COLUMBIA, S.C. – U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, who hid in an office as rioters overran the U.S. Capitol last week, acknowledged Thursday that his vote to impeach President Donald Trump could cost him reelection as a conservative Republican but said Trump's failure to calm the mob left him no other choice.
Rice represents a South Carolina district fiercely loyal to Trump. Yet on Wednesday night, the congressman became one of just 10 Republicans to join Democrats in voting to impeach the president, in a stunning reversal from his position days earlier.
The rare Republican votes to make Trump only the first president ever impeached twice drew angry outbursts and calls to state Republicans that made clear that splitting from Trump could come at a heavy political price.
Interviewed by The Associated Press, Rice said he ultimately came to the conclusion that what he characterized as Trump’s inaction during last week's riot at the U.S. Capitol gave him only one clear path forward: impeachment.
Huddling in another congressman’s office as the Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol, Rice said he watched television coverage and, surmising the president was seeing the same violent images, wondered why Trump hadn’t addressed the nation to urge calm and plead with his supporters to stop.
“I can’t imagine another president in my lifetime that would not have tried to intervene there, would not have tried to say, ‘Hey, this needs to stop, and you need to go home,’” Rice told AP.
“For him to sit there and watch TV, and watch these policemen being beaten up, and the Capitol being stormed, and not to be very aggressive about ... getting out there and trying to speak to these people himself, is just beyond my imagination.”
Just hours earlier that day, Trump had called, at a rally in Washington, for the same supporters to “fight like hell” against certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential victory.
On Wednesday, Rice joined with Democrats to support impeachment, which passed the U.S. House.
Some initially thought the vote by the once-steadfast Trump supporter may have been a mistake, a misfire to be corrected while voting remained open.
But, Rice said, his vote to impeach was very intentional.
“I have been with this president through thick and thin. I have supported him in campaigning. I have supported him in voting,” Rice said. “It hurts my heart.”
Among the lesser-known members of South Carolina’s delegation, Rice had long been a reliable backer of the president, campaigning with him and, according to FiveThirtyEight, voting 94% of the time in favor of Trump-backed legislation — the highest percentage among South Carolina’s current delegation.
In his only primary since first being elected in 2012, Rice won with 84% of the vote. He's been reelected each time with at least 56% of votes cast.
Some say Rice's decision Wednesday may come back to haunt him against a field of primary challengers in 2022, when he plans to seek a sixth term. Rice represents South Carolina’s 7th District, an area including Myrtle Beach that has voted heavily for Trump.
Walter Whetsell, Rice's longtime political advisor, said he expected Rice would field primary opposition based off Wednesday's landmark vote, but noted it would be difficult for someone to say they'd be a candidate more closely aligned with Trump's policies than Rice.
“It is a remarkably high hurdle to make that argument, when you have, in Tom Rice, a guy that supported Donald Trump 94% of the time," Whetsell said.
Some of that blowback appears to have already begun. In South Carolina's Horry County, GOP Chairwoman Dreama Perdue said her phone had been ringing nearly constantly since Rice’s vote, with angry constituents venting their frustration over what many have characterized as a betrayal.
“We were all taken aback by this,” Perdue said, adding she’s had to set the phone down as some callers ranted so she could do tasks around the house, like taking out her trash. “There are some that, as soon as I answer, they’re just yelling and screaming.“
State GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said he was “severely disappointed” with Rice. And Matt Moore, McKissick's predecessor, said he initially assumed Rice was planning to retire, given possible electoral ramifications.
“My first reaction was, gosh, Tom Rice is not running again," Moore said, citing Trump's high base of support in Rice's district.
On Thursday, however, Rice said he knew he'd likely face a difficult primary and that the impeachment vote could potentially cost him his seat. “If it does, it does,” said Rice.
When asked by AP on his final thoughts in an interview, he paused and said, “You tell my constituents I love ’em, and it’s the honor of my life to do this job.” He added, “I’ve tried to do my best to do the right thing and represent their interests, but if they decide that it’s time for me to come home, that’s OK, too.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.