On Saturday, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., made headlines by being the first Republican member of Congress to state special counsel Robert Mueller’s report shows that President Donald Trump “has engaged in impeachable conduct.”
On Sunday, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, commended the congressman, saying, “I respect him. I think it’s a courageous statement.” Yet, as you might have guessed, when Mitt Romney and “courage” are involved, there then came a “but ...”
“But I believe that to make a case for obstruction of justice, you just don’t have the elements that are evidenced in this document,” Romney said. “And I also believe that an impeachment call is not only something that relates to the law, but also considers practicality and politics. ... And the American people just aren’t there. And I think those that are considering impeachment have to look also at the jury, which would be the Senate. The Senate is certainly not there either.”
Where to begin? Regarding the politics, Romney is right that the Senate and the public aren’t “there.” But waiting for Senate and/or public approval is essentially asking to do nothing. Neither, after all, was “there” for almost all of Watergate. When the House Judiciary began an impeachment investigation in October 1973 — after Richard Nixon fired the special counsel, after months of White House stonewalling and after hours of evidence aired in public testimony — still a majority of Americans opposed the president’s impeachment. Not until August 1974, after the Supreme Court forced the White House to release the Watergate tapes, did a majority of the public back impeachment. It wasn’t until that August that the Senate would have convicted him — and not coincidentally, that’s when Nixon resigned. So citing the Senate and the public is meaningless.
Romney's reasoning on obstruction is specious as well: "I just don't think that there is the full element that you need to prove an obstruction-of-justice case. I don't think a prosecutor would actually look at this and say, OK, we have here all the elements that would get this to a conviction."
As former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah says, there is no such thing as the “full element” of proof. It’s a meaningless term. As for what “a prosecutor” would do, well, hundreds of former federal prosecutors signed a statement that Trump’s conduct, were he anyone but the president, would “result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”
Romney repeated this error later in the interview when he said “when there’s not an underlying crime, I think it’s difficult to put together an effective case to prosecute for those crimes.” This is a common GOP talking point these days — indeed, it was repeated within the hour by the show’s conservative panelists. But again, hundreds of federal prosecutors disagree, and there is ample precedent for charging obstruction when there’s no underlying crime — for example, when a public official is covering up an affair.
The senator pulled his punches elsewhere in the interview as well. Asked whether Trump "has disgraced the office of the presidency," Romney did not directly answer the question. Instead, he offered that "I think a number of the things that were done were really, really troubling and unfortunate and distressing." Which certainly sounds like it meets the standard of "disgracing the presidency," so why not say "yes"?
"What did you expect?" a reader might ask. Romney is famous for his political flexibility, flipping on the individual mandate, gun control and even abortion. But in those cases he followed his political interests: moderate when running for office in deep-blue Massachusetts, "severely" conservative when running in the GOP primary.
But that calculus doesn’t apply here — Utahns knew Romney’s anti-Trump feelings long before he started running for the Senate seat he now holds. Though he was defeated at the state party’s nominating convention, he still won the GOP primary with 71% of the vote, even as he has continued to criticize Trump (mostly in word and not deed, of course).
It seems highly unlikely that those same voters would change their minds now about him. Yet still he searches for flimsy rationales to criticize the president’s deplorable actions but avoids calling for impeachment hearings over those same actions.
One can only conclude that it’s not just self-interest preventing Romney from showing a spine here.
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.