Divided US Republicans punish dissidents as Pence rebukes Trump
Former President Donald Trump and Former US Vice President Mike Pence (AFP)

Republicans' deep divisions over the 2020 US election were laid bare Friday as the party censured two lawmakers investigating the deadly Capitol assault aimed at stopping its certification -- only to see Donald Trump rebuked by Mike Pence for claiming falsely that his former vice president could have overturned the results.

An extraordinary split-screen began when Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger found themselves rebuked by the Republican National Committee (RNC) over their roles on the House select committee probing Trump's involvement in the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

Just hours after the RNC met in Utah, Pence delivered an address in Florida rejecting Trump's claims that the former Indiana senator could have overruled vote tallies in swing states as he oversaw the congressional certification of Joe Biden's victory.

"President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election," Pence said at a Federalist Society event in Orlando. "The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone."

Trump, who retains his iron grip on the party despite losing in 2020, is expected to run for the 2024 Republican nomination, potentially against Pence.

Their public disagreements are seen as early maneuvering in the race.

Trump, who claims falsely that the election was "stolen," repeated in a statement last week a claim he has made several times that Pence "could have overturned the election."

'Un-American'

Pence has said previously that he did not have the power to block certification, but Friday's comments were his most forceful to date.

He told the conservative Federalist Society there is "no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president."

Pence spoke out after the RNC gathered for its winter meeting in Salt Lake City to approve a formal censure accusing Cheney and Kinzinger of behavior that is "destructive to the US House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic."

The resolution characterized the January 6 investigation as "a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse," sparking uproar among members of both parties.

Investigators are probing links between the Trump White House and the mob of his supporters who invaded the Capitol on the day it was due to certify Biden's victory.

Four people in the crowd died amid the bloodshed. Five policemen who had been at the scene died in the days and weeks that followed, mostly by suicide. Another 138 officers were wounded, some seriously.

Trump was blamed by Congress -- including several Republican senators and the party leaders in both chambers -- for a months-long campaign of lies about nonexistent fraud, culminating in a speech whipping up the crowd just before they stormed the Capitol.

Hardline Trump loyalists have been pushing for months for Cheney and Kinzinger to be expelled, particularly as the investigation has closed in on the former president's inner circle.

The censure, which marks a significant escalation of the drive to oust dissidents seen as disloyal to Trump, proved controversial even to some Republicans.

'Trump and his chaos'

"Shame falls on a party that would censure persons of conscience, who seek truth in the face of vitriol," said 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose niece Ronna McDaniel runs the RNC.

Democratic National Committee Rapid Response Director Ammar Moussa accused Republicans of having "no low they will not go to protect Donald Trump and his chaos."

The resolution was nevertheless adopted by an overwhelming voice vote without any discussion, video of the meeting captured by The Hill newspaper showed.

With Kinzinger retiring from Congress after the November midterm elections, and Cheney in danger of losing her Wyoming seat, the party leadership is said to be keen to put the issue behind them.

Republicans are hoping instead to focus on hitting Biden on his stalled domestic agenda, spiraling inflation and the stubborn pandemic ahead of the midterms.

Cheney responded to news of the censure motion by doubling down on her Trump criticism.

"The leaders of the Republican Party have made themselves willing hostages to a man who admits he tried to overturn a presidential election and suggests he would pardon January 6 defendants, some of whom have been charged with seditious conspiracy," she said in a statement.

"I'm a constitutional conservative and I do not recognize those in my party who have abandoned the Constitution to embrace Donald Trump."