After staying relatively quiet throughout the House’s impeachment inquiry, Sen. Mitt Romney now finds himself in the middle of an increasingly bitter debate in his own party.
The Utah Republican has long been open to hearing from former national security adviser John Bolton and other witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, a position shared by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The trio has searched for a fourth crucial vote to win a majority, but up until Sunday, those appeals seemed to be going nowhere.
Yet following a New York Times report that Trump told Bolton that frozen Ukrainian aid would be restored only if officials in Ukraine announced an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Romney’s push for witnesses has some life — and some Republicans are displeased.
Romney “made a strong pitch” for witnesses during a closed-door lunch of Senate Republicans on Monday, according to Republicans familiar with the meeting. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged his colleagues to wait until after Trump’s defense team finishes its presentation and senators go through a lengthy question-and-answer session to make a decision on what’s become the biggest issue of the trial.
But Romney is already making his move. And though he serves on the Republican whip team, Romney is now effectively working against party leaders and arguing to colleagues that the proper way to test each side’s contention is to hear from people directly involved in the Ukraine saga.
“It has been pointed out so far by both the House managers as well the defense that there has not been evidence of a direct nature of what the president may have said or what his motives were or what he did,” Romney said on Monday evening. “The article in the New York Times I think made it pretty clear that [Bolton] has some information that may be relevant. And I’d like to hear relevant information before I made a final decision.”
Romney’s push for Bolton to testify is drawing blowback from some of his colleagues, with recently appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) asserting he wants to “appease the left.” Loeffler and her husband, New York Stock Exchange Chairman Jeffrey Sprecher, donated more than $1.5 million to a super PAC that backed Romney’s 2012 White House run. But now Loeffler is expected to face a challenge for her seat from GOP Rep. Doug Collins, and she’s eager to demonstrate her loyalty to Trump by taking on an occasional critic of the president.
Still, Romney isn’t going full Trump resistance: He knows his group can’t bring in Bolton alone without enraging some of his colleagues. So any successful effort to hear new testimony would also likely have to include witnesses whom Trump wants to subpoena too.
“My expectation is that were there to be that testimony from Mr. Bolton, that there would be testimony from someone on the defense side as well in order to get some 50-plus people to agree,” Romney said. “I’m not going to be counting noses as to who would support or not support that at this stage, but I may down the road.”
A former governor of Massachusetts, 2012 presidential nominee and wealthy businessman, the 72-year-old Romney makes an unlikely freshman senator. But he’s mostly fit in with his colleagues — even hosting the party’s informal dinner on Monday with helpings of Chick-fil-A.
Yet Romney does get a rise out of Republicans when he challenges the president. Romney’s GOP colleagues remember his harsh rhetoric against Trump during the 2016 campaign, though tensions have ebbed and flowed in the past four years.
“I’d rather he not” push for witnesses, said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). “He isn’t all that close to the administration. … I don’t agree with him.”
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) has compared Romney to “Jeff Flake on steroids,” and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) asserted last fall that Romney “thinks the worst of the president.” Trump himself called Romney a “pompous ass” when he expressed concerns about asking other countries to investigate Joe Biden.
A senior administration official acknowledged Bolton’s book could hurt the GOP’s efforts to block witness testimony but said it wasn’t because of anything Romney is doing.
“He’s doing what he’s already doing. It’s personal" between him and Trump, the official said.
Romney, though, rarely engages on any insults or digs at him. Asked about Loeffler’s Monday diss, Romney praised the brand-new senator and said he was glad she’s serving.
"He’s a leader,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) of Romney. “I have respect for his views, not that I agree with him all the time."
Romney’s proposal to include the president’s witnesses along with any Democratic-preferred witnesses like Bolton has been frequently discussed among Republicans, most recently on Monday. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania was among the Republicans broaching the idea, though it didn’t seem to be catching fire in the broader Senate GOP.
“I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere. I really don’t think so,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “I think it will get to the point of where you have a few considering it.”
Most Republicans are eager to dispense with the Trump trial and have argued that bringing in witnesses could drag it on for weeks if issues of executive privilege are raised in the courts.
Senate GOP leaders acknowledge that Romney is pushing his position, but so far, they publicly argue the dynamic inside the Republican Conference has not changed despite the Bolton revelations.
“It’s not a new position for [Romney]. He’s been on that position for quite a while,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican. “He didn’t say anything new at lunch that he hasn’t said before.”
If the effort to subpoena Bolton moves forward, Republican leaders will respond with their own explosive push to call Hunter Biden or another witness favored by the White House. Other Trump allies are also echoing this line, declaring that if Bolton is called, then “the floodgates are opened.”
“I don’t see the need to have more witnesses unless we have a lot more witnesses,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “I don’t know what the country would gain from that.”
Romney sent shock waves through the Capitol when he said on Monday morning that it’s “increasingly likely” that more Republicans would embrace his call for witnesses.
Among the senators most likely to join Romney, Collins and Murkowski are Toomey, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Rob Portman of Ohio or Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, according to GOP sources. But none have taken the public plunge.
Barrasso said the witness vote — set for Friday — "is still going to be close. They need four. And I haven’t seen anybody shift."
Romney said later Monday evening that he didn’t base his earlier statement on any inside intel. He just thinks that if Bolton is willing to talk, logically, Republicans should be willing to listen.
“My sense was that based upon the fact that there was apparently relevant information, material information that others would say: ‘Yeah, OK, that’d be interesting to hear if we could,’” Romney said.
Heather Caygle and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.