WASHINGTON - Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah never became president, but he earned a new distinction Wednesday: He will be remembered as the first senator in American history to vote to remove a president of his own party from office.
Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, said he expected swift and extreme recrimination from his party for his solitary act of defiance. He was not incorrect.
Donald Trump Jr., the president's oldest son, tweeted that Romney "is forever bitter" about losing the presidency and called for him to be "expelled" from the Republican Party. Ronna McDaniel, Romney's niece and chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said that the president had done nothing wrong, the party was "more united than ever behind him" - and this was not the first time she had disagreed with "Mitt." And President Donald Trump tweeted a video attacking Romney as a "Democrat secret asset."
Shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday, Romney voted to convict Trump of abuse of power for his pressure campaign on Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden.
"Attempting to corrupt an election to maintain power is about as egregious an assault on the Constitution as can be made," Romney said in an interview in his Senate office Wednesday morning, ahead of the vote and an afternoon floor speech in which he choked up as he explained his decision.
He declared Trump "guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust."
Romney did vote with his party against the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress, arguing that House Democrats had failed to exhaust their legal options for securing testimony and other evidence they had sought.
Although the final result of the Senate vote had never been in question, the defection of Romney was a rare cliffhanger in the impeachment proceedings and also a kind of moral sideshow.
His vote cast into relief the rapid evolution of the Republican Party into an entity that has wholly succumbed to the vise grip of Trump. It deprives the president of the monolithic Republican support he had craved at the end of an impeachment case that he has been eager to dismiss as a partisan "hoax" perpetrated by Democrats.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Romney placed his decision in the context of his faith, his family and how history would remember it.
"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 said. "They will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong."
In the interview earlier, Romney, who has been critical of Trump at various points since 2016, said he was acutely aware that he would suffer serious political ramifications for his decision, particularly in light of the strict loyalty the president had come to expect from elected officials of his own party. No House Republican voted to impeach Trump in December. (Rep. Justin Amash, an independent from Michigan, fled the Republican Party last year over his differences with Trump and voted in favor of both articles.)
"I recognize there is going to be enormous consequences for having reached this conclusion," Romney said. "Unimaginable" is how he described what might be in store for him.
Romney had served as governor of Massachusetts before his unsuccessful run against President Barack Obama in 2012. He then moved to Utah and eventually ran for the Senate. He said he had come under enormous pressure in recent weeks from rank-and-file members of a party whose support for Trump has become nearly unanimous.
"I don't want to be the skunk at the garden party, and I don't want the disdain of Republicans across the country," Romney said in the interview.
He already has endured a great deal of it, namely from Trump himself, who recently derided Romney as "a pompous ass." At a grocery store in Florida last weekend, after Romney voted in favor of calling witnesses to testify in the Senate trial - another break with Republicans - he said a man called him a "traitor" while another shouted, "Stick with the team!"
As of late Wednesday morning, Romney said, he had not yet informed Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, of how he would vote. He added that he made his decision late last week after the final round of questions between the senators and the respective sides in the impeachment trial. The magnitude of the matter weighed heavily on him.
"There's not been a morning that I've gotten up after 4 a.m., just obviously thinking about how important this is, what the consequence is," Romney said.
Looking back over his political career, Romney recalled times in which his decisions had been influenced "in some cases by political benefit."
"And I regret that," he added, without specifying the particular decisions. He became increasingly reflective as the interview wore on.
"I have found, in business in particular but also in politics, that when something is in your personal best interests, the ability of the mind to rationalize that that's the right thing is really quite extraordinary," Romney said. "I have seen it in others, and I have seen it in myself."
As Romney revealed on the Senate floor how he would vote, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, dabbed at his eyes.
"I had an instinct," he said afterward, "that this might be a moment."
"He's been grappling with it," added Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who sits next to Romney on the Senate floor. He said he respected Romney's decision.
In his remarks, Romney called the actions in Ukraine of Biden's son, Hunter Biden, "unsavory but also not a crime." (Hunter Biden held a seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at a time when his father was vice president and handling diplomacy with the country.) Romney added that Trump's lawyers provided no evidence that a crime was committed by either of the Bidens.
"The president's insistence that they be investigated by the Ukrainians is hard to explain other than as a political pursuit," Romney said. "There's no question in my mind that were their names not Biden, the president would never have done what he did."
As the vote arrived, Romney sat staring straight ahead, talking to no one, his hands clasped in his lap. When he stood up and declared "guilty," he did so quickly and sat right back down.
Moments after the court was adjourned and senators stood up, Romney shook hands with Braun, smiled and rushed to the door just feet from his back-row desk, becoming the first senator to leave the chamber.
When asked Wednesday morning if he had any special flourishes planned for his speech, Romney just shrugged. "I'm planning on tearing it up when I'm finished," he quipped, a reference to Speaker Nancy Pelosi's response to the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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