There was no room in the House GOP caucus for the growing doubts of Florida Rep. Francis Rooney. Since taking office in 2017, Rooney had vented privately about Donald Trump’s comportment as president, as is the practice of nearly all GOP lawmakers on the Hill. But Rooney was perhaps more troubled than most by the findings of the Mueller report earlier this year, and the more recent Ukraine scandal had finally pushed him into pondering a no-go zone for Republicans: impeachment.
House Republicans, according to a frightening piece in Politico Magazine, started monitoring Rooney very closely as an enemy to their cause—which clearly had nothing to do with living up to their oaths of office. Their only goal was closing ranks around Trump, but they struggled to address the impending desertion of Rooney, since he hadn’t said anything on the record yet. “Rooney could go nowhere, say nothing, without the eyes of the party on him,” writes Politico’s Tim Alberta. “House Republican leaders, having been made aware of Rooney’s agitating, deputized lawmakers to monitor the malcontent.” In essence, Rooney’s colleagues started spying on him. And having caught wind of his dissent at the White House, Trump was incredulous. “Who the hell is this Rooney guy?” Trump asked during a phone call with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
House GOP leaders settled on starting a “whisper campaign” against Rooney, questioning his fealty to Trump in preparation for when he finally broke ranks. The idea was to sow the seeds of discontent in his blood-red Florida district so his constituents would be primed to go ballistic when Rooney finally aired his misgivings publicly. And that’s exactly what happened after Rooney appeared on CNN on Oct. 18, saying he couldn’t rule out impeaching Trump for his actions on the July 25 call with the Ukrainian president. He even offered up a Nixon analogy.
“I’m very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s a witch hunt to get Nixon,’” he told CNN. “Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt. It was absolutely correct.”
Hoo boy. That sure unleashed the attack dogs. Just imagine being a Republican lawmaker who had to look in the mirror after one of your own finally admitted the truth everyone had been studiously ignoring. Rooney’s matter-of-fact bravery cast the others as craven opportunists by comparison. His colleagues spent the rest of the day furtively creeping around the Capitol in desperate avoidance of an unwanted encounter with a reporter. But in the Republican Party, no good deed goes unpunished, and so it was for Rep. Rooney.
“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,” Rooney told Politico. “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 … ”
That’s when Rooney’s voice faltered—even he was a little thrown by the fallout. The day after Rooney’s CNN appearance, he announced he wouldn’t be running for reelection. There obviously isn’t a place in the GOP for anyone who isn’t a glass-eating Trump cultist. That’s exactly the message GOP leadership had hoped to send: Anyone who dares stray from the party line will be unceremoniously excommunicated.
When it came time for the procedural vote laying out the rules of engagement on Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, the entire GOP caucus had clearly gotten the memo. Not a single Republican voted with Democrats to pass the resolution, while two Democrats actually joined Republicans to vote against it.
Several blocks up Pennsylvania Avenue, Trump exulted in his win, believing it to mean Republicans were all falling in line. But Rooney says he merely considered that vote procedural, not substantive.
“I’m not going to show my hand on impeachment until we get all the facts out there,” he said, insisting that he’s not the only House Republican who decided to hold their fire till a later date. “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.”
After conducting dozens of interviews, Politico agreed with Rooney’s assessment, writing, “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.”
Even so, the numbers seem unlikely to add up to Trump’s impeachment from office. Nonetheless, House GOP leaders are working closely with the White House to stem the number of potential defections to as few as possible. Trump, quite frankly, can’t stand any disloyalty, even if it’s politically advantageous to a Republican trying to keep their seat.
But if you’re wondering what it’s like to speak out of turn in GOP circles these days and actually tell the truth, Rooney’s experience is telling.