Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — GOP senator: It's 'foolish' to buy Treasury bonds Democrats aim for maximum pressure on GOP over debt ceiling 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 TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol 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 CollinsWelcome to ground zero of climate chaos A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate Bipartisan blip: Infrastructure deal is last of its kind without systemic change MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - DC prepares for Saturday of festivals & Jan. 6 demonstration Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee 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.
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 lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation 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 McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week 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.
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 BennetInterior reverses Trump, moves BLM headquarters back to DC Conservation group says it will only endorse Democrats who support .5T spending plan Lawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals 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 HawleySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE (R-Mo.), one of the president’s most ardent Senate defenders. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant More than 10,000 migrants await processing under bridge in Texas Senators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State 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.”
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.”
Other Republicans flatly rejected the idea of kicking Romney out of the conference or stripping him of his committee assignments.
Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunRepublicans unveil bill to ban federal funding of critical race theory Earmarks, the swamp's favorite tool, return to Washington Senate in talks to quickly pass infrastructure bill 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 AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain MORE (R-Tenn.) said “every senator has a right to vote how he or she feels,” while Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCrypto debate set to return in force Press: Why is Mo Brooks still in the House? Eshoo urges Pelosi to amend infrastructure bill's 'problematic' crypto regulation language 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.