Soon after he made his announcement at 2 p.m. during a Senate floor speech, the criticism came rolling in fast and furious as he drew denunciations from senior campaign officials, the president’s family members, fellow GOP senators and his own niece.
“Mitt should be expelled from the @SenateGOP conference. #expelMitt,” Donald Trump Jr., wrote on Twitter before logging onto Instagram to mock Romney for wearing “mom jeans.”
“Only the President’s political opponents — all Democrats, and one failed Republican presidential candidate — voted for the manufactured impeachment articles,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who worked for Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
And Romney’s niece, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, offered him no quarter.
“This is not the first time I’ve disagreed with Mitt, and I imagine it will not be the last,” she said in statement. “The bottom line is President Trump did nothing wrong, and the Republican Party is more united than ever behind him. I, along with the GOP, stand with President Trump.”
Whether the thirst for vengeance against Romney is sustained will hinge on Trump, who has long smarted from the Utah Republican’s criticism of him and takes pride in hitting back at perceived and real enemies.
Party and campaign officials said privately that they hoped Trump wouldn’t obsess over the lone defection and move on from impeachment, basking in his acquittal instead of engaging in a days-long tiff with Romney. The president has firm control of the party and could dictate a strategy that is more aggressive, advisers said, if his pique at Romney flares.
Trump told advisers in recent weeks that he was more worried about Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) than Romney, according to people who heard his comments. In the end, Collins and Murkowski voted with the president.
Trump is scheduled to speak about the Senate vote to acquit him of the two House impeachment charges at the White House on Thursday — an event that will serve as an indication whether he’s ready to move on from Romney’s vote or try to make him another of example of what happens to Republicans who cross him.
Romney said he couldn’t let concerns over breaking with his party guide his vote, which he cast as one of conscience and rooted in his religious beliefs.
“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,” Romney said on the Senate floor. “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?”
The senator said he had not slept past 4 a.m. since the Senate impeachment trial began last month, wrestling over how he should vote, and eventually decided to buck the president because he saw the evidence that Trump pressured the leader of Ukraine to investigate his political rivals as overwhelming.
Romney told The Washington Post that he asked the White House for more information about actions taken toward Ukraine, particularly concerning acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, but none was provided. He wanted former national security adviser John Bolton to testify, which he said could have potentially raised “reasonable doubt” that the president did anything wrong and lead him to vote to acquit. The Senate rejected subpoenaing Bolton.
Republican and campaign officials said among the steps that could be taken to punish Romney are continued attacks on Twitter or through paid advertisements. Trump allies could also help fund an opponent in his state, although he’s not up for reelection until 2024, or push operatives or donors not to support or work for him. White House officials could block policy or budget priorities that Romney wants, according to aides who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
A senior Trump campaign official said the longer the Romney news cycle drags on, the worse it is for the president, because it focuses attention on his impeachment. Advisers were encouraging Trump to not dignify Romney’s vote with a response, and there were no immediate plans to campaign against Romney.
“Irrelevant relic,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale wrote on Twitter.
“Little punch. Move on. It’s over,” one senior campaign official said, to describe the strategy. “We were already done with him.”
Romney’s colleagues are highly unlikely to kick him out of the Senate Republican conference, but the president’s allies could push for such a move and make life uncomfortable for Romney and his colleagues. While several senators criticized Romney’s vote, many were quick to oppose giving him the boot.
“I’m glad Mitt is a Republican,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was “surprised and disappointed” with Romney’s vote but said the Utah Republican was largely supportive of the president.
“We don’t have any doghouses here. The most important vote is the next vote,” he said.
McDaniel issued the statement quickly to make clear whose side she was on and to get ahead of potential stories that were likely to question her loyalty to the president if she remained silent, a Republican official said. She did not receive a heads-up from her uncle and the president did not ask her to put out a statement, according to the official.
The White House did not receive an advance notice of Romney’s decision, though some aides were preparing for the idea that he would go against the president.
Neither Trump nor White House staff lobbied Romney, according to aides. “It wouldn’t have helped,” said one senior White House aide directly involved in the impeachment process.
Still, Trump takes particular pride in Republicans sticking with him, regularly peppering aides with questions about any Republican defections on legislation. During impeachment, he repeatedly told advisers that he wanted a bipartisan acquittal — hoping to get at least one Democrat to vote with him, and for Republicans to stick together.
No Democrats voted to acquit the president, leaving Romney as the only senator to break with his party.
The president spent much of a weekend in early October attacking Romney on Twitter, but advisers said that was largely designed to telegraph to other Republicans that they should not buck the president.
Party officials said they did not give instructions for anyone to call for Romney’s expulsion from the party, but one Republican fundraiser said that donors who once supported Romney are now solidly behind Trump. As the Republican Party noted in its release attacking Romney, the president is more popular than the senator in Utah.
“I suspect that donors and operatives are not going to be allowed to play both sides of the field. They are going to have to choose,” said Andrew Surabian, a Republican strategist and adviser to Donald Trump Jr. “He is going to be considered a pariah moving forward.”
Trump has complained that he endorsed Romney in both 2012 for president and 2018 for Senate and that Romney has taken every chance he can to hurt him, including an op-ed attacking the president soon after he joined the Senate in early 2019. Trump met with Romney after he won the election in 2016, and advisers said he was considering him for secretary of state — though he was never likely to get the nomination.
Aides note Romney was at the White House twice in November, including for a lengthy meeting on vaping in the Roosevelt Room.
During a November Oval Office meeting with political advisers, some suggested attacking Romney but Trump told them to hold off, hoping he would stick with Republicans on impeachment.
People close to Romney say he knows where he currently stands in the Republican Party — on an island — but will not be cowed by Trump’s attacks. While he agrees with Trump regularly on policy, his advisers said he sees standing up against some of Trump’s behavior as a moral imperative.
“He’s not someone who operates from a center of fear. I don’t think it had anything to do with his decision,” said Stuart Stevens, a former adviser to Romney and a critic of Trump. “He tried to look at this as if, what would he do if a Democrat was in office? He wanted to be a true juror. He took it very seriously. I think Mitt Romney will sleep very well tonight.”
Brendan Buck, a longtime adviser to former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), said Romney would get attacked repeatedly just as Ryan did when he occasionally criticized the president.
“What was remarkable to me was him knowing how bad the politics would be, and being okay with that. You don't see that very often anymore. I am surprised that people are capable of that,” Buck said. “As someone who got attacked periodically, it’s never a fun time. And I imagine he has a lot of that coming.”