Romney shocks GOP with vote to convict

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump looms as flashpoint in Alabama Senate battle Mellman: Primary elections aren't general elections On The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare 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 TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants 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 CollinsSusan Collins in statistical tie with Democratic challenger: poll Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump budget includes proposal for US Consulate in Greenland Democrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in 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 ClintonClinton asked if she'd be Bloomberg's vice president: 'Oh no' Trump launches three-day campaign rally blitz Free Roger Stone 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 McConnellKentucky state official says foreign adversaries 'routinely' scan election systems Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms Whistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics 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 Bennet2020 race goes national in sprint to Super Tuesday Toward 'Super Tuesday' — momentum, money and delegates Trump seeks split-screen moments in early primary states 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 Democrats introduce legislation to change impeachment trial rules Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts four Chinese military officers over Equifax hack | Amazon seeks Trump deposition in 'war cloud' lawsuit | Inside Trump's budget | Republican proposes FTC overhaul GOP senator proposes overhauling federal agency to confront Big Tech MORE (R-Mo.), one of the president’s most ardent Senate defenders. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTed Cruz takes aim at Alabama vasectomy bill: 'Yikes' 'Medicare for All' will turn into health care for none Cruz 'impresses' his daughter with Chris Evans meeting 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 BraunOvernight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks Senators, bruised by impeachment, hunt for deals Plan to probe Bidens sparks GOP divisions 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 AlexanderDemocrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' MORE (R-Tenn.) said “every senator has a right to vote how he or she feels,” while Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyOn The Money: Republicans expect Trump to pull controversial Fed nominee | Inside Judy Shelton's confirmation hearing | Trump extends emergency declaration at border Republicans expect Trump to withdraw controversial Fed nominee Pentagon transferring .8 billion to border wall 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.