Mitt Romney breaks with GOP and votes to remove Trump from office

(Patrick Semansky | AP) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives before President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.

Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney voted Wednesday to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power, arguing that the president violated the trust of the American people and the authority of his office for his own personal and political benefit.

The Utah senator was the only Republican to vote guilty on the first article of impeachment, which failed on a vote of 52 “not guilty” and 48 “guilty.” Romney says he knows the “enormous” repercussions he’ll face from the president, members of his own party and Trump supporters.

Romney insists he had no choice.

“I swore an oath before God to apply impartial justice. And, as you know, I’m a very religious person. I take that very seriously,” Romney, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told The Salt Lake Tribune ahead of his vote. “And so I looked at the evidence in a very unbiased manner and concluded that that the president had done as was alleged — that he did ask a foreign government to interfere in the election, that he did pressure that government by withholding aid.

“That's as egregious an assault on the Constitution of our country,” he added, “as I can imagine that a president might make.”

Romney voted to acquit the president on the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress, because he doesn’t believe the House took all the steps it needed to test the president’s assertion of executive privilege covering witness testimony and documents sought in the inquiry. That vote failed along party lines, 53 “not guilty” and 47 “guilty.”

[Read more: Full transcript of Sen. Mitt Romney’s Senate impeachment trial remarks]

No matter Romney’s vote, Trump was cleared of both charges Wednesday, when the Senate took up the impeachment articles after a trial that excluded new witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton. With a 53-seat GOP majority, it was evident there weren’t the 67 votes required to remove Trump from office.

Romney said he is probably ill-prepared for the fallout to come from his vote. Still, he seemed at ease during a short interview Wednesday morning, when he ticked off the reasons he found the White House’s defense weak against a strong case for impeachment on the abuse-of-power charge.

“Given the oath I swore,” he said, “I simply have no choice but to honor my conscience and do what I believe is right.”

The backlash against Romney was swift.

The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., posted an unflattering picture on Instagram of Romney with the words, “Mom jeans, because you’re a pussy.”

“Mitt Romney is forever bitter that he will never be” president, Trump Jr. tweeted as well. “He was too weak to beat the Democrats then so he’s joining them now. He’s now officially a member of the resistance & should be expelled from the” Republican Party.

Several of Romney’s GOP colleagues in the Senate quickly dismissed such talk as nonsensical.

Ronna McDaniel, Romney’s niece and chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said she stood by Trump.

“This is not the first time I have disagreed with Mitt, and I imagine it will not be the last,” she tweeted. “The bottom line is President Trump did nothing wrong, and the Republican Party is more united than ever behind him.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and die-hard Trump supporter, called Romney a “sore loser,” and Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said Romney was still upset he didn’t win the presidency and Trump did.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was “surprised and disappointed” though he added that he wouldn’t harbor any bad feelings against Romney.

We don’t have any doghouses here,” McConnell, R-Ky., said in response to a question from The Tribune. “The most important vote is the next one.

Back in Utah, Romney faced scorn from members of his party.

One of Trump’s first public supporters in Utah, Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, hailed the president’s acquittal and predicted that his approval rating in the state will reach new heights.

As for Romney’s vote to remove Trump from office, Peay said, “Senator Romney’s vote was about himself, but it wasn’t about the people of Utah or the patriots who love this country.”

He declined to elaborate.

Several Republicans pointed out that Trump enjoys a higher approval rating in Utah, about 57%, according to the latest poll, than Romney, who clocked in with less than half of voters’ support.

Praise, however, flowed from the other side of the aisle.

I can foresee a day when the Republican Party of America decides that the Trump experience was a bad one and the keynote speaker at that meeting will be Mitt Romney," Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told The Tribune.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the lead prosecutor in the Senate trial, said Romney showed courage that other GOP senators lacked.

“One Republican Senator had the courage to do impartial justice,” Schiff tweeted. “To put country over party and vindicate the Founders’ faith in self-governance and show us, right still matters.”

House Democrats impeached Trump on the two articles for what they charge was leveraging hundreds of millions in military and State Department aid to Ukraine while simultaneously asking that country’s leader to investigate his political rivals and then barring testimony by White House officials and prohibiting the release of thousands of documents.

Trump had wanted Ukraine to announce probes of former Vice President Joe Biden, now a Democratic contender for that party's presidential nomination, and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. He also urged an investigation of a debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election.

The president has said he is the victim of a witch hunt, though several Republican senators have stated that while they wouldn’t vote to convict Trump, they believe his actions were inappropriate or wrong — or both.

Romney said he dreaded being thrust into the role of judging a president, and it was the “hardest decision I've ever made.”

“No question the consequence will be enormous,” Romney said. “The consequence of violating my conscience and my oath of office to God would be even greater.”

Trump scolded Romney last fall as a “pompous ass” when the Utah senator said that the president’s call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was “troubling in the extreme.”

Romney, who is not endorsing Trump or anyone in the presidential election this year but believes Trump will be reelected, dismissed criticism that his vote could be construed as spite against the president. Romney and Trump have sparred publicly on occasion even as they have appeared friendly at times as well.

“I don’t hate the president,” Romney said, noting independent groups that show him voting with the president’s position about 80% of the time. “I agree with him on a policy front. And we’ve been cordial for years.”

Romney, who noted he's already been called a traitor at a grocery store for supporting witnesses in the Senate trial, says he knows the wrath he'll encounter from the president.

“So he shoots a tweet at me now and then. Really? You think I would endure the consequence of the vote I'm going to take for, you know, trying to get even with a tweet?” Romney said. “I mean, is there anybody that petty?”

Romney, the GOP 2012 presidential nominee, quickly dismissed a suggestion that he might be angling for his own path to the presidency — “I can give you a 100% commitment that 72-year-old Mitt Romney is never, ever going to run for president,” Romney said. “I did that twice. I'm not doing it again.”

Romney has already taken fire from the right and kudos from the left for breaking with his party to support allowing witnesses in the Senate trial, specifically testimony from Bolton.

The former national security adviser has said he would testify and, in a manuscript for a forthcoming book, alleged the president did leverage U.S. aid for the announcement of the Biden investigations.

Romney said Wednesday that the main reason he wanted Bolton to testify was to see if the former White House official could give him a good explanation that didn't fall in line with the evidence showing Trump abused his power.

“I hoped [Bolton] could provide exculpatory evidence and raise reasonable doubt so I wouldn't have to vote to impeach,” Romney said. “That's what I hoped he could do.”

The Senate voted against allowing further witnesses, with only Romney and Maine Sen. Susan Collins breaking GOP ranks and voting with Democrats. The trial then moved to closing arguments and Wednesday’s vote.

During a conference call Wednesday, Romney was reminded that the Utah Legislature is considering a bill to allow senators to be recalled. The Utah Republican said he’d heard about it, but “I can’t begin to predict what would happen in the minds of other legislators.”

The United Utah Party was quick after Romney’s vote to offer a safe landing should he find his Republican credentials under fire.

“Sen. Mitt Romney’s decision to vote to convict the president on the charge of abuse of power was a powerful reminder that moral courage is sorely lacking in today’s political environment, but that there are individuals who still hold to a sense of the importance of their duty to the country,” the party said in a statement. “The United Utah Party applauds Sen. Romney and, should Republicans succeed in ostracizing him for his willingness to put his country before narrow partisan interests, we would like him know that he would have a new home in the UUP.”