Romney shocks GOP with vote to convict

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneySenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Stimulus checks debate now focuses on size, eligibility CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia MORE (R-Utah) shocked his fellow Republican senators and surprised much of the nation on Wednesday with a dramatic floor speech announcing he would vote to convict President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE on the impeachment charge of abuse of power.

Romney announced his decision in a nearly empty Senate chamber just hours before the Senate voted to acquit Trump and after fellow GOP colleagues such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsObama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann Murkowski300 green groups say Senate has 'moral duty' to reject Trump's public lands nominee Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  On The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding MORE (Alaska) had already announced they would not vote to convict Trump.

Just as surprising as his vote was the intensity of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee’s language.

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While other Senate Republicans chided Trump for “inappropriate” conduct, Romney said “the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust” and “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights.”

“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,” he said.

Romney, however, voted against the second article of impeachment accusing the president of obstruction of Congress, which failed along strict party lines.

Senate Republicans along with most of the rest of the political world thought Trump would be acquitted on a straight party-line vote after Collins, who faces a tough reelection race this year in a state carried by Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump vows challenge to Nevada bill expanding mail-in voting Biden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman Juan Williams: The Trump Show grows tired MORE in 2016, said she would vote against conviction.

If anything, it appeared more likely that Democrats would suffer defections.

Instead, Democrats won a key talking point from Romney’s vote, which they will surely use in the weeks and months to come.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellProfessional sports players associations come out against coronavirus liability protections Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House Top GOP senator urges agencies to protect renters, banks amid coronavirus aid negotiations MORE (R-Ky.) after the vote said he had hoped to replicate the unanimous Republican vote against the articles that GOP leaders mustered in the House.

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He said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by Romney’s vote, indicating he received little if any advance warning.

Still, he tried to downplay the defection.

“I think they’re pretty clearly party lines both ways. I think that’s what you can take out of it, pretty much party line in both chambers,” he said when asked to assess the final Senate and House votes.

Democrats were elated by Romney’s announcement.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called his vote “momentous,” while Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetHow Congress is preventing a Medicare bankruptcy during COVID-19 Tom Cotton rips NY Times for Chinese scientist op-ed criticizing US coronavirus response Our national forests need protection — and Congress can help MORE (D-Colo.) said it “restores my faith in democracy.”

Republicans were caught off guard, though GOP senators, for the most part, didn’t lace into Romney.

“I am surprised,” said Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  McConnell: 15-20 GOP senators will not vote for any coronavirus deal Trump plans to order Chinese company to sell TikTok's US operations: reports MORE (R-Mo.), one of the president’s most ardent Senate defenders. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election MORE (R-Texas), another staunch Trump ally, said, “I disagree with his decision. I think it’s a mistake.”

In a statement, the White House described Romney as a “failed Republican presidential candidate,” and Donald Trump Jr. called on the Senate GOP to expel Romney from its conference.

The White House press office abruptly canceled a press availability for Trump and Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, that was scheduled to take place in the Oval Office minutes after Romney announced his decision. It did not offer an explanation for the move, stirring speculation that officials were caught off guard by the news.

A Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on Romney’s vote said he was “disappointed” but didn’t want to add any fuel to the fire by bashing his colleague.

The person most impacted by Romney’s vote may be Collins, who has been running ads in Maine stressing her brand as an independent.

By breaking with Republicans on what could be the most defining vote of his career, Romney has set a new standard for independence for GOP lawmakers, who have been reluctant to forcefully challenge the president during his first three years in office.

“It puts Sen. Collins in a real bad spot to have someone run in that independent [lane] that she typically does. This is such a tough vote for her,” said a Senate Republican aide.

Collins later told reporters, “Every senator has to make his own decision. I don’t agree with Mitt’s decision.”

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But when asked if Romney should be punished with expulsion from the conference, Collins said, “Of course not.”

Romney said he fully expected to be “denounced” for breaking with his party on such a politically charged vote but that he felt compelled to vote according to his conscience and moral values.

The Utah senator paused for several seconds and looked down at his desk, appearing to choke up with emotion, at the start of his speech, the first sign that he was about to drop a bombshell on the Senate floor.

“I am a profoundly religious person. 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,” he said.

His vote could give momentum for a bill introduced by Utah state Rep. Tim Quinn (R) that would allow voters to recall a U.S. senator with a ballot measure.

A Senate Republican aide, however, dismissed the legislation as an unconstitutional infringement on federal power.

Asked how long Romney would be in the doghouse, McConnell said, “We don’t have any doghouses here. The most important vote is the next vote.”

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Other Republicans flatly rejected the idea of kicking Romney out of the conference or stripping him of his committee assignments.

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunThis week: Negotiators hunt for coronavirus deal as August break looms Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock MORE (R-Ind.) waved off talk of expelling Romney from the conference as “silly talk.”

Other Republicans urged tolerance for different points of view.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag MORE (R-Tenn.) said “every senator has a right to vote how he or she feels,” while Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig Shelby33K laptops meant for Alabama distance learning are stuck in customs, could be held until October Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag Overnight Defense: Senate GOP coronavirus bill includes .4B for Pentagon | US, Australia focus on China in key meeting MORE (R-Ala.), one of the Senate’s most senior lawmakers, said “the party ought to be a big umbrella.”

Jordain Carney, Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels contributed.