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Inside the newsroom: Washington secrets and the big reveal by Mitt Romney

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks on the Senate floor about the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

Senate Television via AP

SALT LAKE CITY — Washington is a town of secrets.

Check that.

Washington is a town of leaked secrets. So among the amazing occurrences of last week’s historic end to the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump was the fact that Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s lone Republican vote to convict on abuse of power was publicly announced by Romney on the Senate floor — and not before — in the week’s most dramatic moment. There was no leak.

Here’s how it happened.

Deseret News Washington, D.C., reporter Matt Brown had sought to report on what Romney was going through and how he would vote during the trial.

“After we had talked about the story idea of getting behind-the-scenes-access to Romney and the decisions he was making, particularly about the witnesses, I reached out to them and told them what I was interested in,” Brown told me, as we recounted the events of the week. Brown had written an in-depth profile of Romney as he took office the year before and had followed both Sen. Mike Lee and Romney through the year, including both senators work with President Donald Trump.

“They said we weren’t the only ones (seeking deeper access) and they were trying to figure out how to do it,” Brown said.

The vote seeking impeachment witnesses came and went, with Romney voting to hear witnesses, to no avail. Next would be two days of senators explaining their positions in 10-minute speeches, largely to an empty chamber, but carried live on C-SPAN.

McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, and the New York Times had also sought access as Romney, and Trump continued to be the story of last week’s impeachment conclusion.

“So I contacted his office again Tuesday morning and they said are you available at 3:45? I said yes and walked over there,” Brown said. The 25-minute interview was done under strict embargo and could not be released until Romney made his announcement during his Senate floor remarks Wednesday.

“In that interview I didn’t ask him his position right off the top. I asked about what he had been going through, revealing his struggle. I then asked, ‘So what is your position?’” When he said he would vote to convict on abuse of power “I was surprised. Actually, I was a little stunned. He could have gone either way with a reasonable explanation,” Brown said.

Coppins of the Atlantic had also been seeking access. He has written often about Romney, including a profile headlined “The liberation of Mitt Romney” that ran in The Atlantic in October.

“I obviously spent a lot of time with him last year so I was in contact with his office, letting his office know I would want an interview with him,” Coppins told me Friday. “It was a standing interview request. Then they said, OK, he wants to talk.”

Coppins’ interview followed Brown’s Tuesday late in the afternoon, with the same strict embargo. He, too, received the confirmation that Utah’s junior senator would vote to convict.

Both reporters then went to work, writing late into the night. Romney wasn’t scheduled to speak until 2 p.m. Washington time the next day, but if Romney’s intentions leaked, both the Deseret News and The Atlantic wanted to be ready with their stories.

By morning, there was still no public word. Romney apparently had not told other lawmakers, a fact later confirmed by Lee in TV interviews following the vote to acquit. If Romney had spoken with Senate leadership or other lawmakers, there was the risk of staffs leaking the news, or of Republicans trying to get ahead of the story to blunt any potential damage to the party or to the president.

“I was really shocked it didn’t leak as well,” Coppins said. “I think that the reporters he worked with he knew would respect the embargo.”

Wednesday morning, more reporters were brought in. Thomas Burr from the Salt Lake Tribune met with Romney. The New York Times was told. And then Romney did a sit-down TV interview with Fox News, held for broadcast until after Romney gave his speech.

When Romney took the Senate floor, CNN and Fox cut from their election coverage back to impeachment coverage, meaning they went live with Romney’s speech (other senators did not have live coverage). What would Romney do?

The White House had not been alerted to Romney’s vote. When Romney began, and then grew emotional, reporters came rushing into the Senate gallery. It was clear this was a big moment.

The Atlantic, Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune, New York Times and Fox went with their stories. Alerts went out from every other news organization. Twitter erupted. And both praise and condemnation for Romney and his actions dominated the next 24 hours.

Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson went on CNN and was interviewed by Erin Burnett, helping the nation understanding the principles and faith that drove Romney to make his decision. Hal Boyd, a former opinion editor for the Deseret News and currently a contributor, wrote an op-ed headlined “Romney’s vote to convict and what a Christian conscience demands.”

National Public Radio reached out and Boyd, now an associate professor of family law and policy at BYU School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution, was interviewed by Michel Martin and featured on NPR’s weekend show “All Things Considered.” It’s worth a listen in a clip titled: “The Link Between Mitt Romney’s Impeachment vote and his Faith.”

The reaction to the Deseret News coverage was divided between pride and respect for Romney and disgust and anger at his party “betrayal.”

Lee had praised Romney for his convictions when he voted to seek witnesses. But the abuse of power vote was a different story. As Lee congratulated Trump, he offered this:

“I’m looking forward to your next five years in office. Those who voted to remove you were wrong. Very wrong.”

The week is over, but the work for Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney will continue. And supporters and critics will also continue to have their say. But for those wondering if Utah matters to the nation, consider this from James Wallner, a senior fellow at R Street Institute and scholar on the Senate and legislative procedure.

He told our reporter, Matt Brown: “I think Utah is very lucky to have two senators, regardless of their specific positions, who are willing to put themselves out there and are OK with allowing their constituents to hold them accountable. I think it’s very impressive.“