World·Analysis

Trump impeachment ends with a whimper — and a bang

No one was expecting a group hug after Mitt Romney's emotional speech on the Senate floor announcing he'd be voting to remove U.S. President Donald Trump from office. But the swiftness with which the Utah senator was both exalted and vilified shows the depths of the country's political tribalism.

Romney's defection jolts an otherwise anticlimactic end to president's trial

U.S. President Donald Trump took a victory lap Thursday, denouncing the impeachment trial and praising those who defended him. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

No one was expecting a group hug after Sen. Mitt Romney's emotional speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate announcing he'd be voting to remove U.S. President Donald Trump from office. But the swiftness with which the Utah senator was both exalted and vilified shows the depths of the country's political tribalism.

Detractors called him a "sore loser," a jealous, failed presidential candidate, an opportunistic flip-flopper, a bitter backstabber, a Judas, a Brutus, a Benedict Arnold and, most bizarrely, a "pu_ _y" who wears mom jeans.

In the eyes of his defenders, Romney was nothing short of a "true patriot," a "profile in courage," "an American hero," a man of faith, conscience and principles who did what his Republican colleagues in the Senate were too cowardly to do.

Then there were those who felt he deserved neither hero nor pariah status, and also no credit for a death-bed conversion that could never wash away the sins of aligning with Trump on policy.

What's certainly true is that as the sole Republican to vote against a president of his own party — twice if you count his vote for more witnesses — Romney has de facto engineered his own exile from that party.

"He will be essentially excommunicated from the conservative movement, at least for the time being, because right now, your standing in the Republican Party and the conservative movement is dependent on one thing and one thing only, which is your loyalty to Donald Trump," said Charles Sykes, a political commentator, Never Trumper and editor-at-large at the conservative news site The Bulwark.

Romney is unlikely to face consequences in the Senate, where Republicans have a thin 53-47 majority and need his vote, or any official party censure, but attacks on his character and his motives are sure to continue.

One need look no further than Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton to see how the party handles dissent. The establishment Republican was ridiculed and vilified during the impeachment trial for essentially saying what legislators had been hearing for months: that Trump held up aid to Ukraine to pressure the country's president to announce investigations into political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Sen. Mitt Romney flew back to his home state of Utah on Thursday to explain his impeachment vote to legislators and his constituents. (The Deseret News/The Associated Press)

Along that same road lie the political careers of Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and Ben Sasse — Trump critics within the party who've either left office or fallen silent.

"It's going to be nasty [for Romney]," said Sykes. "Whatever you think it's going to be, it will probably be worse, because given the nature of our politics, the attacks will be both political and very personal."

Trump questions Romney's sincerity

Within two hours of the vote to acquit Trump on two articles of impeachment — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — the president had tweeted out an attack video labelling Romney, a Republican standard-bearer and former governor of Massachusetts, a "Democratic secret asset."

Donald Trump, Jr. called for his expulsion from the party — although some Senate Republicans laughed off the idea, with Sen. John Cornyn saying retaliation wasn't called for and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying only that he was "surprised and disappointed" by Romney's vote, but that the Utah senator was supportive of "most everything we've tried to accomplish."

The Utah Republican Party put out a statement saying it strongly disagreed with Romney and stood firmly behind the president.

Romney's own niece distanced herself and professed fealty to Trump.

On Thursday, Trump obliquely called out Romney, a Mormon, at a bipartisan National Prayer Breakfast. "We have allies; we have enemies. Sometimes, the allies are enemies," Trump said, expressing his dislike for "those who use faith as a justification for doing what they know is wrong."

Later, at a White House press conference, Trump took a victory lap, praising by name the lawmaker "warriors" who helped him defeat impeachment and castigating and mocking those who didn't, including Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified at the House impeachment hearings last November.

By Friday, Vindman and another key witness, Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, had been fired, along with Vindman's brother, who served with him on the National Security Council.

In his victory speech, Trump again questioned Romney's motive and alluded to his unsuccessful 2012 presidential run, which Trump endorsed at the time.

"You have some who used religion as crutch," he told the adoring crowd. "Never heard him use it before. … But, you know, it's a failed presidential candidate, so things can happen when you fail so badly running for president."

WATCH | Trump calls out some of those who worked to impeach him:

U.S. President Donald Trump attacks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer during his White House victory speech. 1:01

It doesn't matter that, as Romney himself said, he has voted with Trump on most issues — and on some, such as immigration, takes an even harder line. That won't help inoculate him, said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist with the firm Targeted Victory who served as Romney's deputy press secretary during his presidential run.

"This is Trump's Republican Party … [Romney's] attacks on the president and his vote on impeachment basically make him persona non grata with Trump supporters. They'll never forgive him for this."

Why he did it

Romney said he was guided by God and the evidence presented at the impeachment trial in making his decision to vote for conviction on the abuse of power charge. He also said he expected to be "vehemently denounced" for it by the president and his supporters.

"Does anyone seriously believe that I would consent to these consequences other than from an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded of me?" he said on the floor of the Senate.

WATCH | Romney explains why he's voting to convict Trump of abuse of power:

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney explains why he will break with his party and vote to convict U.S. President Donald Trump on the charge of abuse of power. 3:17

But he may also be thinking of his legacy, as well as that of his late father, a former Michigan governor who at one time also broke with the Republican Party, over its choice of presidential candidate.

Romney doesn't want to be just another senator, said Ray La Raja, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Having already built a brand as a Trump critic, clashing publicly with him over the years and even starting a secret Twitter account with which to troll the president and promote himself, Romney may be looking to juxtapose himself with Trump's dogged defender in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Romney's plan is to be a pre-eminent senator who has his own power base," said La Raja. "Trump might not win [in November], so now who's going to be a pivot player if there's a Democratic presidential candidate? It's going to be someone who stood up to Trump."

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was surprised and disappointed by Romney's vote. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

A calculated risk

If Romney's decision was a political move, it was a bad one, said Williams.

"He is alienating not just the leader of his party, but the entire base of the Republican Party. He will be ostracized by some for his decision, and it will follow him throughout whatever remainder of his political career is," he said.

Practically speaking, the political risk for Romney is relatively low. He is 72, wealthy, not up for re-election until 2024, with a solid base of support in a strongly Mormon state that while voting for Trump in 2016 has bristled at some aspects of his character and may not look too kindly on his attacks on Romney's faith. (Trump won the state with 45.9 per cent of the vote in 2016; Romney got 62.6 per cent in 2018.)

Romney flew back to Utah Thursday to explain his decision to his constituents and state legislators, at least one of whom has called for him to be censured. So far, it seems Romney has at least partial support in his home state.

"He's got the status to do this. It's taking a risk, although I think it's a very calculated risk," La Roja said.

A resident of Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, expresses support for Romney. (The Associated Press)

United or Trump-whipped?

Republicans who may feel sympathy for Romney are not likely to defend him publicly. Moderates such as Susan Collins, who voted with Romney on the question of witnesses at the trial, still need the support of the Trump base to get re-elected.

"One of the goals of Trumpworld would be to make Romney an example so that other Republicans aren't tempted to follow his lead," Sykes said.

Sen. Susan Collins voted with Romney on the question of witnesses, but pronounced Trump not guilty on both charges. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Matthew Continetti, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., thinks there is room for policy disagreements within the party of Trump — just not on issues like impeachment.

"On the partisan questions, I think the Republican Party is as unified as it's ever been," he said. "And I think that that spells trouble for the Democrats in the fall, because right now, the Democrats are divided, and these divisions seem only to get worse in the coming months."

Legacy of impeachment

For Democrats, Romney's vote was a sliver of light in an otherwise dark and disappointing end to the impeachment trial. 

"I do want to salute Mitt Romney," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after the final vote Wednesday. "The pressure on every Republican was enormous. Every Republican knows that this president is vindictive, vengeful, vicious sometimes, and they don't want to oppose him."

The usually fiery U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer seemed dejected Wednesday afternoon in the wake of the vote acquitting Trump, and lashed out at reporters for focusing on politics rather than the substance of the trial. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Inside the Capitol building, the proceedings of the past two and a half weeks felt serious, impassioned and consequential. But by the end, even the usually indefatigable Schumer looked defeated. 

"You're all asking these political questions," he snapped at reporters during his final press conference of the trial. "Go ask Mitch McConnell. He's interested in the politics of this. We're interested in finding out the right thing, the truth, OK?"

The consensus among pundits, meanwhile, is that impeachment won't really impact the election. Public opinion has barely budged since the trial began, and the issue was rarely mentioned on the campaign trail in Iowa — other than in complaints about the trial taking time away from campaigning.

"The issue is Donald Trump," said Continetti. "This  — whether you like him or loathe him — is the crucial question in American politics, and he will be the issue in November."

About the Author

Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with CBCNews.ca. She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for 10 years. Prior to that, she was a reporter and editor in Montreal, Germany and the Czech Republic. She's currently writing from Washington, D.C.

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