Why Mitt Romney's courageous vote to convict Trump matters

Until Wednesday afternoon, the divide in American politics seemed to be set in high-performance concrete reinforced by tungsten steel rods. That changed when Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDonald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim The Hill's Campaign Report: New challenges for 2020 Dems in Nevada, South Carolina Yes, Democrats have to defend their African-American base against Trump MORE (R-Utah) became the first senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his own party.

The word commonly used to describe the virulent partisanship in our politics is “tribal.” But that unfairly disparages indigenous tribes around the world. The divisions have torn apart families and friends. In 2018, when Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarGOP climate plan faces pushback — from Republicans New Qatari prime minister means new opportunities Why Mitt Romney's courageous vote to convict Trump matters MORE (R-Ariz.) campaigned for reelection, six brothers and sisters attacked him in a Democratic commercial as a racist. After winning reelection, Gosar said that Stalin would have been proud of his siblings.  

Trump, that impresario of divisiveness, rancor and vilification, bears the brunt of the blame. But the Democrats need to look in the mirror, too. I fully understand why House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMalaysia says it will choose 5G partners based on own standards, not US recommendations Pelosi warns allies against using Huawei Budget hawks frustrated by 2020 politics in entitlement reform fight MORE (D-Calif.) tore up Trump’s State of the Union speech after he refused to shake her hand. But clips of the two unedifying scenes went viral and probably even alarmed some children.

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Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersJoe Biden lost his fastball — can he get it back before South Carolina? Where the 2020 Democrats stand on taxes Bloomberg hits Sanders supporters in new ad MORE (D-Vt.) isn’t helping much either when, with us-against-them rhetoric, he demonizes corporations; entire industries like health care, where hundreds of thousands of Americans work; and billionaires, whom he compares to “drug addicts.” 

That’s why Mitt Romney’s vote to convict Trump matters, even though the Senate acquitted the president on an otherwise party line vote. The two previous presidential impeachments and trials at least swayed political and public opinion. After his impeachment and acquittal in the Senate in 1868, the incumbent President Andrew Johnson’s Democratic Party denied him the nomination for president. After House Republicans impeached Democratic President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonJuan Williams: Don't count Biden out Consensus forming for ambitious climate goal: Net zero pollution Democrats' choice: Unite or go down to defeat MORE, his approval rating jumped 10 percent, his highest ever.  

Not so with Donald Trump’s impeachment and acquittal in these ferociously partisan times, even though his conduct was far worse than Johnson’s or Clinton’s. Johnson was impeached for firing a Cabinet officer in violation of a law later found to be unconstitutional. Clinton lied under oath about an extramarital affair. Trump was willing to let a vital American ally go down to defeat in its war with Russia unless it announced, notwithstanding the lack of any evidentiary justification, that it was investigating Trump’s then-leading political rival. Trump’s conduct was condemned or defended almost exclusively on a partisan basis, and public opinion barely moved.

Then Romney stepped over a San Andreas-size national political fault line. He explained his vote to convict Trump for abuse of power (he voted to acquit on the charge of obstruction of Congress) by saying that the president in fact pressured a foreign government “to corrupt” the 2020  presidential election. “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” Romney said.

It was a moment of stunning clarity and singular courage. Romney knew that Trump and his allies would demand his “head on a pike.” Republicans immediately impugned Romney’s motives by claiming that he acted from personal animosity towards Trump, and it's only going to get worse.     

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When I heard about Romney’s vote, I thought of Fred Rogers on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” telling children that, when they saw something scary on the news, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

If your children saw President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE refuse Nancy Pelosi’s offered hand and then watched as she tore up his speech, you can point out to them Mitt Romney’s courageous vote to convict the president of abuse of power.   

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.