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Opinion Mitt Romney’s act of bravery changed nothing and changed everything

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), walks to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30, during a break in the impeachment trial. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Every once in a long while a single act of conscience can repair the nation’s soul.

In the dark days of Joe McCarthy’s terror, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine spoke out against her fellow Republican when nobody else would.

During Watergate, Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee uttered the immortal words — of a president from his own party — “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

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Now Sen. Mitt Romney joins that honorable pantheon of lawmakers, from John Quincy Adams to John McCain, who put principle over party. In Wednesday’s Senate votes ending the impeachment trial, the senator from Utah cast the lone Republican vote to remove Trump from office — and the lone vote by any senator in history to remove a president of his own party.

I was one of the few in the gallery when Romney took the floor at 2 p.m. “I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice,” he said to a nearly empty chamber. “I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am.”

Then Romney, on the verge of tears, paused for a full 12 seconds to pull himself together. This was no ordinary speech. Reporters stampeded into the gallery.

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“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.”

There were gasps. “It was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values,” Romney went on. “The president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust.”

The House impeached Trump, but it was a victory for alternative facts, Russian disinformation and Fox News, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh / AP/The Washington Post)

Romney’s act of bravery — and perhaps political suicide — changed nothing and it changed everything. Trump stood no chance of being removed either way. But here was the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee, rebuking his craven colleagues who saw Trump’s guilt but wouldn’t risk their careers. Romney made the vote to remove Trump bipartisan (no Democrats sided with Trump), and in the process made himself a pariah in his party.

But for Romney there was something higher than partisan tribalism.

Romney said he received pressure to “stand with the team.” He said he would “hear abuse from the president.” But, he said, “were I to ignore the evidence … for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) dabbed his eyes with a tissue. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the lone Republican on the floor, walked out of the chamber.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he will vote to convict President Trump in a speech on Feb. 5 in the Senate. (Video: The Washington Post)

Romney will soon be demonized by Trump and his allies the way Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, Justin Amash and McCain were before him. Romney has long vacillated between Trump critic and Trump enabler, but Wednesday dispelled any doubt.

Lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff, warning that Republicans will be tied to Trump “with a cord of steel and for all of history,” had asked: “Is there one among you who will say, ‘enough’?” On Wednesday, Romney said “enough.”

He had given embargoed interviews before he spoke, but word had not yet leaked when he appeared on the floor, hair slicked, wearing a blue suit and tie, crisp white shirt and a thin smile. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), speaking before Romney, admitted he had “some level of doubt” about whether he’d have the courage to vote to remove a Democratic president.

Romney read his 10-minute statement carefully, his calm voice incongruous with the words. “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,” he said.

Romney ducked out quickly, pursued by a well-wishing Schatz. The floor went silent. “We just saw history,” somebody whispered.

Some will say it’s too little too late. Romney’s courage only shows how weak colleagues such as Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Joni Ernst (Iowa) are, acknowledging Trump’s malfeasance while doing nothing about it. But at least one man spoke up.

“Senators, how say you?” the chief justice asked just after 4 p.m. As lawmakers on the right stood, buttoned their jackets and proclaimed “not guilty,” and those on the left rose and proclaimed “guilty,” only Romney broke the pattern. He slipped out before he could incur his colleagues’ wrath.

“Future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial,” Romney said earlier on the floor, “will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong. We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history.”

On Wednesday, Romney lit a single candle. But as long as there is a Flake, or a Corker, or a McCain, or a Romney, there is still hope.

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Read more:

The Post’s View: History will remember Mitt Romney

David Von Drehle: The key impeachment verdict is in. And no, it didn’t come from the Senate.

Donna Edwards: Pelosi’s page-ripping was a fitting ending to impeachment

House managers: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.

Helaine Olen: Mitt Romney and John McCain both defied Trump. That’s not a coincidence.

Karen Tumulty: What Mitt Romney learned from his father

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