WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitt Romney has made the decision he dreaded since House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The freshman Republican voted to convict President Donald Trump of abuse of power and acquit the president of obstruction of Congress two hours after announcing his intention to do so in a stunning disclosure on the Senate floor. Later in the day, the GOP-controlled Senate exonerated Trump on both charges.
What tipped the scales for Romney was Trump allegedly seeking Ukraine’s help in the 2020 election. “There is nothing more severe or egregious to our Constitution than corrupting an election,” he said. “In a democratic republic like ours, taking action to corrupt an election process is about as abusive an attack on the Constitution as I can imagine.”
Romney’s vote was inconsequential to the outcome of the third presidential impeachment trial in American history. But the considerable political consequences of his decision are not lost on the one-time GOP presidential nominee, whose stature in the party made him a uniquely prominent first-term senator.
“I’ve had a long career and this has been the most difficult decision that I have faced,” the former business executive and governor said in an interview with the Deseret News prior to the speech. “I have never experienced as much sleeplessness, as much angst, and recognized the consequence for the country in a way than I have during this process.”
He was the sole Republican to break ranks in the historic vote. He faces the near certain wrath of a president who demands unflinching loyalty within the party he now controls. Romney’s ability to work with GOP colleagues during the remaining five years of his term and prospects for reelection are less certain.
But the inner conflict that led to the decision wasn’t just political.
The devout Latter-day Saint said he took an oath “before God” to do impartial justice and put aside his personal and political interests and “do impartial justice” in considering the evidence brought by House managers and the president’s defense team.
“So I reached a conclusion which is not at all what I would hoped to have reached,” he said. “But I don’t see how in good conscience I can reach a conclusion and not be true to what my heart and mind tells me is true.”
Trump became the third president in American history to be impeached when the House passed two articles of impeachment in December. The first charges him with abuse of power for allegedly pressuring Ukraine to conduct investigations that would benefit him politically. The second accuses Trump of obstructing Congress during the House investigation into his dealings with Ukraine.
To be sure, Romney and Trump have a complicated relationship. The 2012 GOP nominee called Trump a phony and fraud during the 2016 presidential campaign, but was later considered for secretary of state after Trump’s unlikely victory.
Since Romney won his senate seat in 2018, his voting has aligned with the president more than 80% of the time, while he has also become one of Trump’s most outspoken critics among Republicans on Capitol Hill. He stood alone in saying he was troubled by allegations of Trump inviting foreign meddling in the 2020 election, which resulted in the president attacking Romney personally on Twitter.
Romney explained that when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry, he dreaded the prospect of having to sit in judgment against his party’s president.
“I knew that I would be taking an oath before God that said I would apply impartial justice and therefore all my biases and my partisan instincts of supporting Republican conservative principles and people would have to take a backseat,” he said.
In explaining his vote, Romney mentioned several times the oath recited by Chief Justice John Roberts when all 100 senators raised their right hands and were sworn in and the impact the solemn ritual had on him as a religious person invoking God in a vow to do impartial justice.
“I take that very seriously. And, so I was not looking forward to the responsibility I would have and wish it had not been brought upon us, frankly, by the actions of the president,” he said.
Coming to the decision
Like his colleagues, Romney sat silently for days listening to arguments from House managers and Trump’s defense team. He filled 54 pages of a legal pad with notes, and didn’t sleep much. After hearing hours of arguments, he would head back to his office and debrief his staff sometimes for hours on what he learned and which way he was leaning. Some nights he would lean toward acquittal and others he felt less certain.
His staff also heard from constituents and the senator said he received texts and emails from friends “I hadn’t heard from in a long time,” urging him to “stand with the team” and support the president.
”And let me tell you, I’d love to stand with the team,” Romney said. “But if you stand with the team in contravention of your conscience and the duty you’ve made before God, I would have to endure the censure of my own conscience, as well as the disdain of history.”
The president’s refusal to cooperate with House investigators was “excessive” but not illegal, Romney said, explaining his vote to acquit on the second impeachment article.
But on the abuse of power charge, Romney said the evidence was overwhelming and clear that Trump had asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, for political purposes and not to root out corruption, as White House attorneys argued.
Romney said Biden was guilty of an obvious conflict of interest when his son, Hunter, used his father’s name to get a lucrative position on the board of a corrupt Ukrainian energy company. But Romney doesn’t believe either of the Bidens committed a crime that was worth the risk Trump took by withholding aid on the condition that Ukraine investigate the connection as a corrupt scheme.
“It’s hard to imagine that the president would have done what he did were the name of the parties anything other than Biden,” Romney said.
‘Hope beyond hope’
Romney said he had reached his verdict during the questioning phase of the trial. But his push to have former national security adviser John Bolton testify wasn’t an effort to bolster his position, but rather to raise doubts that would allow him to come to a different conclusion.
Indeed, Romney’s quest for additional evidence began before the trial convened. Anticipating that calling witnesses could be problematic and concerned by the conclusions of the House investigation, Romney said he asked White House counsel if they could at least provide affidavits of top White House aides in response, hoping they would confirm there was nothing inappropriate in how aid to Ukraine was handled.
That didn’t happen. Then a few days before senators would vote on whether to call for additional witnesses and documents, The New York Times reported that a manuscript of Bolton’s forthcoming book said Trump told him that aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into the Bidens.
Romney used the revelation to argue forcefully to his GOP colleagues that they should call witnesses in the Senate trial, but only he and fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine ended up voting with Democrats in the failed effort to get Bolton to testify.
“I hoped beyond hope that (Bolton) would say something that would raise reasonable doubt and I wouldn’t have to vote to convict the president,” Romney said. “My personal and political interests lie in not convicting but exonerating and I hoped that he would be able to testify that the president had broader motives than I had determined.”
‘An easier way out’
Romney is not alone in his conclusion that Trump sought help from a foreign power in the 2020 election. In the days leading up to the verdict, other Republican senators have condemned the president’s conduct in his dealings with Ukraine. But they said it did not warrant conviction and removal from office.
Some said the House should have pursued censure rather than the “political death penalty” of impeachment and conviction. They reasoned that voters should remove a president, not senators, particularly with an election just nine months away.
Romney reached a different conclusion.
“Excusing myself by saying we’ll let the people decide would have been an easier way out. But it’s not what’s required by the Constitution. The Constitution says the Senate shall try the president,” he said.
He realized his vote wouldn’t remove the president and that voters would cast their ballots in November to render the ultimate verdict. “But in my case, I had to do what I had sworn to do as an individual and not take into account what other senators are going to do and how many will vote this way and that way. You do what you know is right, and you let happen what happens.”
He respects the different decisions others have reached and he hopes they will respect his.
He said he spoke with his wife, Ann, every night and discussed his final decision with their five sons and spouses. They talked about the political realities of voting to convict, but understood their dad’s position was vintage Romney.
“They’ve grown up under my father, who they know as Barda, and they are convinced that you do what’s right,” he said of his late father, former Michigan governor George Romney, who ran for president in 1968 and served as a cabinet member in the Nixon administration. “He did things that he believed were right, but not always popular.”