Mitt Romney — not for the first time — has reversed field when it comes to Donald Trump. This time, his change of heart is a good thing.
The former Massachusetts governor, now a first-term US senator from Utah, has emerged as the most prominent Congressional Republican to question Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, implicitly supporting an impeachment inquiry.
Being Mitt, his comments have been carefully calibrated: he is “deeply troubled” rather than outraged; he has called on other members of his party to “search their hearts and do what’s right” rather than supporting a particular course of action.
But even those steps stand in contrast to other Republicans, whose first instinct has been to circle the wagons around a president they clearly fear.
Despite being castigated by other Republicans, Romney’s openness to taking the allegations against Trump seriously matters. If impeachment is going to reach more than a political dead end, at least some Republicans will have to embrace it. Any indication that the party might not be willing to march in lockstep to prop up Trump makes the effort to push for accountability less partisan, and could broaden its public support.
Romney and Trump have a lot of history, and to call it complicated is an understatement.
As the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2012, Romney successfully sought Trump’s endorsement. But by 2016, he viewed then-candidate Trump with utter contempt. In one of the most fiery speeches of his career, he assailed then-candidate Trump as a complete fraud, both as a politician and a businessman. (Trump responded by claiming that Romney had begged for his blessing just four years earlier.)
Just months later, in an unforgettable scene, Romney was at Trump Tower for an audience with the president-elect, auditioning for secretary of state. Not only did Trump make clear that Romney was never under consideration for a role in his administration, he seemed to relish embarrassing him.
Now they are, once again, adversaries. So what is Romney really up to?
Predictably, after Romney’s latest criticism, Trump’s GOP cheerleaders immediately assailed Romney as a jealous loser, a failed presidential candidate. That might play with the base, but it’s probably not what’s driving him. Also, the ferocity of the counterattack suggest that they take Romney seriously as a conservative whose opinions matter.
Certainly, Romney’s positions have been, shall we say, malleable over time. (The moderate Mitt Romney who lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994 feels like an entirely different figure now, so much have his positions shifted.)
But Romney has always longed to be the standard-bearer of a moderate Republican Party, and he is far too well regarded in Utah to be taken out by a few tweets, as others who cross Trump have been. I think his revulsion for Trump and his takeover of the GOP runs deep. I think he harbors deep concerns about what the rise of Trump will mean for the future of his party.
Romney probably hasn’t given up on being part of that future, either. Were impeachment to end in Trump’s removal from office (unlikely) or the collapse of his support (conceivable), Romney is as well-positioned as any politician in the party to lead the rebuilding of the party. There’s no certainty that he has run his last presidential campaign. Romney-Haley 2020, maybe?
Perhaps it says something about the current state of the Republican Party that allegations of enlisting a foreign country to dig up dirt on a political rival has drawn a collective “So what?” from its alleged leadership. Then again, Watergate-era Republicans didn’t abandon Richard M. Nixon until deep into the impeachment hearings, not until the public had had enough.
The Republican leaders who convinced Nixon that he couldn’t survive and had to resign were eventually hailed as statesmen. Maybe it’s impossible to imagine Trump leaving in the same scenario. But if Mitt Romney isn’t going to be president, leaving public life as a revered party elder statesman might be an appealing second choice.