Mitt Romney, the Republican senator from Utah and former presidential candidate, said he would vote to convict Donald Trump, in a dramatic break from his party hours before the Senate was set to acquit the president in his impeachment trial.
Mr Romney, in emotional remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, strongly criticised what he described as Mr Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, a Democratic contender for the presidency, by withholding military aid.
“The president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust,” said Mr Romney. “It was a flagrant assault on our electoral rights, our national security and our fundamental values.”
The decision to convict will make Mr Romney the first US senator ever to vote to remove a president from his own party, and serves as a rebuke to Mr Trump’s claims that he has faced a partisan impeachment.
Senators will begin voting from 4pm on Wednesday afternoon, with the 52 other Republicans besides Mr Romney expected to acquit Mr Trump. Conviction in an impeachment trial requires a two-thirds majority of the 100-member Senate.
Mr Romney said that his decision was “an act of conviction” and acknowledged that it would not change the ultimate outcome of the trial.
“Irrespective of these things, with my vote I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my abilities, believing that my country expected it of me,” he said.
Mr Romney acknowledged in his speech that he would likely be “vehemently denounced” and receive “abuse” from the president and his supporters. He began by framing his comments in the context of his oath to God as a juror in the trial.
“My faith is at the heart of who I am,” he said, pausing for several seconds as he appeared to choke up. “I take an oath before God as enormously consequential”.
Mr Romney told Fox News in an interview before his speech that he would vote to convict Mr Trump on the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, but vote to acquit him on the second article, which accuses the president of obstructing Congress.
The senator from Utah, who won the Republican nomination for president in 2012 but ultimately lost the White House to Barack Obama, took aim at the argument made by Mr Trump’s defence team that the voters should decide whether the president should stay in office in the coming November election.
The reasoning has also been used by some Republican senators who have criticised the president’s conduct.
“It is inconsistent with the constitution’s requirement that the Senate, not the voters, try the president,” Mr Romney said. “The verdict is ours to render under the constitution. The people will judge us for how well and faithfully we fulfil our duty.”
Chris Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, said on Twitter that Mr Romney’s remarks were “one of the most important speeches I have ever had the good fortune to hear in person”.
“At a time when many wonder what honour is left in public life, there stands Mitt Romney,” he said.
Mr Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr called for Mr Romney’s expulsion from the Republican Party.
“Mitt Romney is forever bitter that he will never be POTUS. He was too weak to beat the Democrats then so he’s joining them now,” he tweeted. “He’s now officially a member of the resistance & should be expelled from the @GOP.”
The Utah senator, who has positioned himself as a leading critic of the president from within his own party, ended his remarks by saying that he would be a mere “footnote” in history.
“But in the most powerful nation on Earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that distinction is enough for any citizen,” he said.