Congress

Like McCain before him, Romney rebukes President Trump

2008 and 2012 presidential nominees have been most forceful GOP critics in the Senate

Back in 2008, Mitt Romney spoke at the Republican National Convention to back the presidential candidacy of onetime rival John McCain. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The greatest rebukes of Donald Trump’s presidency from the Republican side of the aisle have come from the two previous standard-bearers for the GOP.

When Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a freshman senator best known for being the 2012 Republican nominee for president, announced Wednesday on the Senate floor that he would vote to convict Trump of abuse of power, it evoked memories of the time when the late Arizona Sen. John McCain voted in 2017 to thwart the president’s desired repeal of the 2010 health care law.

McCain, a hero of the Vietnam War and the 2008 Republican nominee for president, cast his vote with a dramatic thumbs-down that the current occupant of the Oval Office has not forgotten. Trump has continued to allude to the vote, which doomed GOP plans to nix the health care law, particularly during campaign rallies.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, one of the impeachment managers, spoke of McCain during the closing arguments Monday.

The New York Democrat quoted McCain as saying: “Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely and who rely on you.”

McCain, like Romney, was a longtime critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Jeffries presentation might be viewed through the prism of connecting the two men.

Jeffries told the Senate that Ukrainians and Europeans were watching whether the Senate would honor the principles the United States was founded on.

“Doing the right thing and being constant to our principles requires a level of moral courage that is difficult but by no means impossible,” he said.

Though, in the president’s parlance, both McCain and Romney are “losers” for having failed in their respective presidential campaigns against Democrat Barack Obama, both men embodied the mainstream of the Republican Party, especially when it came to foreign policy and America’s role in the world.

GOP senators otherwise lined up to acquit the president of both articles of impeachment, including the charge of abuse of power in seeking an investigation of the Biden family by Ukraine, as well as what turned out to be a temporary withholding of foreign assistance to help the country counter its Russian neighbor.

In his floor speech, Romney said his support for much of the president’s agenda was not sufficient to excuse the behavior that he thought merited removal.

“I have voted with him 80 percent of the time. But my promise before God to apply impartial justice required that I put my personal feelings and biases aside,” the Utah senator 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, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Romney’s own niece, quickly said in a tweet that the party was on Trump’s side.

“This is not the first time I have disagreed with Mitt, and I imagine it will not be the last. The bottom line is President Trump did nothing wrong, and the Republican Party is more united than ever behind him,” she said. “I, along with the @GOP, stand with President Trump.”

To be sure, Romney knew what was coming. He is not up for reelection in Utah until 2024, which would be at the end of a potential second term for Trump.

“I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision, and in some quarters, I will be vehemently denounced. I am sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters,” Romney 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?”

As for any relationship with Trump himself? Romney had a thought about that in an interview with The Atlantic conducted ahead of the floor speech.

“We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it,” Romney said.

Though he’s not on the ballot this year, Romney’s vote quickly became fodder in other races, including the special election in Georgia for former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat.

Rep. Doug Collins took to Twitter to point out that Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a fellow Republican who was appointed to the seat by the governor, had given more than $750,000 to Romney's 2012 presidential campaign “and zero [dollars] to elect @realDonaldTrump in 2016.” Collins is challenging Loeffler in the November special election. 

A lone defector

Despite widespread speculation about other senators voting contrary to their partisan affiliation, Romney was the only one to cross party lines. He voted to convict the president on the article of impeachment on abuse of power, leading to a final vote tally 48-52. He voted with his party to acquit the president on the obstruction of Congress article, making the final tally a party-line vote of 47-53. 

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III, who narrowly won reelection in 2018, was among the last holdouts, announcing just before the vote that he would vote “guilty” on both both charges.

“I take no pleasure in these votes, and am saddened this is the legacy we leave our children and grandchildren. I have always wanted this President, and every President to succeed, but I deeply love our country and must do what I think is best for the nation,” Manchin said in a statement.

As he waited for the proceedings to begin Wednesday, Manchin looked sullen, head tilted down toward his lap where he picked at his fingers.

Trump is popular in West Virginia — he carried it by 42 points in 2016. Manchin hasn’t ruled out running again in 2024, so his votes put him in the spotlight. 

Manchin took advantage of own personal brand in the state — he’s a former two-term governor — and a flawed opponent to win a second full term in 2018. He played up his relationship with the president and ran ads touting his support for a border wall.

Manchin is used to bucking his party in the Senate. He was the only Democrat to vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018. But on Wednesday’s votes, he stuck with his party.

Several Democrats approached Manchin after the votes and shook his hand or hugged him before they left the floor. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer connected with Manchin in the Democratic Cloakroom and gave him a hug.

Meanwhile, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, a freshman senator, was the most elusive member of her party throughout the impeachment process, declining to offer the media much insight into her thinking as the trial unfolded.

Like Manchin, whom she hugged on the Senate floor before the vote, Sinema announced prior to the vote that she supported Trump’s conviction on both charges, calling his actions “dangerous to the fundamental principles of American democracy.”

She drew attention when she stood and applauded several times during Tuesday’s State of the Union address when her Democratic colleagues did not.

Trump carried Arizona by less than four points in 2016, and Democrats are making a play for the state this November.

Sinema arrived in the Senate last year, having defeated Republican Martha McSally by 2 points.

She’s not facing reelection until 2024. (McSally was subsequently appointed to the late Sen. John McCain’s seat and is up for election this year.)

Sinema has already bucked her party in the Senate. Her vote for two of Trump’s Cabinet nominees provoked progressives in Arizona into trying to censure her. She did not back the Arizona Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2018 and has not yet officially endorsed Mark Kelly in his Senate race against McSally.

Simone Pathé, Herb Jackson, Griffin Connolly, Lindsey McPherson and Todd Ruger contributed to this report.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.