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Romney’s surprise vote is Democrats’ impeachment silver lining

Long before the Senate impeachment trial ended Wednesday with the expected outcome — an acquittal of President Donald Trump — the finale was a foregone conclusion.

From the start of the trial, it was clear there were not enough votes in the Senate to remove Trump from office for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress– the two articles of impeachment approved by the House.

But the acquittal vote wasn’t entirely anticlimactic. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was the lone Republican in favor of convicting Trump; Romney voted to convict Trump on the first article for impeachment, but voted to acquit Trump on the second article. Romney’s ‘yes’ vote was a dramatic surprise twist that capped a grueling three-week trial, and a longer impeachment process that stretched back to last fall.

Trump was acquitted, but there was bipartisan support for conviction

Senate Republican leaders and the White House had hoped for a party-line vote, with every GOP senator voting to keep Trump in office. They nearly got it.

Romney’s move doesn’t change the fact that it was a partisan vote, with all but one Republican refusing to vote against the president on the charge of abuse of power and the entire GOP caucus rejecting the charge that he obstructed Congress. Nevertheless, it lent the final outcome a veneer of bipartisanship, in a trial when both sides accused the other of political bias.

Now Democrats can say that senators from both parties admitted Trump’s pressure campaign against Ukraine was wrong and rose to the level of an impeachable offense. All they needed was one Republican vote for that to technically be true. It’s a key talking point Democrats will likely make throughout the 2020 presidential race, as they campaign to deny Trump a second term.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York singled out Romney in a press conference after the vote, saying he saluted Romney’s decision. Schumer also argued, as he has throughout the trial, that many Republicans knew that Trump was wrong to withhold military aid and a White House visit from Ukraine in order to pressure the country to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter.

Trump maintained throughout the impeachment process that he did nothing wrong. Though Romney was the only Republican to vote for conviction, some said they thought the president’s conduct was inappropriate. On the Senate floor Tuesday, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called the president’s conduct “wrong” and “flawed,” though she said didn’t believe it was impeachable.

The vote denies Republicans — and most of all Trump — the chance to tell voters for the rest of the year that the impeachment investigation was an entirely partisan affair. Trump was able to make that case when the House voted to impeach him, since not a single Republican joined Democrats in approving the articles brought against him. He can’t say the same thing now.

But it was just one Republican vote. Will it matter?

The extent of the political fallout from the vote remains to be seen. The question is, will the public give Romney’s vote any weight, or dismiss it as a technicality?

Trump and Republicans will point out that despite Romney, the overwhelming majority of Republicans stuck with the president. They’ll also argue that a single vote didn’t change the outcome, which is all that matters. That argument will likely resonate with Trump’s base, and could convince independent voters as well.

Furthermore, Romney will no doubt face criticism from every corner of the Republican Party for defecting on the vote. Trump has criticized Romney in the past, and will likely do so in the future in an effort to paint Romney as a traitor to the party. Romney’s history with Trump matters. If an ally of the president’s voted to convict him, that would likely have carried more weight with the GOP base.

But Romney has been a longtime critic of Trump’s, including during the 2016 election. It will be easier for Trump to dismiss his vote. Still, it’s undeniable that Romney gave Democrats a major political gift.

No Democrats crossed party lines

Heading into the final vote, there was speculation a small handful of Democrats might cross party lines and vote with Republicans to acquit Trump. The most likely swing votes were Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is known for siding with Republicans on some issues, and Sen. Doug Jones of Alamaba, who is facing a tough reelection fight this year in a deep red state.

Just as Republicans had hoped the GOP conference would not have any defections, they had also hoped at least one Democrat would vote to acquit Trump. Had that happened, Republicans could have argued that Trump was exonerated in a bipartisan fashion.

But in the end, Schumer kept his entire caucus together. (That included the four Democratic senators running for president, who all voted to remove from office the person they’re vying to replace). Democrats from reliably blue states will likely not face much backlash for voting to remove Trump from office. But Jones’ decision to do so could become a central issue in his reelection bid.

Democrats’ next argument: a ‘sham’ trial

In a speech on the Senate floor before the final vote, Schumer attacked Republicans for blocking a vote to subpoena witnesses and documents in the trial. Schumer did not mince words.

By blocking witnesses, the Senate turned the proceedings into a “kangaroo court” that would render the final verdict “meaningless,” Schumer said. He also called it a “sham trial” and said Trump’s acquittal would go down in history with a big asterisk.

Soon after the final vote, Trump announced on Twitter that he would make a statement Thursday from the White House “to discuss our Country’s VICTORY on the Impeachment Hoax!”

Schumer predicted that Trump would spin the results in his favor. “No doubt the president will boast total exxoneration. But we know better,” Schumer said.

Saher Khan contributed reporting to this story.