(*This column has been updated to correct U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s vote on the impeachment articles)
When future historians look for the last, documented instance of Republican political courage in the Trump imperium, they’ll look to one man, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney.
In one extraordinary speech on the floor of the United States Senate on Wednesday, the Utah senator made remarks that were, at once, both utterly moving in their absolute humanity, and totally damning in their vivid rebuttal of GOP capitulation to a bankrupt White House.
“I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice,” Romney told a nearly empty chamber around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, two hours before the Senate voted to acquit President Donald Trump.
As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote, Romney, fighting back tears, paused for some 12 seconds to collect himself before continuing.
“The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor. Yes, he did,” Romney said, as the Senate gallery filled with journalists recording his remarks for the ages.
For me, though, the most profound part of Romney’s speech was his reminder to his GOP colleagues of the responsibilities invested in them by the Constitution, the very responsibilities that they so thoroughly abdicated during the Trump’s fixed trial.
While the Trump defense team had argued that the Senate should “leave the impeachment decision to the voters,” that was exactly the wrong thing to do, Romney concluded. *Romney ended up voting for one impeachment article, abuse of power, and against the second, which charged Trump with obstruction of Congress.
Because, “while that logic is appealing to our democratic instincts, it is inconsistent with the Constitution’s requirement that the Senate, not the voters, try the president,” he continued, “Hamilton explained that the Founders’ decision to invest senators with this obligation rather than leave it to voters was intended to minimize—to the extent possible—the partisan sentiments of the public. This verdict is ours to render. The people will judge us for how well and faithfully we fulfilled our duty.”
Dressed in a dark blue suit, white dress shirt, and blue tie, Romney, a devout Mormon and the GOP’s 2012 presidential standard-bearer, looked like a throwback to a less complicated time — when there were politicians that most Americans would recognize as textbook Republican.
That matters because the Republican Party that Romney represented just eight years ago is dead and buried, never to return. If impeachment proved anything, it proved that the GOP is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization.
Romney’s remarks were all the more striking when they’re placed along the spineless surrender of U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, of Texas, who were both viciously lashed by Trump in 2016, but who nonetheless fell into line and voted to acquit.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who plays a maverick on television, and who voted in favor of calling witnesses, sided with the GOP on acquittal, even as she called Trump’s behavior wrong.
It was the same kind of transactional and fleeting courage pioneered by Collins’ former colleague, ex-U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, of Arizona, who made late-career fame out of publicly holding up the nomination of now-Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, but who ultimately voted to confirm a flawed candidate.
“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,” he said Wednesday. “I am sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters. 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?”
In this space last week, I compared the current U.S. Senate to the weak-willed Roman Senate of antiquity that caved to the excesses of the most tyrannical emperors out of sheer self-interest.
History also remembers that the Emperor Nero ordered Seneca, his onetime counselor, to commit suicide when he fell out of favor. Romney might well have committed political suicide. And it was equally clear that, like Seneca, there were principles more important to Romney than mere self-preservation.
“With my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me,” he said adding, “… we’re all footnotes at best in the annals of history. But in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that is distinction enough for any citizen.”
In this diminished time, it’s more than enough.