Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) gave moral reasons to vote “guilty” in the impeachment of Donald J. Trump. “I am aware that there are people in my party and in my state who will strenuously disapprove of my decision,” he said, “and in some quarters, I will be vehemently denounced. 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?”
Romney’s hunch was correct, and plenty of pro-Trump abuse was piled on following the vote. Meanwhile, the other side hailed Romney as a hero who did the right thing without fear of consequences.
Few noticed a problem, however. Romney had only half-voted against Trump. On the two articles of impeachment, he appeared to take a shot at pleasing both sides: “guilty” of abuse of power, and “not guilty” of obstruction of Congress.
It was a split-the-baby move that made no sense.
The second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress, was the most clear-cut and consequential. A person could quibble over whether the House Managers proved Trump had acted wrongly toward Ukrainian aid in the first article of impeachment. That’s because, although the evidence presented was sufficient, the full evidence was never heard: it was obstructed by the accused. This obstruction was the reason the second article of impeachment existed. No matter what you thought of the first charge, Trump’s obstruction of congressional subpoenas, witnesses, and evidence was on-going and undeniable. All you could say is it doesn’t matter.
That is why Romney’s vote against article two is confusing. What message was he trying to send?
A rejection of the obstruction charge has serious implications for future impeachments. Although precedent is not binding, previous actions by governments often serve as a guide. A “not guilty” vote on article two sets a new standard to make it easier for presidents to defy Congress, so they can, like Trump, obstruct all evidence in their own impeachment inquiries. No prior president had ever gone that far: not Andrew Johnson, not Richard Nixon, not Bill Clinton. Trump is the first. The Senate therefore had a chance to affirmatively reject this new presidential power-grab.
Voting “not guilty” on article two contradicts the principles Romney stated on the Senate floor. As Romney said, “Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.” It is hard to see how cover-up of that corruption would therefore be acceptable.
It’s a missed and very costly opportunity. Not only does it send a mixed message, it weakens our enforcement of the Constitution, and its grant of sole power of impeachment and removal to the House and Senate. Holding back only fractures support for what would have otherwise been a principled stand.