During his floor speech explaining his vote to convict Donald Trump, Mitt Romney was overcome by emotion and paused to compose himself. The intense moment came when he spoke of his devotion to God, saying, “I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the center of who I am.” Lump in throat. Long pause. “I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.” The oath in this case was the one all 100 senators swore — to do impartial justice as jurors in the trial of the president.
It made me think of a line from Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, a classic which used to be much quoted by people who now dance as marionettes on Donald Trump’s strings. It’s a play about conscience and politics and the pressure to conform to the group and the sticking point when men of integrity can be pushed so far and no farther. Like reverence for Winston Churchill, admiration for this play used to be nearly universal among conservatives. (The 1966 movie, starring Paul Scofield, is a gem.)
Explaining that he could not falsely swear an oath, as it was a declaration before God, Thomas More says, “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
Mitt Romney, having sworn to do impartial justice, could not — or more accurately, would not — evade the truth. The president abused his power by using the weapon of American military aid (which he was not legally permitted to withhold) to extort an ally under attack. The demand was for a criminal investigation into a political opponent when there was absolutely no evidence that the Bidens had done anything illegal, not that President Trump, who favors repealing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and who was in negotiations to build a Trump Tower Moscow throughout the 2016 campaign, has anything against corruption in general. The clear purpose was to invent a corruption narrative that Trump could then exploit in the campaign: “Joe Biden is so corrupt. He’s under investigation by Ukraine!”
It was unseemly for Hunter Biden to trade on his father’s name for a plum spot on the board of Burisma, but it was not illegal. There was nothing for Ukraine to investigate. As for Joe Biden, there was zero evidence that he did anything to protect his son’s company (on the contrary, his pressure to fire a corrupt prosecutor arguably put Burisma in jeopardy). Nothing that the Bidens did merited investigation. If their names had not been Biden, Romney noted, Trump would never have acted.
Senator Lamar Alexander too acknowledged that these are the facts, only to scurry behind the vapid excuse that this is for the people, not the Senate, to decide. Romney was unwilling to sidle away from responsibility. If the Founders had intended that such things would fall only to the people to decide, they would not have included impeachment in the Constitution. No, they gave the job to senators. Only one Republican senator has demonstrated the backbone to do his duty. (Which, it should be noted, is one more than the number of Democratic senators who were willing to do their duty when Clinton was tried.)
Some of the president’s defenders hotly declare that those who favor impeachment and removal do not “trust the people.” As a matter of fact, that’s right. The Founders did not entirely trust the people. They were critics of direct democracy. In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” He added that “it is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”
The people look to leaders, trustworthy leaders ideally, for guidance. Throughout this period, one after another Republican leader has shirked this responsibility.
In Thomas More’s time (under Henry VIII), adhering to conscience required the ultimate sacrifice. He lost everything — his office, his liberty, and ultimately his life — for refusing to violate his conscience. In our time, adhering to conscience carries the risk of Twitter abuse, being shunned by fellow Republicans, and possibly even losing an election. That is too much, apparently, for all but one of them to hazard.
That isn’t just an indictment of their characters. Another line from Robert Bolt’s play feels relevant. Thomas More laments, “I think that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”
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Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.