Washington • Mitt Romney laughed. It wasn’t a that’s-kind-of-funny laugh, but a full, guttural I-can’t-believe-you’re-asking-me-that laugh.
The Utah Republican senator was cornered at the Capitol by a herd of journalists all wondering aloud whether he would, at the end of the impeachment trial, vote to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Romney didn't answer. He just laughed.
While Romney bucked his party on Friday to join with Democrats in calling for witnesses and to subpoena documents — a move that ultimately failed 51-49 — he now faces a more difficult vote on whether the president is guilty or innocent.
Romney has never been a big Trump fan, calling him out during the GOP primaries before he secured the party’s nomination and vocally criticizing some of his actions. But Romney also agrees with many of the Trump administration’s policies and efforts, like pushing through tax reform and combating vaping.
With 53 Republicans in the Senate and the need for 67 votes to remove the president, it’s highly likely Trump will be acquitted. Romney hasn’t hinted how he’ll vote. And that may just be the way Romney wants it.
“With a smile on his face, he seems to put himself in the category of 'don't really know,'” said former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican and Fox News contributor.
“I think based on the facts or the lack of facts [in the impeachment case], I don’t see how he could possibly [vote guilty], but he just simply does not like Donald Trump,” Chaffetz continued. “So I don’t know what he’ll do. I think his view of the president is very skewed. And I hope he’s objective. If he is, I think he’ll vote no."
‘I just can’t imagine him doing it’
Romney has described his relationship with Trump as “cordial,” even after the president called him a “pompous ass” and suggested he be impeached. Romney has called Trump’s actions with Ukraine “troubling in the extreme,” but later the two sat side-by-side at the White House in an amicable meeting.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate, was elected to office in 2018 and won’t be up for reelection, should he choose to run again, until 2024.
That gives him years before he faces voters again — a long time in an ever-churning news cycle.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Romney has shown he’s principled in the impeachment process by keeping an open mind approaching the trial and asking substantive questions.
“I’d say he’s one of the few who could look himself in the mirror in the morning,” Sabato said. “I mean, he followed through on what he actually thinks of Donald Trump. And that was what was behind the vote” to allow witnesses.
But voting for witnesses and voting to remove a president for high crimes and misdemeanors are two very different things.
“You know, he can talk about how trials have witnesses ‘til the cows come home. But as far as voting to actually oust him, given the fact that Utah is so Republican, I just can’t imagine him doing it,” Sabato said.
And there could be strong repercussions of Romney voting to remove Trump, a point underscored by a recent Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk University poll showing most Utahns want Trump to remain in the White House.
Just minutes after Romney’s vote, the American Conservative Union said Romney was not invited to its annual gathering of conservatives.
“The abuse is probably already severe” against Romney from the right, Sabato said. “It would go up to 11, as they used to say.”
That probably doesn’t bother Romney, who still enjoys support of most Utahns and a national following. And this moment might possibly be one of the reasons Romney ran for office.
The multimillionaire had his business career, his time as governor and his perch as the Republican standard-bearer. He built a dream home in Holladay and had settled in when he decided to jump into the Senate race to replace outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch.
But Romney didn’t align himself with Trump, as many of his fellow party members did in 2018. Trump endorsed him — without Romney asking — and he accepted the nod but promised even before taking office he wouldn’t be a sycophant or a White House lackey.
Agree to disagree
In the lead-up to the vote on witnesses on Friday, Republicans held several closed-door caucus meetings where senators who had Trump’s back tried to cajole some of their colleagues on the fence that adding new testimony and documents would drag out the process for possibly months, and also give a boost to the Democrats’ case against the president.
The discussion remained mostly private, though it was clear that some senators, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, were convinced against allowing witnesses.
Romney, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, stayed with their promise.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., sits next to Romney in the Senate chamber and joked that he had been trying to subtly change Romney’s mind on witnesses, but it didn’t work.
“I think all along we knew who the votes were gonna be that might have been in question,” Braun said. “So I guess that would be a difficult spot to be in. But he certainly hasn't hidden that.”
Fellow Republicans didn’t believe Romney’s Friday vote would hurt him in the GOP conference, where he still enjoys good respect.
“There's not a lot of incentive for him to go against the conference except his conscience,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “And who doesn't honor conscience?”
Cramer, who came to the Senate at the same time as Romney, said some of the people he respects the most in the upper chamber are liberals who “fight like hell” for what they believe but are also pragmatic.
“At the end of the day, they vote for something that moves the ball a little bit one way and a little bit the other way,” Cramer said. “So I don't find [Romney's vote] personally offensive and it doesn't make me want to work with him any less. I frankly have great respect for it.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Romney was consistent from the start. “He took a position very early and he stuck with it,” Blunt said. “I don’t think it’s harmful even in the short run, certainly not in the long run.”