WASHINGTON ― With Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) somewhat surprising announcement Wednesday that he would vote with Democrats to convict President Donald Trump over abuse of power in the Senate impeachment trial, the rest of the Senate GOP is confronting a new question: Should they do something about Romney?
It’s a slightly ridiculous question ― all Romney was doing was voting his conscience ― but in the current GOP, where being a Republican means supporting Trump, senators all have to consider what they now say and do about their colleague.
“It’s a personal decision,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “I don’t agree with it, but I respect his right to vote the way he sees fit.”
“Who can answer that question, ‘What’s the future of another senator?’ I mean, that’s for him to determine with Utah,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told HuffPost.
Romney said he fully anticipated all kinds of recrimination from the president’s supporters.
“I’m aware 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,” Romney said on the Senate floor during his emotional statement. “I’m sure to hear abuse from the president and his supporters.”
Romney said his willingness to face the abuse shows how strongly he feels he made the right choice to vote for the first of Democrats’ articles of impeachment. (He voted against the second.)
“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.
There are plenty of ways for the GOP to potentially punish Romney. Some are as simple ― and petty ― as no longer inviting him to the weekly Republican lunches. Some involve stripping him of committee assignments, or making sure he gets less enviable assignments in the future. And some consequences are less direct; Romney will long be a pariah in this GOP.
But the most extreme punishment would be expelling him from the conference.
That retribution cuts both ways. For Republicans, it might be satisfying to formally ostracize Romney from the party. But then Republicans have one less Republican in the chamber, even if Romney votes with them the vast majority of the time. For purposes of controlling the Senate, even for purposes of unanimous consent requests ― a standard procedure where the Senate suspends certain rules with no objection ― all that could be jeopardized by punishing Romney.
Republicans could be well-served to just try and forget Romney breaking ranks. Focusing on Romney’s decision will only draw more attention to the president’s actions.
That is probably the smartest advice, but it would be unsatisfying to the most bloodthirsty Republicans, particularly when being a Republican in this day and age generally just means supporting Trump.
One of the House GOP impeachment surrogates, Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.), inadvertently made it clear how she views membership to her party when she argued that Romney was the only Republican to support impeachment. While that statement is true, that’s partially because Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) left the party over Trump.
“He’s definitely not a Republican,” Lesko said of Amash, who has one of the most ideologically conservative voting records in Congress.
Lesko did say she didn’t think punishing Romney was a good idea. “I would just, like, leave it alone,” she said. “He’s one person and, you know, so what?”
But some Republicans are already calling for retribution. Donald Trump Jr. repeatedly affixed the hashtag “ExpelMitt” to tweets Wednesday, and he said the 2012 Republican presidential nominee was “forever bitter” that he’d never be president.
“He was too weak to beat the Democrats then so he’s joining them now,” Trump Jr. tweeted. “He’s now officially a member of the resistance & should be expelled from the @GOP.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham already issued a statement Wednesday after the impeachment vote where she referred to Romney as a “failed Republican presidential candidate.”
While Senate Republicans didn’t initially seem overly eager about expelling Romney on Wednesday, that could quickly change if President Trump got behind the idea.
If Trump began tweeting similar sentiments as his son, many Republicans would instantly be put in a difficult position: They’ve defined their conservatism by their support for Trump, so splitting from the president, particularly in the more Republican states, could be perilous.
The question now is: How much ire will Romney draw?
The Utah Senator seems at peace with his decision, and at 71 years old, he may not be thinking of running for reelection in 2024.
But if the past is any indication, Trump is not going to stay silent about Romney. He will look for some way to exact his own retribution. And senators will have to decide, once again, between doing what is right, and doing what Trump wants.