WASHINGTON (CN) — Senator Mitt Romney refused to make himself a brick in the Republican firewall surrounding the commander-in-chief, with the astonishing announcement that he will vote to convict President Donald Trump for abusing his power.
By breaking ranks and voting with the Democrats, Romney becomes the first lawmaker in U.S. history to vote to remove a president of his own party.
“The president’s purpose was personal and political,” Romney said. “Accordingly, the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust.”
While laden with symbolic and historical weight, the Utah Republican’s call to conscience will not drive Trump from the Oval Office. The otherwise solid GOP majority in the Senate gives Democrats an insurmountable 20-vote burden to approve their articles of impeachment in the Senate.
“What he did was not perfect,” Romney continued, undercutting Trump’s oft-repeated characterization of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “No, it was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values. 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.”
The Utah Republican explained from the Senate floor that his Mormon faith, specifically an oath to God invoked upon all senators when taking office, weighed heavily on his decision. This belief and faith was at the core of his person, Romney said, which made breaking from his party an arduous decision.
“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, his voice wavering.
Romney also acknowledged that the vote fates him to become a lightning rod for condemnation and criticism, not just from members of his own party, but as history has dictated, from the president himself.
“I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” he said. “Does anyone seriously believe I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me?”
Romney’s announcement combats claims by the president that his conversation with Ukraine’s Zelensky was a “perfect phone call.” Romney decried the president’s attempts at foreign election interference as a “flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security interests and our fundamental values.”
Romney highlighted that this party disagreement was unlike him, noting he voted with the president on 80% of the bills offered before the Republican-controlled Senate. His promise before God, however, required him to put his personal feelings aside, he said.
“Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end,” he said, “it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”
Democrats were eyeing Romney as a possible Republican defector on the final vote after he bucked party leadership in a vote last week on whether to bring new witnesses and evidence into the trial.
Republicans ultimately defeated the Democrat-led effort to subpoena new witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton, but Romney and fellow Republican Senator Susan Collins crossed party lines making the final vote 49-51.
Hours prior to Romney’s floor speech, Democrat Senator Doug Jones from the chamber announced that he would stick with his party, voting to convict Trump. After Romney’s announcement, Jones said the Republican senator was “a man of conscience.”
The decision by Romney to vote against his party’s will contradicts cries from both Republicans and Democrats that Trump’s impeachment was the most partisan in U.S. history.
“Yeah, there was some partisan Democrats,” Jones told reporters exiting the Senate Wednesday afternoon. “But doggone it, the president of the United States and Republicans made this as partisan as anybody. And that is unfortunate.”
Trump carried the red state of Alabama in 2016. Narrowly securing his seat last year in a special election, Jones was a possible swing vote for Republicans to secure a bipartisan acquittal.
The president's son Donald Trump Jr. said Romney “should be expelled” from the GOP, but the majority of Republicans arriving for the final vote said they would not support an ousting.
Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he did not think retaliation was necessary, while Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski also said they would not support expelling Romney.
Senator John Thune, the GOP whip, told reporters that he was not aware of Romney’s decision until the Republican took to the Senate floor but reiterated that the majority of his party remained locked in on acquittal.
"He's made it very clear from the beginning on the witness vote he was going to go his own way," Thune said.
Senator Mike Braun, R-Ind., said he never personally witnessed any "arm-twisting" or coercion unfold behind the scenes during the entire impeachment trial and did not think any such tactics were used on Romney.
Senator Bernie Sanders, asked by reporters to respond to Romney’s decision, focused instead on the position of the GOP majority.
“This is a message to future presidents that they can operate above the law,” Sanders said.
But Democrat Senators Dianne Feinstein and Brian Schatz took heart in Romney’s showing of bipartisanship.
“Welcome aboard we're delighted to have him,” Feinstein said with a smile, adding the bipartisan vote to convict the president was very important.
One of two Democrats present in the chamber when Romney delivered his floor statement, Schatz said he cleared his schedule to hear the announcement on the off-chance that the GOP senator voted with Democrats.
“It’s easy in this business to get cynical about politics and to assume everyone's making a series of calculations and calibrations,” Schatz said. “But I think that he did what was expected of all of us, which is to consult our conscience, and it gives me hope for this institution but also for the country.”