President Donald Trump’s long-anticipated impeachment acquittal delivered a last-minute twist that robbed him of a long-sought talking point: absolute Republican unity in the face of Democrats trying to usurp the presidency.
White House aides and allies were caught off-guard mid-afternoon when Republican Sen. Mitt Romney announced he would vote alongside Democrats to find the president guilty on one charge against him. The entire House Republican caucus had stood firm in support of Trump — even lawmakers in swing districts who knew it could threaten their reelection — and Romney’s move stained the moment.
It was an unsatisfying end for Trump after months of wrangling over impeachment and years of fighting over the Russia investigation. And it was an asterisk his legal team hoped to look past.
“I have no reaction to it,” Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said of Romney’s vote. “The reaction is the president won. The office of the president won. The Constitution won. That was what was significant. The process was followed through. It was completed, and it’s now behind us.”
Trump himself had wavered for weeks about how to handle the end of his trial. Just hours before the Senate formally voted to acquit the president, he still hadn’t made up his mind about how he intended to celebrate.
He had been going back and forth with aides on the timing and format of a post-acquittal statement. Should he deliver a rare Oval Office address, or emerge from the White House to speak in the Rose Garden? Coming off an effective and forward-looking State of the Union address, should he just stay quiet and let the acquittal speak for itself? Should he use his remarks to thank the Republican senators who acquitted him, or deliver a speech letting his opponents know he managed to escape their investigations yet again?
White House aides also were divided about the best path — as is often the case. By Wednesday afternoon, aides indicated that they expected the president to make a decision about the nature and tone of his response once he saw how senators voted.
Trump spent Wednesday at the White House, surrounded by his legal and communications team and West Wing staff. He ate lunch with the secretary of defense and then met with Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader and a guest of the administration at the State of the Union.
Trump watched the final vote in the private dining room off the Oval Office with some of his top aides, a senior administration official said. By 5 p.m., the Senate had voted to acquit Trump.
Trump’s immediate response was unusually restrained: He intended to speak about the impeachment “hoax” on Thursday at noon, buying the White House more time to plan his remarks.
One White House official said Trump wanted to “put an exclamation point” on what happened regardless of the form that took Thursday.