Mitt Romney is the first senator in American history to vote to remove a president of his own party from office. And he did it twice — voting to convict Donald Trump in two separate impeachment trials.
Now, Romney's politically isolated, fearful for his and his family's safety, and wondering what the future holds for a party he's believed in most of his life.
"He feels increasingly homeless in this party. In fact, he told me in one of our very first interviews, 'A very large portion of my party really doesn't believe in the Constitution,'" McKay Coppins, a staff writer at The Atlantic, says.
Coppins sat down for dozens of one-on-one interviews with Romney.
His new book "Romney: A Reckoning" details Romney's minute-by-minute experience of Jan. 6, and Romney's moral struggle reconciling his Mormon faith with the GOP's embrace of Donald Trump.
"By the end of our interviews earlier this year, he was openly talking about leaving the party," Coppins says.
Today, On Point: What drove Mitt Romney to stand up to his own party?
Excerpt from "Romney: A Reckoning." Not to be reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.
He handed over hundreds of pages of his private journals and years' worth of personal correspondence, including sensitive emails with some of the most powerful Republicans in the country. When he couldn't find the key to an old filing cabinet that contained some of his personal papers, he took a crowbar to it and deposited stacks of campaign documents and legal pads in my lap.
He'd kept all this stuff, he explained, because he thought he might write a memoir one day. But he decided against it. "I can't be objective about my own life," he said.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. And that passage is from the new book "Romney: A Reckoning," by McKay Coppins. In the spring of 2021, Coppins began meeting with Utah Senator Mitt Romney. And as that passage indicates, it was clear that Romney wanted to, even needed to talk, perhaps even unburden himself.
Over the course of more than 40 interviews, Romney shared with candor almost unimaginable for a politician, his personal reckoning in the age of Donald Trump and the reckoning that he hopes and prays will come to the Republican Party. And McKay Coppins joins us now. McKay, welcome back to the show.
McKAY COPPINS: Thanks for having me, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to start off with an image of the Mitt Romney that maybe most people don't know, but it just rings so clearly in your book. In his Senate office, he has a particular map on the wall that he tends to show everyone who comes into the office. Can you tell us about that?
COPPINS: Yeah, he showed it to me in one of our early meetings. It's called the "HistoMap" and it essentially aims to chart the rise and fall of the most powerful civilizations throughout human history. So you have the Assyrians and the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans. And when he first hung it on his office wall, it was when he had arrived in the Senate in 2019 and he saw it as a curiosity.
But after January 6th, he became obsessed with it. And he would bring it up in speeches and interviews, and he would show it to everybody who came to his office, including me. And the thing that stuck out to him was the fact that if you look through all of human history, it's very rare that democracy is thriving, right?
He said, if you look at this map, it's one form of autocracy after another. You have Kings and Emperors and Kaisers and Rulers. And that seems to be the default of human history. And his takeaway from that, from looking at that map and from the last several years, is that this project that we're engaged in America is much more fragile than we realize.
That the future of democracy in America and around the world is something that we all take for granted. But that we probably shouldn't, given what we've seen, especially in the last several years.
CHAKRABARTI: Your book so clearly lays out why Senator Romney feels that way in this day and age.
But I also was so struck by the access that he gave you, McKay. And you describe, I don't know, there's scenes of profound loneliness in the book. Especially in 2020, 2021, you describe his Washington condo, I guess, he's basically living there alone. There's a freezer full of salmon from Lisa Murkowski from Alaska.
CHAKRABARTI: He doesn't even like salmon and a giant TV and him. What was his mood? What do you think his motivation was? That came across to you in your, what, 40 plus interviews with him?
COPPINS: Yeah, I remember that was one of the most striking things when I started this process of interviewing him, was just how isolated he was in Washington. This is a guy who, he has five sons, a huge gaggle of grandkids, even great grandkids. In Washington, he doesn't have a lot of friends.
He's not a guy who goes out to the galas and functions and has dinners with important people. In those first weeks, I was struck by the bachelor pad quality of his townhouse. He would spend a lot of nights alone. Eating dinner on this leather recliner while watching this giant TV he had hung on the wall in his living room.
And some of the reasons for the isolation are obvious. He's become a pariah in the Republican party. He doesn't get along with many people in his caucus in the Trump era. He doesn't really fit in with the Democrats either. And what was interesting as a journalist biographer is I would go over to his house every week, one night.
And I would sit down, and I would often get to the end of my questions and then he would want me to stay longer. Like he would say, "What are you reading?" Or, "Are you watching anything good on TV?" His kind of loneliness worked to my advantage to a certain extent because he enjoyed the company.
But also, I think he wanted to unburden himself. And so I was there to listen to him.
CHAKRABARTI: Did you sense a kind of lament or regret in him?
COPPINS: Yes, is the short answer. What was interesting about him is that when I first went to him it was just weeks removed from January 6th and I pitched him on the idea of doing this book.
And I had known the Mitt Romney for most of his political career, who was extremely disciplined and extremely controlled and stuck to his talking points. And almost never exposed what was going on beneath the surface, right? I had covered his presidential campaigns and I sensed that after January 6th, he was going through something.
He seemed like he was in this introspective, soul-searching mood. He was taking stock of what had happened to his party in the Trump era. He was taking stock of what was happening to the country, but he was also asking himself difficult questions about his own career, about his embrace of, and coddling of, certain elements of his party.
And so I could sense that he was asking those difficult questions. As a writer, that's the perfect place for your subject to be in, right? That headspace is really compelling. And what I found so compelling about him is that he didn't have all the answers, but he was asking himself these hard questions that very few people who are still in office, sitting politicians, are willing to ask themselves.
CHAKRABARTI: Your book lays out in detail the various influences and events that have led Senator Romney to the place that he is now. One of the most positive influences that the Senator talks about or talked about to you is his father. George Romney, governor, former governor of Michigan back in the 1960s. And really a strong opposer to the likes of, let's call him a proto-Trump, Barry Goldwater, right?
The right-wing senator from Arizona.
CHAKRABARTI: So I first want to play a little bit of tape from George Romney at the Republican National Convention, July 14th, 1964.
GEORGE ROMNEY: In 1854, Lincoln said, quote, “As a nation, we began by declaring that all men are created equal. We now practically read it, all men are created equal except Negroes. When the know nothings get control, it will read, quote, "All men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics. When it comes to this," and these are still Lincoln's words, "When it comes to this, I shall prefer immigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty, to Russia, for example where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of democracy,” those are Lincoln's own words. (CHEERS)
CHAKRABARTI: That's George Romney, Governor George Romney, on July 14th, 1964, at the Republican National Convention. Of course, Barry Goldwater, later on, just a couple of days later, won the Republican nomination, and famously said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."
Mckay, tell us a little bit more about why Mitt Romney's father, George, looms so large in his life.
COPPINS: What's interesting about that moment, that audio you just played, is that Mitt was there at that convention as a teenager. He had accompanied his dad who was the kind of, a champion of what was then a still a fairly robust but shrinking liberal wing of the Republican Party.
He was an advocate of civil rights. He was an opponent of the rising Barry Goldwater right wing movement. And Mitt accompanied his dad to that convention and watched as the party kind of transformed around them in real time, right? George Romney thought that he could get to that convention and insert a plank in advocating for civil rights to the platform.
He thought that he could get a resolution passed from the RNC condemning extremism. And both of those initiatives failed. And Mitt recalled to me walking around that convention. And seeing that this growing conservative movement in the party was not the party that he had been led to believe they were a part of.
And on the final night of the convention, you quoted Barry Goldwater gave that famous speech. And everybody in the convention all stood up to applaud the nomination of Barry Goldwater. And George Romney remained quietly seated with his hands in his lap.
And Mitt remembered looking at him and thinking, "If all these people are cheering and my dad's not, they're all wrong and my dad's right." And it just speaks to the extent to which George Romney loomed over Mitt's career. But in an interesting way, because George's legacy as this sort of, truth telling liberal Republican standing up against the forces of extremism in his own party, both inspired and at times haunted Mitt in his own career.
Because he saw his dad's courageous stand as something to be admired, but also recognized that there were many times in his own career when he didn't live up to that same legacy and it ate at him in some way.
CHAKRABARTI: Here's a little foreshadowing about what's coming later in our conversation, McKay, because it's so fascinating to hear that in 1964, a young Mitt Romney watched his father give that speech, felt the creeping extremism in the Republican Party, and yet over the course of the following decades continued to be surprised as that extremism grew. So I'm going to want to hear from you why, when we come back. This is On Point.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Of course, McKay, one of the things that Senator Romney is known for is that he's probably the best-known politician who's also a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints, right? His LDS faith is very central to his life, and I just want to play a moment from Romney's first presidential run back in 2008.
And at that time, he was regularly advised, as you write in the book, that his Mormon faith would definitely hurt his chances of winning the Oval Office. But here's what Romney said on December 6, 2007, in a speech entitled "Faith in America" that he gave at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas.
MITT ROMNEY: They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it's more a tradition than my personal conviction. Or disavow one or another of its precepts, that I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers. I'll be true to them.
And to my beliefs. Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they're right, so be it.
CHAKRABARTI: Mitt Romney in 2007 there. So first of all, McKay, give us some examples of how Senator Romney indeed did act in complete accord with the tenets of the Church of Latter-day Saints, vis-à-vis his political career.
COPPINS: Yeah. First of all, in his personal life, he was constantly endeavoring to live by the teachings of his faith. He has a very solid, good marriage to his high school sweetheart. They've raised five kids. He's served extensively on a volunteer basis in the church as a lay church leader in the Boston area.
In his political life it's more complicated, right? In 2008 he was constantly on the campaign trail, encountering people, especially in the Republican primary, elected evangelicals, who saw his faith as a deal breaker, right? In fact, he told me about one meeting he had with a group of faith leaders.
I believe it was in South Carolina. Where one of them said flatly, "Look, you seem like a nice guy. I agree with you on a lot of issues, but at the end of the day. I'm not ever going to support you because I believe that if a Mormon becomes president, more people will go to hell." And so that's what Mitt Romney was up against, right?
In that election in 2008 and 2012, he always stuck to his faith. It was a non-negotiable for him. And I think that's interesting. Because on almost every other issue, or at least on policy issues, he was, he didn't have nearly the same level of conviction. He believed that on policy there were usually a range of reasonable positions you could take.
And my impression from having talked to him and talked to a lot of people around him is that basically he decided, "Look, if I can take one reasonable decision over another and it gets me a little closer to the White House, what's the harm in that?" And that's why he was tagged early on in his career as a flip flopper or somebody who lacked conviction.
I think when it came to his faith, it was central to who he was, and he never abandoned it. He never negotiated on it, but on policy issues, he was much less a stalwart.
CHAKRABARTI: But of course, these are personal belief in one's faith and political ambitions aren't necessarily two things that you can draw a clean line between, right?
COPPINS: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
CHAKRABARTI: Because, of course, we should note that Senator Romney spent quite a few years as governor of the state of Massachusetts.
And as you very accurately recount in the book, he for sure moderated his public views on certain things in order to, more to please the Massachusetts state electorate, right?
CHAKRABARTI: But specifically on gay rights, on abortion, later on during his presidential campaign, he very infamously had that comment about the 40% of the country being takers.
That haunted him quite a quite a great deal. We can pick a lot of examples. Those are just three that stand out to me. But I wonder what, doesn't Mormonism have very clear things to say about public expressions of one's convictions? And if so, how did Romney then rationalize being a flip flopper in order to justify a means to an end?
COPPINS: There's this interesting moment in his very first campaign when he's running for Senate in Massachusetts, and he's up against Ted Kennedy. Ted Kennedy, of course, a legend in Massachusetts. It's going to be a difficult fight, right? And his advisers tell him right at the beginning, "There is no way you can win this race unless you're pro-choice."
And he was personally opposed to abortion for moral and religious reasons, but he decides that he needs to talk himself into a pro-choice position, and he walked me through the painstaking intellectual gymnastics that he went through to find his way to taking a stance that he didn't really fully believe in. And it involved pouring over statements by Mormon church leaders and Mormon scripture.
He even told me he found a statement from a Latter-day Saint leader who had said abortion was likened to murder. And then he rationalized it by saying, "Well, but he doesn't say it is a murder."
And so this is, it shows the process of rationalization he would go through to convince himself that it was okay to take these positions to win an election. Now, what he told me though, is that the process of rationalization was necessitated by the fact that he was always grappling with this question of what was right and what was wrong, right? He didn't bracket those questions, but he said, "When I took that pro-choice position, I could have passed a lie detector test. I could have told you with absolute certainty that this is what I believed."
And he said, "That's the thing about rationalization. You do it so that you don't have to live with it." And I think that was a process that he repeatedly went through throughout his political career. Later, he often found himself taking positions that were more right-wing than what he really believed.
And what I think is this is honestly one of the themes I found most fascinating about his career. And you'll see it pop up again and again in the book. Is that he really provided an interesting window into the psychology of our political leaders. Most of whom I believe start out with a set of principles and ideals that they think they're not going to compromise on and then find over time that they're constantly being asked to compromise, and they find their way in, toward doing it without being wracked with guilt.
And I think that it's really an interesting insight into how that happens.
CHAKRABARTI: Hearing you say that Senator Romney told you he mastered the art of rationalization because "you do it because you don't have to live with it." That definitely describes a great deal of, both parties, but especially all the people who once spoke out against Donald Trump in the Republican Party and subsequently embraced him.
That is quite a statement. But let's get back to eventually, obviously, Senator Romney, there were things that he could not live with, and he would not compromise on, and those came most clearly with the two impeachments of Donald Trump. We'll come to that in a moment.
But you're right about this rationalization popping up over and over again in the book. First of all, let's just go back to February 2nd of 2012. This is Romney's second presidential run, and he goes to Las Vegas to receive the endorsement of Donald Trump. Someone who very clearly, by that time, Romney found extremely odious, right?
But he went anyway. And in the book, McKay, you call this quote, "One of the more humiliating chores of Romney's political career." And here's what happened when Romney met Trump.
DONALD TRUMP: It's my honor, real honor and privilege to endorse Mitt Romney. (AUDIENCE CHEERS)
Mitt is tough. He's smart. He's sharp. He's not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country that we all love. Governor Romney, go out and get 'em. You can do it.
ROMNEY: Thank you. Thank you.
ROMNEY: There are some things that you just can't imagine happening in your life. This is one of them.
ROMNEY: Being in Donald Trump's magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight. I'm so honored and pleased to have his endorsement, and of course I'm looking for the endorsement of the people of Nevada. (APPLAUSE)
CHAKRABARTI: Mitt Romney, February 2012. McKay, say you were to play that moment once again to Senator Romney now. What do you think his bodily or facial reaction might be?
COPPINS: (LAUGHS) I can say with some certainty because I've asked him about this and pressed him to relive it a couple of different times over the course of our interviews.
Look he's embarrassed by it. He's chagrined. He, even in the moment, and I was actually there as a reporter covering that event in 2012, and I remember that when it came time for the photo op to shake Trump's hand, he ever so slightly angled himself away from the camera.
You could tell he was humiliated in the moment. And as I report in the book, this was not something he wanted to do. When the prospect of accepting Trump's endorsement publicly was first brought to him by his advisors, he shut it down. He said, "There's no way I'm going to do that."
Over time, over the course of days and weeks, as he scanned the political landscape, he saw that he was still struggling to clinch the primaries. And he was warned that if he didn't accept Trump's endorsement, Trump would go endorse somebody else. And that could breathe new life into one of his primary opponents.
He talked himself into it. And you see this happening again and again, his argument at the time, and still even now, he can become defensive about it. Is that Donald Trump at that time wasn't a serious political figure. He was a loudmouth celebrity. If Democrats can take endorsements from their own loudmouth celebrities, why can't I have the Celebrity Apprentice host, endorse me?
So that was his rationalization. But it was clear in the moment and clear today that he saw it as another thing he had to do to win the Republican nomination.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, McKay, respectfully, I think that yeah, Senator Romney, in being still somewhat defensive of meeting with Trump in 2012, he's, I don't know, maybe it's a form of psychic protection that he's applying to himself.
CHAKRABARTI: No, because seriously --
CHAKRABARTI: A) if you wanted to get a celebrity endorsement from a right-wing high-profile person, I don't know, he could have gone to see Clint Eastwood. But I see this as part of a pattern that you lay out in the book, right? You write about, first of all, you mentioned in 1964, he was at the Republican Convention and watched Barry Goldwater. And began to get this first realization of the creeping radicalization of the Republican Party.
But then in the book, you also go over the fact that Romney witnessed the Republican Revolution under Newt Gingrich in the '90s and then in 2008 that he didn't think the Tea Party was about much more than the economy and the deficit. He just didn't see the rise of Republican populism at that time.
In 2012, as you note, he thinks, Trump is a joke, but still has to go and get his endorsement. In 2016, he looks at Trump again and initially thinks Trump's campaign is a stunt. So what I don't understand is how could such a consummate Republican insider like Mitt Romney, maybe he has a lot of personal political savvy, but he didn't have enough political savvy to see over the course of decades what was happening with the Republican Party.
How did he explain, it sounds like willful blindness to me, and I'm wondering how he explained that to you.
COPPINS: Yeah, I think that there is a certain degree of motivated reasoning going on here, right? He was constantly convincing himself that each new manifestation of right-wing populism was not as dangerous as it was, or that it wasn't as big of a deal as it was being made out to be. And that's partly because he needed those voters to support him in his pursuit of the presidency. But I think that Mitt Romney's inability to see what was happening in his party, and he admits to it now. He tells me, I just fundamentally missed it.
The Tea Party is a good example. He thought that he could appeal to the Tea Party voters by talking about deficit reduction and low taxes. And what he found over time is that when he got in front of those crowds, they didn't want to hear his 59-point plan to reduce the deficit. They wanted to hear him talk about immigrants and terrorists and guns and the evils of abortion.
And I think that he his inability to see that is emblematic of the whole kind of Mitt Romney wing of the party, right? There is this, the establishment of the party for so long had this idea that they could essentially coddle and court and indulge those far-right elements of the party and harvest their votes and harness their energy during elections.
And then once the election was over, basically push them back to the side and say, "We're in charge of the party, right? We're still the grownups. We're the ones who are going to run the government and run the party." And that all of that is a sideshow. And what happened in 2016 is they found; they saw the result of coddling that element of the party for so long.
Because that element of the party took over, right? And Donald Trump was obviously its manifestation, but the movement that he represented, it's all the same voters who were Tea Party voters. And in a lot of ways, you know, there are a lot of ideological differences. But in a lot of ways, they're drawing on the same kind of ugly themes that the Goldwater movement was drawing on, right?
And so I think that there, you call it willful blindness. I think there is a certain amount of that. But it's also just the politics of bedfellows, right? These Republicans like Mitt Romney, they were trying to get to, in the way Romney memorably described it to me as his presidential ambition, 50.1% of the vote.
And to get to 50.1% of the vote, sometimes means draping your arm around unseemly characters and coddling voters that you would never want to spend time with when you're not running for president. And he sees that now in a way that he just refused to see it when he was running.
CHAKRABARTI: McKay, I just really love the way you share how Romney summed up the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls. He wanted Paul Ryan to run, but Ryan wasn't running. And then you write that, "A Bush won't beat a Clinton, Chris is too angry, Kasich is too undisciplined, Scott Walker is too opportunistic, Perry is Perry, Marco lacks stature, Rand is wrong, and Ted is frightening.
CHAKRABARTI: Was that honestly how Romney judged the field?
COPPINS: I think that's probably a gentle description.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Oh okay.
COPPINS: Of how we judge the field. Look, Mitt Romney spent a lot of time in the run up to 2016, first of all, exploring his own third presidential bid, ultimately deciding against it. And then he spent time meeting with the various candidates, and he came away unimpressed.
And what's interesting is, he gave me his journals. He gave me his email correspondence from that period. And reading those emails and journal entries, it's an interesting foreshadowing of how Donald Trump rose to power. Because, first of all, he was fairly unimpressed with the field that was emerging, even though there were a lot of Republicans running.
But he also quickly saw, especially once he tried to organize opposition to Trump, behind the scenes, that these candidates and campaigns, while in public and even to him, they would say Donald Trump would be a catastrophe is president. He'd be a catastrophe for our party. They weren't willing to do anything to coordinate, to stop Trump from winning the nomination.
And he realized how hard it was to get them to give up even a modicum of their own political advantage in the short term to stop Trump. And that kind of became a theme over the next, really, eight years of his career.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. Because once Trump was left as the last candidate standing in the field, that's when we get a sense of how public Senator Romney is willing to be, about his concerns for the party, his concerns for the country.
Because, for example, on March 3rd, 2016, Romney scheduled a speech at the University of Utah. We've got a moment of it here. The topic was why Donald Trump must not be president.
ROMNEY: He's not of the temperament of the kind of stable, thoughtful person we need as leader. His imagination must not be married to real power.
The President of the United States has long been the leader of the free world. The President and, yes, even the nominees of the country's great parties helped define America to billions of people around the world. All of them bear the responsibility of being an example for our children and our grandchildren.
Think of Donald Trump's personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics. Now imagine your children and your grandchildren acting the way he does. Would you welcome that?
CHAKRABARTI: It's Mitt Romney in 2016, in March of 2016, and now upon listening to it with the echoes of the George Romney tape we played earlier, I can hear a very strong connection between son and father there.
But of course, Romney's a complicated character, because just about everyone remembers that it was barely eight months later when, in late November 2016, he still chose to sit down with Donald Trump in New York City to discuss the possibility of taking a job as Secretary of State within a new Trump administration.
Now, eventually Romney did not do that, we should note. But just after that dinner, November 29th, 2016, here's what Romney said.
ROMNEY: And what I've seen through these discussions I've had with president-elect Trump, as well as what we've seen in his speech the night of his victory, as well as the people he's selected as part of this transition.
All of those things combined give me increasing hope that president-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay McKay, we've talked about Romney explaining the powerful need for rationalization. So I don't want to go over that territory again. But at what point, McKay, after this, after 2016, does Senator Romney hit a point, like he crosses that Rubicon, and he simply cannot rationalize anymore?
COPPINS: Yeah. I think that whole episode where the Secretary of State job is dangled in front of him is his last temptation, in a way, right? He had one more chance to sell out his principles and join the Trump administration. Get a very high-profile job. He didn't take it.
And I report on all the, what happened behind the scenes there. But it was really after that, and once Trump took office and Romney watched over the next, first hundred days of his presidency and beyond, just how bad things could get with him in office that Romney made up his mind that he would never be able to be on board with this.
And it's interesting because, it's not long after Trump takes office that he's approached about running for Senate in Utah. And the reason he decides to do it is effectively that he thinks he can get to the Senate and steer his party away from Trumpism, right? He has this kind of fantasy that Trump is going to be remembered as this one-off fluke and there's still a lot of good people in the party.
They just need a voice. They need somebody like me, the former presidential nominee, to get in there and empower them to speak out. And once he got to the Senate, he realized that would be much more difficult than he thought.
CHAKRABARTI: On February 5th, 2020, Mitt Romney became the first senator in U.S. history to vote to remove a president of his own party from office. That was his first guilty vote in Donald Trump's first impeachment trial. First of all, we're going to play a moment of the speech that Romney gave on that February day, but McKay, can you just take a second to describe how Romney came to that decision?
Because you write about it so vividly, of this man sitting there in his lonely Washington condo, reading Federalist 65 and trying to reconcile how, according to him, most of the members of his own party didn't even take the thinking through process of the impeachment trials seriously.
COPPINS: This was the thing that really frustrated him. He believed from his own study of constitutional scholarship and the Federalist Papers; he had this very sincere approach to an impeachment trial. And he believed that senators were called upon to set aside their partisan prejudices and act as impartial jurors in a trial.
And what alarmed him was how the rest of his caucus just completely disregarded that role. In fact, he told me that in one early caucus meeting, early on in the process, Mitch McConnell explicitly advised the Republican senators that they shouldn't think of themselves as jurors, that this is a political process, and they should act like politicians.
And that's how they acted, and it drove Romney crazy, I can tell you from reading his journals and also from just talking to him. Because he would repeatedly have Republican senators sidle up to him in private and say, "I'm glad you're out there doing what you're doing and saying what you're saying about Trump. I wish I could do the same thing. I have a reelection to think about."
And, for Romney, it just, it made him, it just profoundly disappointed him. Because this was his party. A lot of these are people that he respected, that he considered them allies, even friends, and to see them all just so brazenly make this calculation that they're not even going to engage in the impeachment process just for their own partisan reasons, it frustrated him.
Like his vote, I will say, it was really difficult for him to take. He wanted very badly to vote with the rest of his party to acquit Trump because he knew it would be easier for him. His family wouldn't face any blowback. He could just go along with his party. Like he had for a lot of his political career.
But in weighing the evidence and going through the trial, he just determined there was no way around the fact that Trump was guilty of abuse of power. And to vote against his conscience in that moment was just something he couldn't do anymore.
COPPINS: He couldn't take one more vote that he didn't believe in.
CHAKRABARTI: So here he is on February 5th, 2020, just before, he's on the Senate floor here, just before voting Trump as guilty in that first impeachment trial.
ROMNEY: As a senator juror, I swore an oath before God to exercise impartial justice. I am profoundly religious. My faith is at the heart of who I am. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong.
CHAKRABARTI: That's Mitt Romney on February 5th, 2020. Now McKay, he also told you that he had come to recognize, quote, "The overwhelming consideration in how people vote is whether it will help or hurt their reelection prospects."
And he says it's amazing that a democracy can function like this. I don't know, McKay, when I read that quote, I just kept wondering how naive was Mitt Romney? Until very recently. Because I think a lot of Americans have seen for years, decades even, that the need for re-election holds primacy in how a lot of members of Congress behave.
COPPINS: Yeah. I think that it's one thing to know that intellectually, and I'm sure he knew that intellectually. In part because he had often fallen victim to the same mentality, right? He had done things that he wouldn't have otherwise done, taken positions he wouldn't have otherwise taken, to win election or reelection.
So he understands that intellectually, but I think it's a different thing to be in the Senate at this high stakes moment in American political history. And see his colleagues repeatedly doing things and saying things in private that are completely different from what they say in public.
The context for that quote, though, is interesting. It was actually after the Uvalde shooting, the shooting at the elementary school. Where a bipartisan gun safety bill had been put together and it was presented to the Republican caucus. And Mitt Romney kind of looked around over an hour-long caucus meeting and listened as one Republican senator after another complained about the politics of this bill.
And said, "We're in an election year. I don't want to have to take a bad vote. This is a lose for my campaign. Why are we being forced to take up this divisive issue when we're up for reelection?" And what drove Mitt crazy, and he told his staff about it afterward, was that not a single comment in that meeting was about the substance of the bill and whether it would lead to fewer gun deaths in America.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm hmm.
COPPINS: And I think seeing things like that was really eye-opening for him, because like you said, you're right. He's not naive. He knows that reelection is a constant motivating factor in political leaders' lives. But to see how it overshadows everything else, to see it overshadow even something like the gun deaths after a mass shooting at an elementary school.
I think it hits home in a different way. And that's where you see that frustration.
CHAKRABARTI: So I also want to note that the way you write about Romney's harrowing experience on January 6, 2021, I Just could not put the book down. There's so much excellent reporting in there, folks. You really do need to read it, because a lot of it's quite shocking.
But it put me in mind of, after the attack, when we have the second impeachment trial. I will never forget all these television shots of Romney, still wearing his COVID masks, sitting behind speakers in the Senate, like smoldering with anger. Particularly when Mitch McConnell gets up and gives this morally righteous speech about the sanctity of the Senate, full on blames Donald Trump, but then still votes Trump is innocent in that second impeachment trial.
It just, that's seared into my mind. But in the last minute or so that we have here, McKay, so much of your book has this sort of lion in winter feel, right? Both because of, perhaps Romney has nothing left to lose politically anymore. He's not running for Senate again.
But also, I suppose a person comes to a time in their lives where they are taking stock. So how does he view his role in the transformation of the Republican Party? And what lesson do you think he wants everyone to take from him talking with you over 40-plus interviews?
COPPINS: When he speaks to audiences of young people, students or people coming through his office on tours of the Capitol, they often ask him, "What advice do you have for us?"
And the advice he often gives is, "Don't sacrifice your principles at the altar of ambition." And he sometimes adds, "It's not worth it. Believe me." Or something along those lines. And I think that reflects a man who is now at the end of his career. He's at the end of, nearing the end of his life. And he's looking back and saying, "Look, in the moment, there is always so much pressure to do something you know is wrong, because it'll help you in the short term. Resist that pressure because when you reach the end of your life, the end of your career, you're going to regret it." And I think that's a lesson that he's followed in this last chapter of his life. And he hopes that others will, as well.
This program aired on November 8, 2023.