Former President Donald J. Trump was “really depressed” in the days after losing re-election and leaving office in January 2021, so much so that he was “not eating.”
At least that is what Kevin McCarthy told Liz Cheney in trying to explain why he had traveled to Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, an act of solidarity that many have identified as a pivotal moment in reviving the former president’s political viability.
Mr. McCarthy, the California congressman who was then the House Republican leader, had condemned Mr. Trump for fueling the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol and even suggested that he resign, only to turn around and effectively absolve the former president by embracing him again. In her new book, Ms. Cheney, perhaps the country’s most vocal anti-Trump Republican, reports that Mr. McCarthy justified the Jan. 28 visit as an act of compassion for a beaten ally.
Ms. Cheney wrote that she was so shocked when she first saw the photograph of Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Trump standing side by side with grins on their faces that she thought it was a fake. “Not even Kevin McCarthy could be this craven, I thought,” she wrote. “I was wrong.” She went to see Mr. McCarthy to confront him about rehabilitating the twice-impeached former president who had just tried to overturn an election he lost.
“Mar-a-Lago?” she asked Mr. McCarthy, according to the book. “What the hell?”
He tried to downplay the meeting, saying he had already been in Florida when Mr. Trump’s staff called. “They’re really worried,” Mr. McCarthy said by her account. “Trump’s not eating, so they asked me to come see him.”
“What?” she recalled replying. “You went to Mar-a-Lago because Trump’s not eating?”
“Yeah, he’s really depressed,” Mr. McCarthy said.
Ms. Cheney’s book, “Oath and Honor,” a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times ahead of its publication on Tuesday, offers a scathing assessment of not only Mr. McCarthy but an array of Republicans who in her view subordinated their integrity to curry favor with Mr. Trump. Her account of his subjugation of the party presents a tapestry of hypocrisy, with inside-the-room scenes of Republicans privately scorning “the Orange Jesus,” as one wryly called him, while publicly doing his bidding.
The much-anticipated memoir arrives on bookshelves even as Mr. Trump is in a commanding position to win next year’s Republican presidential nomination. Ms. Cheney, who represented Wyoming in Congress and led the House Republican Conference, making her the third-ranking member of her party, has assailed him as a budding autocrat in more visceral terms than most of his challengers for the nomination.
The daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney and a conservative star in her own right who was once on track to become House speaker, Ms. Cheney ultimately paid a price for her opposition to Mr. Trump and her service as vice chair of the House committee that investigated his role in instigating the Jan. 6 attack. She lost her leadership position and eventually her seat in a Republican primary last year. But she has vowed to do whatever she can to keep Mr. Trump from returning to the Oval Office.
Indeed, she subtitled her book “A Memoir and a Warning” to make the point that Mr. Trump represents a clear and present danger to America if he is on the ballot next November. “We will be voting on whether to preserve our republic,” she wrote. “As a nation, we can endure damaging policies for a four-year term. But we cannot survive a president willing to terminate our Constitution.”
A re-elected Mr. Trump, she said, would face few checks on his power. “Step by step, Donald Trump would tear down the other structures that restrain an American president,” she wrote. “The assumption that our institutions will protect themselves,” she added, “is purely wishful thinking by people who prefer to look the other way.”
Asked for comment on Wednesday, Mr. Trump, who has openly called for “termination” of the Constitution to immediately remove President Biden from office and reinstall himself without waiting for another election, did not directly address any of Ms. Cheney’s specific assertions but simply dismissed her as a disgruntled critic.
“Liz Cheney is a loser who is now lying in order to sell a book that either belongs in the discount bargain bin in the fiction section of the bookstore or should be repurposed as toilet paper,” Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said by email. “These are nothing more than completely fabricated stories because President Trump is the clear front-runner to be the Republican nominee and the strongest candidate to beat Crooked Joe Biden.”
Likewise, Mr. McCarthy did not deny anything in the book, copies of which have also been obtained by CNN and The Guardian. His office released a statement saying, “For Cheney, first it was Trump Derangement Syndrome, and now apparently it’s also McCarthy Derangement Syndrome.”
In Ms. Cheney’s telling, Mr. Trump knew that he lost the 2020 election even as he told the public that he had not — and she cited no less than Mr. McCarthy as a witness. Just two days after the November election, she said, Mr. McCarthy told her he had spoken to Mr. Trump. “He knows it’s over,” she quoted him saying. “He needs to go through all the stages of grief.”
That could in theory make Mr. McCarthy an important witness in the federal or state criminal cases against Mr. Trump, refuting any defense by the former president’s lawyers that he was acting on good-faith belief that fraud had stolen the election from him.
Also depicted as a Trump acolyte is Representative Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican who in recent weeks vaulted from the backbench to the speakership after Mr. McCarthy’s support for Mr. Trump failed to save him from a right-wing rebellion.
Mr. Johnson took the lead in trying to corral support for Mr. Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. He sent an email to all House Republicans telling them that he had spoken with the president, who expected them to sign onto a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court. “He said he will be anxiously awaiting the final list to review,” Mr. Johnson wrote.
Ms. Cheney took that as a veiled threat and said she was surprised about Mr. Johnson, whom she had thought of as a friend. “He appeared especially susceptible to flattery from Trump and aspired to being anywhere in Trump’s orbit,” she wrote. “When I confronted him with the flaws in his legal argument, Johnson would often concede, or say something to the effect of, ‘We just need to do this one last thing for Trump.’”
At first, Mr. McCarthy agreed with her that the pro-Trump brief went too far and told her he would not sign it because it would interfere with the power of states to run their own elections. “It federalizes too much,” he told her. But a day later, his name was added to the brief after all.
Mr. Johnson did not back down even after the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the case, sending Ms. Cheney a Fox News poll showing that 77 percent of Trump voters and 68 percent of Republicans believed the election had been stolen. “These numbers are big,” Mr. Johnson said, “and something we have to contend with as we thread the needle on messaging.”
Ms. Cheney noted that Mr. Trump’s supporters believed the election was stolen because Republicans like Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Johnson were echoing his lies.
Other Republicans were willing to toss aside traditions, norms and constitutional processes in the name of satisfying Mr. Trump’s desire to stay in power. When one Republican said during a meeting that they should not claim the election was rigged when there was no evidence, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies, said, “The only thing that matters is winning.”
Likewise, she assailed Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, for seeking to set aside the counting of Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 while a commission investigated election results that had already been recounted and certified. “It was one of the worst cases of abandonment of duty for personal ambition I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Ms. Cheney wrote.
In some cases, she found that Republicans stayed loyal to Mr. Trump out of outright fear. One colleague told her he was worried about the safety of his wife and baby if he spoke out.
Behind the scenes, though, other Republicans cheered her on. After she was one of only 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Mr. Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack, former President George W. Bush sent her a note. “Liz, Courage is in short supply these days,” he wrote. “Thank you for yours. You showed strong leadership and I’m not surprised. Lead on. 43.”
Her vocal criticism of Mr. Trump grated on other Republicans, highlighting what she called their “cowardice” in the face of the former president. When she contradicted Mr. McCarthy on Mr. Trump’s future role in the party during a joint news conference, Mr. McCarthy complained to her privately afterward.
“You’re killing me, Liz,” he said.
“Kevin, this is about the Constitution,” she replied. “Think of what Trump did. Think how appalled any of our previous Republican leaders would be about this. How would Reagan have reacted to this? How would Bush have reacted? Think of my dad.”
Mr. McCarthy dismissed that line of thinking. “This isn’t their party anymore,” he said.
On that, she wrote, she had to agree.