WASHINGTON — If House Democrats vote to impeach President Donald Trump, the focus will shift to the Senate, where Trump can only be removed in the hard-to-imagine scenario where there’s a trial and at least 20 Republicans vote to convict him.
Any prayer for a shred of Republican support for impeachment begins with Mitt Romney, the Utah senator and former presidential candidate, who tried and utterly failed to kill Trump’s campaign in 2016, flirted with joining Trump’s cabinet after the election, and has since maintained a wary position on the president.
On Wednesday, Democrats had some hopeful praise for Romney, who has told reporters that he has found the news that Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president “deeply troubling.”
Many Republicans argue the transcript of Trump’s call is exculpatory because he does not outline a quid pro quo of military aid in exchange for dirt on the Biden family, but Romney has said that even asking for an investigation is wrong.
“It shows extraordinary political courage on his part, and I’ve told him so,” said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin about Romney.
Asked why he thinks no other federally elected Republican has spoken out as strongly, Durbin said, “Five words: because they're afraid of him.”
Merely expressing grave concerns may not seem like a radical act. But in Washington in 2019 it’s enough to make you a unique case as a Republican.
Sen. Ben Cardin said Romney has already developed a reputation for having an independent streak and speaking his mind. "I think Mitt Romney is perceived as being what you want to see from a United States senator,” he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said Romney reminds him of what it was like back when he joined the Senate in 1975, when both Democrats and Republicans spoke freely, even if that meant criticizing their own party.
Romney has not yet said he supports impeachment, but he has said he’s waiting to see where the House investigation leads. Though Sen. Brian Schatz pointed out that even he and many other Democrats had not come to the conclusion that an impeachment inquiry was necessary until recently.
“We don’t want to create a situation where this becomes purely a question of which team you belong to,” he said. “If people need to take a little longer or have to massage their own home state politics to get to the right place, we have to allow them to get there.”
Standing up to Trump has consistently proven to be an effective way to shorten your political career if you’re in the GOP. Former representative Mark Sanford lost his primary to a pro-Trump candidate. Former senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake choose to retire rather than face the uphill battle to reelection. On the other hand, Sen. Lindsey Graham flipped from fierce critic to loyal ally and is now more powerful than ever. Rep. Justin Amash, a longtime Republican critic of Trump's, has since left the party to be an independent and was subsequently removed from House committees.
Months ago, one House member from a firmly red district described feeling like the most wanted man in his state after he made a vote Trump didn’t like.
“Trump has said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone dead and and not lose any supporters,” said the member. “Well, if that happens I’d better be photographed stuffing a body into the trunk of a car, or my constituents will demand to know why I’m not supporting the president.”
Romney acknowledges feeling shades of this as well.
“I think most Republicans in my state are irritated with me for not getting with the team,” he said at the Atlantic Festival on Wednesday. “It’s like, alright, he may be an SOB but he’s our SOB. So why aren’t you with the team? Talk about these things in private.”
As recently as this week, the president continues to publicly call out Romney for not being a team player.
But if anyone can defy Trump and survive, it might be Romney. A big part of that is the state he represents, Utah. Despite Utah being one of the most conservative states in the country, Trump does not poll particularly well there. Romney was already a critic of Trump in 2018, but it did not stop voters there from electing him. He can also simply outlast Trump if the president does not win a second term.
Utah’s distinct place in politics is usually chalked up to its large Mormon population. And Romney, himself a practicing Mormon, seems to agree with that. He said a large number of Mormons are Republican and voted for Trump, but they have serious concerns about the things he says, does, and tweets.
There is a feeling in some Republican circles that criticizing Trump carries all downside and no upside. Republican Sen. Susan Collins, for example, was briefly celebrated in progressive circles when she cast a critical vote to kill Obamacare.
This raised hopes she might join Democrats in future tight political battles. But she voted for the GOP tax bill and to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and has been loudly criticized on the left ever since.
Collins clearly felt this pressure. During the tax bill debate, she at one point expressed frustration to the press that she was fighting for progressive changes to the bill (and won verbal assurances from Mitch McConnell that he would not cut Social Security spending). Yet she received far more heat than her colleagues who kept their heads down and just voted the party line. (In contrast, Sen. Ben Sasse, aptly the author of the book The Vanishing American Adult, is often almost impossible for reporters to find when a Trump controversy is raging.)
But on Wednesday, Romney seemed comfortable out on a limb on his own.
“It’s extraordinary power,” Romney said of being an elected official in Congress. “And so I think it’s very natural to look at circumstances and see them in the light that’s most amenable to them maintaining power.”
Romney then added, “I don’t know why I’m not afflicted to the same degree as perhaps others are in that regard.”
Several Republican senators said Wednesday that Romney is well-respected in their party. But Collins acknowledged there’s a particular pressure that comes when all eyes are on you to see if you’ll cross party lines.
“Sure,” she said. “But that’s part of being a United States senator.”
The name of the Atlantic Festival was misstated in an earlier version of this post.