It’s not every day that the junior senator-elect from Utah galvanizes the nation’s attention. But as he prepares to take office Thursday, Mitt Romney has vaulted himself back into the national conversation with a scorching attack on President Trump’s character.
At a time when most Republican senators have refrained from criticizing the president, Romney wrote in The Washington Post that the Trump presidency “made a deep descent” in December and that, despite delivering Republican victories on corporate taxes and judicial appointments, “the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”
The attack raised the question: Just what kind of senator is Romney going to be?
“I still think we need some clarity about what’s the bigger plan here, about what he wants to carve out for himself,” said Kevin Madden, a former senior adviser to and spokesman for Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. “We don’t know that yet. And the question that this op-ed begs is: What’s next? What is it in service of?”
Official Washington was buzzing with chatter about whether Romney will use the power of the Senate to try to restrain Trump or limit his criticism to expressions of regret and sorrow on the Senate floor.
The broadside also stoked speculation that the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee may be positioning himself for a 2020 primary challenge to Trump.
Concerned about that possibility, Jevon Williams, a Republican National Committee member from the Virgin Islands, urged his fellow committee members to tighten party rules that he said could leave Trump vulnerable to a GOP presidential rival.
“Make no mistake,” Williams wrote in response to Romney’s criticism. “This was calculated political treachery.”
Romney on Wednesday rejected the idea of another presidential campaign, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper, “I’m not running again.” But he declined to endorse Trump and left open the possibility that he may support a Republican who runs against him in 2020, saying, “I’m going to see what the alternatives are.”
“There are places where we agree on a whole series of policy fronts,” Romney said on CNN. “But there are places that I thought the president can, if you will, elevate his game and do a better job of bringing us together as a nation.”
If Romney is serious about confronting Trump in the Senate, Madden said, he will need to build coalitions with other Republican members who have shown little interest in directly challenging the irascible leader of their party.
“In order for this to be successful, and to change behaviors, or chart a different path for the party, the Senate, and the country, it would have to be broader and more staying than just one op-ed,” Madden said.
Jim Manley, who served as a top aide to Democratic Senators Harry Reid and Edward M. Kennedy, pointed out that under the rules of the Senate, one senator can exert enormous sway, if he or she wants to.
But with the exception of Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona — who waited until his final weeks in office to hold up Trump’s judicial nominees to try to force a vote on legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller — most Republicans have offered little substantive resistance to Trump, Manley said.
“The leverage is there, the power is there, the rules of the Senate are there to help you — the only question is: Are you prepared to stand up to this president and your party?” Manley said. “Nothing in Romney’s past suggests to me he is prepared to stand up and take on this president in an aggressive manner.”
Romney, after all, has been dogged by his history of shifting policy positions — on health care, abortion, and other issues — and has had a long up-and-down relationship with Trump.
He was endorsed by Trump during his 2012 presidential campaign, only to emerge as perhaps the most vocal leader of the “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 Republican primary, when he delivered a major speech denouncing Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud” who was “playing the American public for suckers.”
Romney then appeared to mend fences with Trump, and considered serving as his secretary of state. Last February, he accepted Trump’s endorsement during his run for the Senate in Utah.
Writing in the Post on Tuesday, Romney said that, despite agreeing with some of Trump’s policies, he is most concerned with the president’s “glaring” shortfall in character.
“I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault,” Romney wrote. “But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”
On CNN, Romney repeated that he does not intend to be an obstructionist to the president’s agenda, saying that “with regards to the shutdown, I’ll be with Republicans on that front” and “I would vote for the border wall.”
Lanhee Chen, who was chief policy adviser on Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and remains in touch with him, reiterated that Romney supports many of Trump’s policies.
“He’s a conservative Republican,” Chen said. “He’s not all of a sudden going to vote like a Democrat.”
But Chen said Romney will use his bully pulpit to call out the president on matters of “style and character.”
“He’s going to express his point of view and, if others come along, or there’s an effort to build a coalition, Mitt’s always been someone who can build coalitions to lead,” Chen said. “So if there’s an opportunity, he will take that lead. But he’s not looking to purposely poke anybody in the eye here. He’s trying to be constructive about what he’s going to do over these next several years.”
After the op-ed, Trump pushed back at Romney on Twitter, but in gentle terms compared to the kind of insults (“choke artist”) he has hurled at Romney in the past.
“Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast!” Trump wrote. “Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!”
Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2019
Hitting closer to home for Romney was a scolding from his niece, Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, who went after her uncle on Twitter.
“For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive,” McDaniel wrote.
POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the MSM media and Democrats 24/7. For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive. https://t.co/ArhI7Bi7bo— Ronna McDaniel (@GOPChairwoman) January 2, 2019
Romney responded to his niece on CNN, saying she has a responsibility as GOP chairwoman to defend the president.
“It’s probably more, if you will, civil than it might have been across the Thanksgiving dinner table because we, of course, have disagreements in our family,” he said. “But she’s a very loyal Republican, loyal to the president, and she’s doing what she thinks is best for him and the party.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org