From the moment Francis Rooney expressed alarm to his House colleagues that Donald Trump might have abused presidential power in his dealings with Ukraine—and more dramatically, that an impeachment inquiry could be warranted—the Florida Republican was a marked man.
He made for a most unusual suspect. A silver-haired business tycoon, former ambassador and card-carrying member of the GOP establishment, Rooney had reliably played the role of good soldier for the party since easily winning his Naples-area congressional seat in 2016. He had kept his head down. He had dutifully gone about his business as a policymaker and a politician. He had, like so many of his fellow Republicans, muffled his trepidation over the president’s behavior, recognizing that to cross Trump was to commence the extinction of his own political career.
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Venting privately about the president has become a hallowed pastime in Republican-controlled Washington, a sort of ritualistic release for those lawmakers tasked with routinely defending the indefensible, and Rooney had long indulged without consequence. Certainly, his friends noticed, the Florida congressman had grown more animated in private over the past year—railing against the improprieties detailed in the Mueller report, decrying the Trump family’s brazen attempts to enrich themselves off the presidency, wondering aloud what the president needed to do before voters would turn on him. Still, there was no real risk. To the extent GOP leaders heard echoes of Rooney’s discontent, they dismissed it as just another member blowing off steam.
But as summer turned to fall, Rooney wasn’t just bitching and complaining anymore. He was talking about impeachment. And he was talking not in a manner that was abstract or academic, but concrete and ominous. Initially in one-on-one conversations, and then in larger group settings, Rooney cautioned his colleagues that there could be no turning a blind eye to the fact pattern emerging from Trump’s relationship with Ukraine. It seemed possible, if not probable, that congressionally approved military aid to the embattled country—long a cause dear to Democrats and Republicans alike—had been held up contingent on investigations into Trump’s domestic political rivals. The question, Rooney told his friends, was not whether there was clear evidence of wrongdoing, but whether the president himself was culpable—and if so, whether congressional Republicans were going to cover for him.
All of a sudden, the once-invisible congressman was the subject of constant surveillance. Rooney could go nowhere, say nothing, without the eyes of the party on him. House Republican leaders, having been made aware of Rooney’s agitating, deputized lawmakers to monitor the malcontent. The White House—both its political team and its legislative affairs shop—did likewise. Before long, the president himself was briefed on the threat from Rooney. Disturbed, Trump began calling his friends and associates, on Capitol Hill and in Florida, trying to make sense of the situation.
“Who the hell is this Rooney guy?” the president asked Florida Governor Ron DeSantis during one phone call, according to sources familiar with their conversation. “What’s his deal?”
All the president’s allies agreed Rooney was a problem. But there was no obvious solution. The congressman had yet to say anything menacing about Trump in public; taking some type of punitive measure against him, be it a closed-door belittling or a presidential tweet-lashing, would be strange and possibly counterproductive. If the overarching goal was to keep Republicans unified in the face of impeachment’s advance—for the sake of immediate political advantage, if not also for the president’s legacy—keeping Rooney close made more sense than alienating him.
Ultimately, Republican leaders in Washington and Florida settled on a simple course of action. They would beat Rooney at his own game, doing nothing to undermine him openly but instead orchestrating a whisper campaign aimed at sowing doubts about his devotion to the president. The focal point would be Florida’s 19th, Rooney’s bloody red district, which Trump had carried by 22 points. That way, if and when Rooney broke ranks, the uprising back home would appear instant and organic. The recoil wouldn’t just scare Rooney straight; it would provide a cautionary tale for any Republican tempted to follow his lead.
Rooney knew the trap was being laid, but he didn’t bother avoiding it. On Friday, October 18, the congressman appeared on CNN and said there was “clear” evidence of a quid pro quo based on acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s own description of events. Asked whether he was ruling out voting for impeachment, Rooney replied, “I don’t think you can rule anything out until you know all the facts.” He also added, “I’m very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s a witch hunt to get Nixon.’ Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt. It was absolutely correct.”
Rooney’s remarks—in particular, his unsolicited comparison of Trump to Nixon—left his colleagues slack-jawed. House Republicans, having received hair-on-fire emails from staffers alerting them to the comments, tip-toed through the Capitol to avoid reporters asking for comment. Video of the little-known congressman’s interview rocketed around Twitter and turned official Washington on its head for a matter of hours, fueling immediate speculation that a broader revolt might be brewing. Here, at last, was a Republican lawmaker openly entertaining the prospect of impeaching a Republican president.
And sure enough, as though a switch had been flipped, Rooney found himself under siege.
“The blowback from the people in Southwest Florida was something. I mean, I had people down here in the local Republican leadership mad at me, yelling at me, telling me nothing should happen to make me waver in my support of Donald Trump. Nothing,” he recalls in an interview. “Now, I’m pretty immune to pressure. I’ve got a great company, a great family, I’ve done some wonderful things in my life. So, the fact that I got criticized by some local Republican officials doesn’t bother me one bit. But still … ”
Rooney’s voice trails off. The intensity of that criticism—and the threats on his career, made implicit and explicit by Florida Republicans in the hours after his CNN appearance—left him with an inescapable conclusion: There would be no coming back to Congress. He had mulled retirement in the months prior, but now the decision was being made for him. The very next day, appearing on Fox News, Rooney announced he would not seek reelection in 2020.
It hardly could have played better for Trump. The headlines wrote themselves. As Rolling Stone declared, “GOP Congressman Open to Impeachment on Friday, Retires on Saturday.”
The implication was clear: Any Republican who so much as flirted with impeachment would no longer have a home in the party.
Two weeks later, when the House passed a resolution advancing the impeachment inquiry, all 196 of the House Republicans on the floor voted as a bloc against the measure. It was a display of solidarity and a reassertion of supremacy; once again, everyone in the party had fallen in line behind Trump. To the president’s delight, as he watched the proceedings on television, the “nays” even included the troublemaker Rooney, who, Trump concluded, had tucked his tail between his legs and done as he was told. Trump basked in the sensation. That the House had moved closer toward a historic and humiliating referendum on his presidency was less important than the GOP rallying uniformly in his defense. There would be no more talk of dissension. Whatever rebellious spark Rooney once embodied had been decisively extinguished.
Or so the president hoped.
In fact, Rooney says now, his vote was in disapproval of the Democrats’ process—not a display of confidence in Trump’s innocence. “That was just a procedural vote,” the congressman says, explaining that he studied the House rules that governed Bill Clinton’s impeachment and was prepared to vote for similar guidelines had Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought them to the floor this time around. “I’m not going to show my hand on impeachment until we get all the facts out there.”
Rooney insists he’s not alone. It was only after he spoke candidly on CNN, he says, that other members began confiding in him that they, too, were losing confidence in their defense of the president. “There are a lot of Republicans who feel varying levels of disquiet at the idea of using American foreign policy power to gin up domestic political investigations,” Rooney says.
Of course, the yawning delta between what Republicans feel privately and what they say publicly has been a defining theme of the Trump era. Whether any of those lawmakers suddenly find the courage to defy him on a legacy-shaping vote will go a long way toward shaping history’s view of Trump’s presidency, his impeachment, and his stewardship of the Republican Party.
From dozens of interviews with GOP lawmakers, congressional aides and White House staffers over the past month, it’s evident that Rooney is right: There is a sizable number of Republican senators and representatives who believe Trump’s actions are at least theoretically impeachable, who believe a thorough fact-finding mission is necessary, who believe his removal from office is not an altogether radical idea.
But it’s also evident that, barring a plain admission of guilt by the president himself—think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men—the Republican Party will not be forsaking Trump. He could lose a stray vote in the House, maybe even two, when articles of impeachment come to the floor. He could fare even worse in the Senate, knowing that more than a few of the 53 Republican jurors might be tempted etch their names in the history books at his expense. None of this will alter his standing atop the party; none of this will change the fact that he is president through January 2021 and perhaps beyond.
And yet, Trump cannot stand to be embarrassed—and there is no greater embarrassment to a president than being impeached, much less with the abetting of his own tribe. There is an urgency, then, not only to limit defections but eliminate them. The administration, working in concert with its allies on Capitol Hill, has been hard at work identifying potential turncoats in the party and monitoring their activities to catch any sign of slippage. Believing that a unified party-line vote is needed in the House to prevent any narrative of Republicans abandoning Trump when action moves to the Senate, the president’s allies are determined to stay one step ahead of any lawmaker who might be going soft, gaming out scenarios for who could desert and why.
It amounts to a preemptive game of political whodunit, with Trump’s enforcers seeking to solve a mystery of political betrayal before it occurs. Naturally, there is no bigger fan of this game than the president himself.
To understand Trump’s fixation on the word loyalty is to understand that his interpretation, at least in a political context, means submission, subservience, subjugation.
Having conquered the GOP with a scorched-earth primary campaign—wrecking the Bush dynasty, pillaging the party’s establishment wing, refashioning the American right in his own image—Trump continues to demand the party’s complete and total devotion to him. It began after he won the Indiana primary in May 2016, eliminating Ted Cruz and John Kasich and becoming the presumptive nominee, only to be dumbfounded at hearing Paul Ryan, then the House speaker, declaring that he wasn’t ready to support the party’s new standard bearer. To Trump, who long possessed a sort of medieval, winner-take-all understanding of business and life, it had never occurred to him that this was a possibility. He was the victor; he deserved the spoils, starting with the allegiance of the subjects he now ruled.
Every day since, Trump has been preoccupied with questions of treachery within his newfound tribe. When we sat for an interview early this year for my book, American Carnage, the president returned time and again to this notion of fidelity. Because he had returned the GOP to power, Trump intimated, allowing Republicans to claim victories on all matter of policy and personnel, they owed him their unwavering support.
“The Republican Party was in big trouble,” Trump told me. “I brought the party back. The Republican Party is strong. The Republican Party is strong.” He then added, “They’ve got to remain faithful. And loyal.”
People around the president say he seldom grows agitated at the conduct of Pelosi, or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, or House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrats he most enjoys lampooning on Twitter. They are the opposition party, and because Trump holds a symmetrical view of politics, he expects (and often embraces) their antagonism. It’s an entirely different story when it comes to intraparty dissent.
Rarely does the president become more wrathful, his allies say, than when he learns of a Republican criticizing him, particularly if done in a public setting. And even when he hears of an internecine attack launched behind closed doors, Trump has been known to fly into a rage, calling people who were in the room to grill them for details on the alleged act of duplicity. On more than one occasion, after receiving reports of unflattering talk by his fellow Republicans, the president has resorted to blasting out angry, cryptic tweets hinting at a possible betrayal.
“The Never Trumper Republicans, though on respirators with not many left, are in certain ways worse and more dangerous for our Country than the Do Nothing Democrats,” he tweeted on October 23. “Watch out for them, they are human scum!”
The president didn’t call out anyone by name. But at the time, Republicans widely interpreted the missive to be the continuation of a recent campaign against Mitt Romney, the Utah senator and Trump’s longtime nemesis. In the weeks preceding the tweet, Romney had resumed his role as Trump’s chief Republican tormentor, calling his interactions with Ukraine “wrong and appalling,” while separately skewering the president for his abandoning the Kurds in Syria. (It was also revealed, after reporting in The Atlantic and Slate, that Romney maintained a burner Twitter account from which he promoted anti-Trump commentary.) In return, the president unleashed a furious tweetstorm, calling Romney “a pompous ‘ass’” and suggesting he should be impeached. Never mind that senators are not subject to impeachment under the Constitution—Trump was livid, and he was lashing out.
Given the history of hostilities between them, and Romney’s obvious belief that Trump has abused his power and used the office of the presidency for his personal gain, it’s easy to understand why the junior senator from Utah is universally viewed as the likeliest Republican apostate on the question of impeachment, in either chamber.
What’s harder to understand is why Trump would choose to deploy the phrase “human scum!” in describing disloyal Republicans—a rhetorical eyebrow-raiser, even for him—without making clear to whom he was referring or what specifically was provoking his fury.
Parsing the president’s tweets can be a fool’s errand. But considering the historic nature of the converging events of late October—the Ukraine quid pro quo, the forsaking of the Kurds, the decision (later reversed) to host the G-7 at Trump’s luxury golf resort in Florida—and the unprecedented outcry heard among Republicans, the “human scum!” outburst provides a valuable window into a presidency in crisis. That Trump was not singling out Romney, the president’s team began to sense, reflected a pair of interrelated realities: first, that the Utah senator was a lost cause; and second, that Trump suddenly had other senators to worry about.
It’s doubtful that any American, whether Trump’s biggest fan or his boldest critic, is going to have their perceptions swayed by a single Republican senator voting to remove the president from office—particularly if that senator is Romney. But what about two Republican senators? Or three? Or five?
Nobody on Capitol Hill believes the number of GOP mutineers could even remotely approach the 20 needed to convict Trump in a Senate trial. All the same, there is a recognition among the president’s allies that his reelection campaign, not to mention his place in history, could be crippled by even the smallest clique of Republicans banding together and issuing what would be an institution-defining rebuke. What would be especially damning, they know, is if those converts aren’t easily explained away as fair-weather friends like Romney.
Oh, it wouldn’t shock anyone if Susan Collins, the centrist from Maine, turned on Trump once and for all. She has never thought highly of the president. She has exhausted the polite ways in which to articulate her belief that he is unfit for office. She, like Romney, called Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president “appalling.”
Nor would it surprise Republicans if Lisa Murkowski, the other quasi-independent in the GOP caucus, turned on Trump. The Alaska senator has been a chronic problem for the White House. Whether it was her vote against the GOP’s Obamacare repeal proposal, or her persistent abuse of the administration for its handling of a 35-day government shutdown, or her go-it-alone refusal to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Murkowski has shown a unique capacity for afflicting the president.
In late October, it was those three GOP senators—Romney, Collins and Murkowski—who conspicuously refused to co-sponsor Lindsey Graham’s resolution condemning the House of Representatives for its impeachment inquiry. So, sure, any one of those three voting to remove Trump from office would come as less than a revelation. Heck, all three voting to remove Trump from office might not move the needle much in political circles.
Then again, three is more than zero. And what if it’s more?