Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

Donald Trump has never feared another elected Republican. Over the course of five years, he has bullied and insulted, mocked and complained about nearly every GOP officeholder past and present, including George W. Bush and Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeff Flake. He knew that the Republicans who dared to stand up to him couldn’t hurt him (Bob Corker), and that the Republicans who could have hurt him wouldn’t dare stand up to him (Paul Ryan).

All of which has led Trump to believe that there is no possible danger of the Republican Party being pried from his grasp. But Trump may at last need to rethink that calculus.

Mitt Romney’s attempt to excise Trump from his party started early. In March 2016, he became the only former Republican presidential nominee to take a public position against Trump’s candidacy. This act of resistance didn’t work, however, because while Romney had moral authority, he had no real power.

That situation changed this year, when Romney again became an elected official. On January 1, 2019, the newly minted Senator Romney announced his arrival in Washington with an op-ed in The Washington Post titled, “The President Shapes the Public Character of the Nation. Trump’s Character Falls Short.”

After having softened his criticism of the president and even tacitly accepting his endorsement during his Senate campaign in Utah, Romney wrote:

To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.

Democrats and some pundits sniffed that Romney was just another Jeff Flake, all bark and no bite. Republicans derided the decision to call Trump out, with many of them attacking Romney in response—including his own niece, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who called his criticism “disappointing and unproductive.”

The backlash to the op-ed was a crash course in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” But if you look closely, you can see that Romney was laying the groundwork for an eventual challenge to Trump. He was getting into position to get into position.

That said, he didn’t mobilize over the Mueller report, saying only that he was “sickened” by what the special counsel uncovered. Romney’s relatively low profile and mere brow furrowing exasperated Democrats and worried apostate Republicans (like me) who held out hope that Romney might become a Goldwater-like figure in the Senate: a former presidential nominee with the clout to exact some accountability from his party’s president.

Now it looks like Romney was playing the long game, waiting for a moment when there might be leverage for him not simply to annoy Trump, but to be in the jury box rendering a verdict on his presidency. Which is exactly where the whistle-blower report about Trump and his dealings with Ukraine may put him. Suddenly we’ve gone from an environment where impeachment couldn’t even clear the House Democratic caucus to one where polling support for impeachment and removal is above 50 percent, and rising.

Romney has not rushed to get ahead of the process. Instead, he’s engaged with characteristic caution. At first, he called the allegations “troubling in the extreme.” When the readout of Trump’s call with President Volodymyr Zelensky and the whistle-blower complaint became public, providing clearer evidence that the president had courted foreign interference in the coming election, and seemingly pressured a vulnerable ally to do the interfering, Romney stepped up his criticism, calling it “wrong and appalling.”

After Trump pulled American troops out of Syria and abandoned America’s Kurdish allies to slaughter, Romney delivered a blistering indictment of the administration’s betrayal on the Senate floor, saying, “What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a blood stain in the annals of American history.”

People assume that because Republicans have for the most part let Trump be Trump, they have no influence over him. But we saw recently that this isn’t true: Trump walked back the Doral G7 summit after Republicans expressed outrage. The right Republicans, in the right circumstances, can roll him.

Now circumstances are evolving to the point where Romney may be able to lead his colleagues to break with the administration if—or rather when—the president is impeached by the House.

Jeff Flake has speculated that 35 or more Republican senators might vote in an impeachment trial to remove Trump from office, but only if the vote were held in secret. Whatever the real number is, the senators face a collective-action problem. Politically, their safest bet is to move as one, announcing their openness to removal as a bloc. The president can say what he wants about this or that senator. But he wouldn’t be able to claim—with any credibility beyond his most cultlike followers—that a group composed of 10 or more Republican senators is just a cabal of dishonest, no-good losers secretly working for the Democrats.

Part of any collective-action problem is the disincentive to go first. Senators who want to vote against Trump will want to wait until the last minute, letting their more courageous colleagues take the political hit by going first. The senator going first might get hailed as a hero when the history books are written. But in the moment, he or she will be used as a human shield. It won’t be fun, and it’s a big ask for any sitting Republican.  

Romney is best suited for the job. We already know, from The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, that Romney is “taking the prospect of a Senate trial seriously—he’s reviewing The Federalist Papers, brushing up on parliamentary procedure, and staying open to the idea that the president may need to be evicted from the Oval Office.” He’s not up for reelection until 2024, which gives him the maximum amount of leeway to make difficult votes. Even then, he represents Utah, a deep-red state where Trump’s approval rating has been underwater for much of his presidency. And that’s all assuming that Romney would even want to run for another six-year term at age 77. This all points to Romney as the perfect person to overcome the collective-action problem—he has more stature and political capital than anyone else in the Senate, but he also has the least to lose.

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