The impeachment of President Donald Trump has ended with Mitt Romney becoming a liberal hero.
It is both an anodyne description of Wednesday’s events and testimony to how jarring the presidency of Donald Trump has been. Less than eight years after Mitt Romney awkwardly accepted the endorsement of the-then reality television-show host in attempt to ensure victory in Nevada’s Republican caucuses, he voted for Trump to be removed from the presidency.
The apotheosis of Romney’s journey from severely conservative venture capitalist to leader of the resistance was reached just after 2 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. Speaking from a binder full of rebukes of President Trump, the Utah senator announced that he would vote to convict the President for abusing his power — the first senator to vote for conviction of their own party’s president in American history.
Occasionally choking up, Romney posed the rhetorical question whether Trump had committed a high crime and misdemeanor. Then, he answered it with unadorned understatement: “Yes, he did.”
With an eye to his legacy, Romney insisted, “I will only be one name among many, no more or less, to future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial … We’re all footnotes at best in the annals of history.” However, as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2012, Romney already achieved a status somewhat more exalted than a footnote; in rolling out his decision with embargoed interviews with Fox News and the Atlantic, he seemed aware of the scrutiny that his decision would receive.
Romney spoke to a near-empty Senate chamber, although to a much bigger audience live on cable news. Three Democrats were in the chamber with him: Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Republican Roger Wicker of Mississippi walked in partway through, then left quickly. After the speech ended, Romney quickly walked toward an exit while Schatz approached him, saying “Mitt.”
Afterward, Leahy said that he had just come into the chamber to prepare for his own remarks when he noticed Romney was due to speak. “I was just about to leave. I thought I’ll listen to him speak.” He added, “Almost from the first sentence I could tell by the sound of his voice what he was probably going to say.”
The Vermont senator, who was first elected in 1974, toted a copy of Profiles in Courage around Capitol Hill in recent days in hopes of somehow inspiring Republicans to break ranks. He said he felt redeemed having the book with him, despite some of its historical inaccuracies in describing one Republican who broke ranks to acquit Andrew Johnson. As Leahy noted with a smile, “The man who voted to exonerate Johnson was bribed.”
Although some on Twitter, like Donald Trump Jr., raged against Romney’s decision, Senate Republicans shrugged it off. “It is what it is,” said Josh Hawley of Missouri. John Thune of South Dakota noted that Romney had “made it clear from the beginning … that he was going to go his own way.”
It represented another chapter in the unusual relationship between Trump and Romney. As Thune charitably described it, “I think he and POTUS had a little bit of a complicated relationship to start with.” Since that awkward endorsement at the peak of Trump’s birtherism, Romney cut Trump from speaking at the 2012 convention, denounced him as unfit for office during the 2016 Republican primary, then interviewed with him for a Cabinet position after the general election. Until impeachment, they had since reached an uneasy truce with Romney’s election to be the junior senator from Utah.
The final vote was as perfunctory as Romney’s statement was dramatic. But it was certainly solemn. Few senators were chatting on the floor; the gallery was as crowded as it had been during any point in the trial. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, perched with hands folded in front of his face, watched the proceedings. A number of Republican congressmen packed onto a bench on the Republican side of the floor. It was so crowded that hard-right firebrand Steve King of Iowa, arriving late, had to sit on the Democratic side of the chamber.
The clerk then held a roll call on each article of impeachment and all 100 senators stood up in turn to pronounce their verdict of guilty or not guilty.
Republicans tended to wait to do so, standing only as their name was called. Democrats were more likely to stand earlier, often as the name of the senator alphabetically before them was called. The most eager senator was Michael Bennet. He stood up when the roll call on the second article began as Lamar Alexander was asked to render his verdict. Bennet remained on his feet while both Tammy Baldwin and John Barrasso gave judgment before the dark-horse presidential candidate could solemnly say “guilty.”
Once it all ended, the formalities required a certified copy of the verdict sent to both the House of Representatives and to Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State who played a key — and still mysterious — role during the Ukraine saga. Then Chief Justice John Roberts departed the chamber and the Senate returned to its normal course of business under Mitch McConnell — an assembly line of judicial confirmations.
The drama of the impeachment process was finally over. After three weeks of legal arguments and procedural maneuvering almost nothing had really changed. Save, of course, for the first line of Mitt Romney’s obituary.