Romney shocks GOP with vote to convict

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyOutgoing inspector general says Trump fired him for carrying out his 'legal obligations' Trump selects White House lawyer for coronavirus inspector general Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill 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 TrumpCDC updates website to remove dosage guidance on drug touted by Trump Trump says he'd like economy to reopen 'with a big bang' but acknowledges it may be limited Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill 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 CollinsPresident tightens grip on federal watchdogs The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump gets new press secretary in latest shake-up Trump takes heat for firing intel watchdog during pandemic MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiLawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves GOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus 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, Biden set for tight battle in Florida We need to be 'One America,' the polling says — and the politicians should listen Poll shows Biden with 6-point edge on Trump in Florida 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.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLawmakers outline proposals for virtual voting Overnight Health Care: Trump calls report on hospital shortages 'another fake dossier' | Trump weighs freezing funding to WHO | NY sees another 731 deaths | States battle for supplies | McConnell, Schumer headed for clash Phase-four virus relief hits a wall 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 BennetHillicon Valley: Coronavirus tracking sparks surveillance concerns | Target delivery workers plan Tuesday walkout | Federal agency expedites mail-in voting funds to states | YouTube cracks down on 5G conspiracy videos Why being connected really matters for students Democratic senator criticizes Zoom's security and privacy policies 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 HawleyPressure mounts on Congress for quick action with next coronavirus bill Hawley unveils initiative to rehire workers laid off during coronavirus crisis, bolster domestic production Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors MORE (R-Mo.), one of the president’s most ardent Senate defenders. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzLawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil Overnight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves 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.

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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.

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“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 BraunDemocrats, Trump set to battle over implementing T relief bill Senate GOP looking at ,200 in coronavirus cash payments GOP divided on next steps for massive stimulus package MORE (R-Ind.) waved off talk of expelling Romney from the conference as “silly talk.”

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Other Republicans urged tolerance for different points of view.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSticking points force stimulus package talks to spill into Sunday GOP drafting stimulus package without deal with Democrats Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday MORE (R-Tenn.) said “every senator has a right to vote how he or she feels,” while Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyGraham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill Five things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens 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.