Republican Mitt Romney, GOP establishment to the core, took the Senate's most brazenly rebellious stance Wednesday in voting to force President Donald Trump from office, a move highlighting how rare it is for Republicans to cross swords with this president.
By voting Wednesday to convict Mr. Trump for abusing presidential powers, the Utah lawmaker became the only Republican to cross party lines in the Senate impeachment trial's climactic votes acquitting the president. All Democrats voted to convict Mr. Trump on both counts against him.
Even though Mr. Romney's status as one of few Republicans willing to publicly criticize Mr. Trump is well known in his adopted home state, his unequivocal speech before voting yes on impeachment caught many in Utah by surprise.
Republicans in the state are unusually divided on the president, so while some were heartened to see Mr. Romney cast what he described as an agonizing vote dictated by his conscience, Trump supporters were left angry and frustrated.
Still, with four years to go before any re-election campaign, Mr. Romney has a long time to explain his vote to a state electorate with a deep well of goodwill that gives him a celebrity-like status.
"There will be ramifications," said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. But "people do ultimately care about what he says, even if they don't agree with him."
Mr. Romney appeared emotional during his speech on the Senate floor. He told reporters that he'd been waking up in the early-morning hours as his mind churned over what to do, and cited a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hymn about doing the right thing despite the consequences.
Mr. Romney's key role in saving the troubled 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City paired with his status as the first major-party presidential candidate from the state's predominant faith widely known as the Mormon church has made him well-known and liked in the state where he moved after his failed 2012 presidential run.
Many Utah voters share Mr. Romney's wariness about Mr. Trump. A nationwide Associated Press survey of midterm voters in 2018 found that while two-thirds of church members voted Republican, just over half approved of Mr. Trump's job performance. The VoteCast survey also found that 64% of Utah voters wanted to see the senator confront the president.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Trump have an on-again-off-again history, with Mr. Trump once calling for the senator to be impeached. There's no provision in the U.S. Constitution for that. While one Utah lawmaker has recently introduced a bill that would create a path to recall a senator, it is unclear if there would be a serious push for it to be used on Mr. Romney, even after he became the lone Republican to vote for Mr. Trump's removal from office.
State leaders who have applauded Mr. Trump on issues such as public lands, lambasted Mr. Romney's invocation of morality. But voters who appreciated his campaign promise to occasionally stand up to the president cheered the more strident message.
Shelly Cluff, a stay-at-home mother in suburban Riverton, is a Republican who's never been a fan of Mr. Trump. She was pleasantly surprised at Mr. Romney's stance.
"I was greatly impressed by his integrity, his willingness to put so much on the line in order not to violate his conscience, in order to stand with a clear conscience before God," Ms. Cluff said.
Still, she knows that not all her neighbors feel the same, including several who didn't vote for him in 2016 but have since come around.
"I've been taken aback by how many people have been really upset and disappointed in Mitt Romney," she said.
Count among those voters like Ray Clark, an electrical contractor in rural Kanab. He said he's "furious" about Mr. Romney's vote, and chalks it up to the senator's personal dislike of the president.
Still, he's not sure if Mr. Romney will ultimately suffer any true political consequences in Utah.
"Right now, I'd say he doesn't stand a chance. Four years from now, who knows?" he said.
In an early hint of the wrath that may be coming Mr. Romney's way, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham released a statement saying “only the President’s political opponents – all Democrats, and one failed Republican presidential candidate – voted for the manufactured impeachment articles.”
At Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast, Mr. Trump said “I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong," he said in an apparent reference to Mr. Romney.
The abuse of power impeachment charge that Mr. Romney backed was based on allegations that Mr. Trump delayed U.S. military aid to Ukraine for its war with Russian-backed fighters until the embattled country's new leaders agreed to investigate Joe Biden, a Trump political rival.
Mr. Romney joined all other Republicans in opposing the second impeachment article, which accused Mr. Trump of obstructing Congress' investigation of his actions toward Ukraine.
Mr. Romney announced his decision during an eight-minute speech on the Senate floor two hours before the GOP-dominated chamber voted to absolve Mr. Trump. Mr. Romney cited the significance of the impeachment oath to render “impartial justice” sworn to by all senators.
“I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am,” Mr. Romney, a Mormon, said before pausing for about 11 seconds, seemingly struggling with his emotions.
“The grave question the Constitution task senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme, so egregious, that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor,” Mr. Romney said. “Yes, he did.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Alan Fram, Calvin Woodward, and Michael Tackett from Washington and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.