GOP Rep. Tom Rice says impeaching Trump was 'the conservative vote'
"I would do it again tomorrow," he said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
South Carolina's Tom Rice was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Now, as Rice fights an uphill battle for his political life in the heart of Trump country, he is standing by that choice -- calling it “the conservative vote” in an interview with ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl that aired Sunday on "This Week."
“I did it then. And I would do it again tomorrow," Rice said.
Rice said Trump deserved to be impeached for potentially endangering former Vice President Mike Pence and his family at the Capitol and not acting more quickly to stop the deadly riot as it unfolded last year.
“When he watched the Capitol, the ‘People's House,’ being sacked, when he watched the Capitol Police officers being beaten for three or four hours and lifted not one thing or to stop it -- I was livid then and I’m livid today about it,” Rice recalled. “And it was very clear to me I took an oath to protect the Constitution.”
Trump has vowed vengeance against Rice, endorsing one of his six primary opponents and holding a rally in his district in March.
“Right here, in the 7th district, Tom Rice, a disaster,” Trump said to boos. “He’s respected by no one, he’s laughed at in Washington.”
A mild-mannered accountant and tax attorney who helped craft the 2017 Republican tax law Trump signed into law, Rice says he voted overwhelmingly in favor of Trump’s agenda in Congress.
“If I am a ‘disaster,’ and a ‘total fool’ and I voted with him 169 times out of 184, what does that make him?” he said to Karl. “I was following his lead.”
“He's a narcissist, and he’s driven by attention, and he’s driven by revenge,” Rice said of Trump.
He also warned his party against rallying around the former president if Trump seeks the Oval Office again, as Trump has often hinted.
“I think it will hurt us,” Rice said. “We’ll get painted more in the corner of extremism, they'll try to label us as extremist. And he’ll feed that.”
Rice criticized Republicans, including GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, for quickly embracing Trump in the weeks after the Capitol attack.
He declined to say whether McCarthy should be speaker if Republicans win back the House in November.
“I’m not gonna answer that one right now,” he told ABC’s Karl. “We’ll see what happens.”
Rice praised Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who also voted to impeach Trump and now serves as the vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, calling her a “real Republican.” Like Rice, Cheney drew Trump's wrath for criticizing him and is contending with her own primary challenge.
“She’d be a great speaker,” Rice said. “She is very conservative and I think she’s a fearless leader.”
But before November, Rice needs to defend his seat in Congress on June 14, when he’ll face off against six other candidates -- including Trump-endorsed state Rep. Russell Fry -- for the Republican nomination.
The crowded field makes it unlikely that any of the candidates will win more than 50% of the vote and avoid a runoff later this month between the top two finishers, Jerry Rovner, the Republican party chairman in Rice’s district, told ABC News.
Rovner, who is officially neutral in the primary but critical of Rice's position on impeachment, said Rice's vote could be a “major problem with a lot of constituents” given Trump’s popularity in the area.
“He could vote 800 times the way they [want him to] vote, but the one thing he voted on that got the press, they were very upset about,” Rovner said of Rice. “And that’s really what it comes down to.”
Rice’s balancing act was on full display at a recent forum in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where some voters who had previously supported him walked out when he defended his impeachment vote.
“He’s a traitor, and I just don’t trust him,” Lyne Vail told ABC News. "If you can’t back your party, he’s not going to back you or me.”
Billy Zevgolis, a Myrtle Beach businessman and undecided voter, said he also disagreed with Rice's impeachment vote.
“Right now, Trump is our guy,” he told ABC News. “I don’t like his personality, but his politics are right on the money. His values are aligned with mine.”
Rice hopes he can convince enough voters to overlook his stance on Trump's impeachment even if they don’t agree with it. He could also benefit from the state’s open primaries, which allow Democrats and independents to vote in the GOP race.
Even if he loses, Rice has “absolutely” no regrets, he said.
“You know that, like your obituary, the first sentence is going to be 'Tom Rice, who was a Republican member of Congress, voted to impeach Donald Trump,'” Karl told him.
“So be it," he said. "I'll wear it like a badge. So be it."