowed to keep up her opposition to Trump. As he considers a comeback run in 2024, she told reporters she will do everything in her power "to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office."
McCarthy and others who had originally defended Cheney after she voted to impeach Trump for inciting the deadly Capitol riot argued the move was necessary to unify the party. But they now insist her ongoing criticism of Trump has become a distraction, preventing Republicans from focusing on their opposition to Biden as they try to take back the House and win control of the Senate next year.
"If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved so as to not detract from the efforts of our collective team," he wrote in a letter to colleagues justifying the move.
Trump remains deeply popular among rank-and-file Republicans, and many in the party are loath to risk alienating the new voters he attracted, especially ahead of midterm elections that historically draw a far smaller slice of the electorate.
"It's impossible for this party to move forward without President Trump being its leader because the people who are conservative have chosen him as their leader," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Fox News this week.
But others warn the episode may further repel voters, especially those in the suburbs who left the party in droves under the former president.
Republican leaders "need to figure out what they're going to do with suburban women because this doesn't put us in the right direction in terms of gaining suburban women," said former Rep. Mia Love of Utah, the only Black woman ever elected to Congress as a Republican.
"There's a cost to everything and I hope that they're willing to understand what the cost of this" is, added Love. "If the cost of having (Cheney) there as conference chair was too high, I hope they realize they're going to pay for it one way or the other."
As a sign of the continued discontent, more than 100 Republicans, including numerous former administration officials, are planning to release a letter later this week threatening to create a new party if the GOP does not adopt a set of principles -- "A Call for American Renewal" -- they lay out, said Miles Taylor, a former Trump DHS official who is one of the organizers.
"We, therefore, declare our intent to catalyze an American renewal, and to either reimagine a party dedicated to our founding ideals or else hasten the creation of such an alternative," they write.
Trump's latest victory comes as he begins a new chapter of his post-presidency. After spending the last four months at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida plotting his next steps and building out a political operation, Trump has decamped to Bedminster, New Jersey, for the summer. (He spent several days in New York this week after last weekend's Mother's Day brunch marking the end of the Palm Beach social season.)
Friends and aides expect Trump to continue much as he has, welcoming a procession of GOP hopefuls looking for his endorsement and building on fundraising that has already amassed around $90 million.
Trump spokesperson Jason Miller declined to comment for this story, but has said that Trump remains dedicated to ousting Republicans who voted for his impeachment and opposed his efforts to overturn Biden's victory in the election -- even as he pledges to help the GOP win back the House and Senate in 2022.
Gingrich, for his part, said that Cheney had made it "I think, literally impossible to avoid this vote" by going "out of her way to anger and irritate her conference," but predicted her ouster would help Republicans by turning attention back to Democrats.
"My guess is that there will be a new focus on issues that help them win a majority," he said. "There are more than enough things to fight over. And I think they'll be drawn more and more to taking on Biden."