On Wednesday, ahead of a Senate impeachment trial vote on whether or not to remove President Donald Trump, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney announced he is voting for conviction on the charge that Trump had abused his power. The decision makes Romney not only the lone Republican to break ranks with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who effectively guaranteed Trump’s acquittal on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress before the trial even began—but the first senator in American history to cast a vote to convict a president from his own party in an impeachment trial.
Romney’s announcement came after the other members of his party who’d hinted they might be open to considering the evidence—most notably Sens. Lamar Alexander, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins—chose to declare that the president’s actions in withholding aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden were “improper,” but not impeachable.
In announcing his decision, the 2012 Republican nominee for president very explicitly cited his faith, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as obligating him to convict Trump and acknowledged that he would face blowback from within his own party for the vote.
“The allegations made in the articles of impeachment are very serious. As a senator-juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am,” Romney said, his voice breaking on the Senate floor as it looked as though he was on the verge of tears. “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. I was not wrong.”
Ultimately, Romney concluded that while he would vote to acquit on the charge of obstruction of Congress, Trump’s actions toward Ukraine violated his oath of office, were “grievously wrong,” and demanded removal. Here is the key passage from his Senate statement:
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. 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. The president’s purpose was personal and political. Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust. What he did was not perfect. No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security, and our fundamental values. Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.
In announcing his decision, Romney dismissed the arguments of the president’s legal defense team that his fellow Republican senators had cited in announcing their decisions to acquit. First, Romney did away with the ahistorical notion advanced by Trump defense attorney Alan Dershowitz—and rejected by the vast majority of constitutional scholars—that a statutory crime was necessary to meet the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“To maintain that the lack of a codified and comprehensive list of all of the outrageous acts that a president might conceivably commit renders Congress powerless to remove such a president defies reason,” Romney said.
Second, he dismissed the notion that there was any plausible legitimate purpose behind Trump’s request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
“Given that in neither the case of the father nor the son was any evidence presented by the president’s counsel that a crime had been committed, the president’s insistence that they be investigated by the Ukrainians is hard to explain other than as a political pursuit,” Romney said.
Finally, he dismissed the notion advanced by multiple colleagues that the decision of whether Trump’s conduct warranted removal was one best left to the voters in November. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience,” Romney said.
In a separate interview with the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins published simultaneously with his Senate announcement, Romney further stated that Trump’s were the actions of an “autocrat.”
“And really, corrupting an election process in a democratic republic is about as abusive and egregious an act against the Constitution—and one’s oath—that I can imagine. It’s what autocrats do,” he said.
While the vote has little practical impact on the outcome of impeachment—with Trump being protected by the rest of his party determined to acquit—it changed the political and historical terms of the event.
“I will only be one name among many, no more, no less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial,” Romney noted. “They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong.”
That’s not quite right, though, because Romney’s vote will set him apart, historically.
The only two other presidents in American history to be impeached did not have a single member of their own party vote for impeachment in the Senate. Republican Richard Nixon resigned before he could face an impeachment vote, trial, and likely guilty verdict after the Watergate tapes were released. Democrats Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were acquitted without a single Democratic vote in the Senate to convict.
In the Trump impeachment, Republican senators had argued that the impeachment was a purely partisan affair in order to justify their vote to acquit and keep it a purely partisan affair. The vote by Romney—who was actually the Republican standard-bearer for the presidency just eight years ago—demolishes that argument. Now—after red-state Democratic Sens. Doug Jones, Kyrsten Sinema, and Joe Manchin announced they would vote to convict—only the acquittal is a single-party decision.
Because of that, Romney is sure to face blowback for his decision. Within minutes of his announcement he already had. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted repeatedly that Romney “should be expelled from the GOP.” Newt Gingrich, who lost the 2012 nomination to Romney, tweeted that Romney was a Republican in name only. Rep. Matt Gaetz called him a “sore loser.” And Republicans are sure to cite the fact that Romney famously sought Trump’s endorsement in 2012 as a way to claim that he is being disloyal now.
Romney, for his part, said he expected the attacks and seemed fine with them. “I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision, and in some quarters, I will be vehemently denounced,” he said. “I’m sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters. Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Finally, Romney acknowledged that his vote ultimately would not change the outcome.
“I acknowledge that my verdict will not remove the president from office. The results of this Senate court will in fact be appealed to a higher court: the judgment of the American people,” he said. “Voters will make the final decision, just as the president’s lawyers have implored.”
In his interview with Coppins, Romney said that he would not vote for the Democratic nominee for president if it is either Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders, saying that he would write in his wife, Ann Romney, as he did in 2016.