WASHINGTON – Saying the president committed “an appalling abuse of the public trust,” Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney voted to convict President Donald Trump on the first article of impeachment, becoming the first senator ever to vote against his own party’s president in an impeachment trial.
“This verdict is ours to render,” Romney said in his speech on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, just hours before the historic vote. “The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a ‘high crime and misdemeanor.’ Yes, he did.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was elected to the Senate in 2018 from Utah.
Romney acknowledged that his vote would not affect the outcome of the trial. The Senate voted 52-48 to acquit on the first article, and 53-47 on the second. Romney voted to acquit on the second charge, obstruction of Congress. Opponents needed 67 of the 100 senators to remove Trump from office.
Trump can tout the acquittal, but Romney’s defection makes it harder for the president to claim total vindication from impeachment which he often describes as a partisan witch hunt and a “hoax.”
If any GOP senator were going to defy the president, it was Romney. The Utah senator has often clashed with Trump, calling him a “fraud” and a “phony” when Trump was running in 2016 for president.
“Well, I think he and the president had a little bit of a complicated relationship to start with,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the third most powerful Republican in the Senate, said after Romney’s announcement.
The House impeached Trump on Dec. 18 on two articles – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – related to the president’s efforts last summer to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations of political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, in exchange for releasing nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid.
Impeachment explained:A diagram of events in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump
Trump has denied he did anything inappropriate, saying he an obligation to make sure the country was adhering to anti-corruption agreements before he would commit U.S. tax dollars to them.
But in his speech, Romney didn’t buy that explanation.
“The president asked a foreign government to investigate his political rival. The president withheld vital military funds from that government to press it to do so. The president delayed funds for an American ally at war with Russian invaders,” he said. “The president’s purpose was personal and political. Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust.”
Romney acknowledged the scorn he faces from fellow Republicans who are fiercely loyal to Trump and do not tolerate dissension.
“In some quarters, I will be vehemently denounced. I am sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters,” he said. “Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Later, during a call with reporters, Romney said he was bracing for the impact.
“I will accept whatever consequence is sent my way and recognize that’s part of the job. People don’t expect me to be a shrinking violet,” he said. “I’m feeling the weight of the responsibility for the vote I’ve taken and know that it will have impact on me and my family for a long, long time to come.”
Early on in his floor speech, Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, choked up as he discussed about his deeply religious roots.
“I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced,” he said. “I was not wrong.”
As he predicted, criticism from the president’s allies came swiftly.
The president’s oldest son called for Romney to be thrown out of the party.
“Mitt Romney is forever bitter that he will never be POTUS. He was too weak to beat the Democrats then so he’s joining them now,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. “He’s now officially a member the resistance & should be expelled from the @GOP.”
“#RecallRomney” began trending on Twitter within minutes of his speech. So was #CountryOverParty.
“This is not the first time I have disagreed with Mitt, and I imagine it will not be the last,” tweeted Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican Party who is also Romney’s niece. “The bottom line is President Trump did nothing wrong, and the Republican Party is more united than ever behind him.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., however, refrained from dumping on Romney when asked by reporters after the vote if there’s still room in the party for the Utah senator.
“I was surprised and disappointed,” McConnell said. “But we have much work to do for the American people. And I think Sen. Romney has been largely supportive of most everything we have tried to accomplish.”
Other Republicans rushed to his side.
John Weaver, who worked on the GOP presidential campaigns of John McCain and John Kasich, said Romney put country over party.
“No one fought harder against @SenatorRomney in primary battles in the past than I,” Weaver tweeted. “No one is prouder to stand with him now.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead House impeachment manner, noted that he had asked if there was “just one Republican senator who would say `enough.'”
“And there is,” he tweeted.
Romney said he wanted to hear from witnesses in the hope that they “would be able to introduce reasonable doubt, in my mind at least, and thereby remove from me the awful responsibility of having to vote to impeach.”
He said he contacted the White House lawyers to ask if they could at least provide affidavits from former national security adviser John Bolton, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others with first-hand information about Trump’s actions.
“Again, hoping that I would not have to reach the conclusion that I reached, because I understand that the consequence of my decision is substantial and goes against my personal interest, my political interest and my heart,” Romney said. “I don’t want to have to have the leader of my party receive the vote I have to give today.”
Contributing: Savannah Behrmann, Christal Hayes