Mitt Romney, in an interview with the Globe, discussed his thoughts on the current state of the Republican Party, the presidential race, and what led him to the extraordinary decision to take on front-runner Donald Trump.
Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
When did you start to realize that Donald Trump could be a problem for the party? Was it right away? Was it the immigration comments?
Well, I certainly didn’t predict the current political scene. I join a large group in that category.
If you go back to January 2015, I thought it was extremely unlikely that anybody but Jeb would be our nominee. And I thought Hillary would be impregnable as a general election foe. And obviously both of those things have proven to be wrong. One, Hillary is beatable. She’s been a very weak candidate and everything from the e-mail scandal to the management of her years at State suggest that she could be overtaken by a strong Republican. And of course Jeb is no longer in the race. So I was wrong on all those counts.
In the fall when there was discussion that maybe Donald would get in — one, I didn’t think he would. And two, I thought he would quickly evaporate. That was also proven wrong.
The reason I didn’t think he would get in and if he did he would quickly evaporate was that he was characterized, if you will, by the birther movement in the 2012 contest and a relatively, I’ll call it theatrical personal style, which included showing off and bragging and stretching the truth — and overstating his assets, and the like. And so I thought he would not last long on the political stage. How wrong was I.
You tweeted about John McCain in July, when Trump had disparaging comments about him. Do you remember that?
I was not a fan of Donald Trump at that point. I thought his comment about McCain would send his supporters to the exits. But it did not. And it showed that his campaign was not just based on disparaging immigrants. But disparaging people of prominence and accomplishment. I guess it’s a natural human tendency to hear that great people have feet of clay. And he has made a passion of attacking, if you will, some of our largest figures, whether they’re John McCain or George W. Bush. Or the pope. He goes after these folks and some portion of the electorate finds that appealing.
On the tax issue, and you raising that. Did you feel like that comes as a particular resonance because of your own history on that issue?
I thought it was important for voters to know if there were any problems in their taxes that could present a difficulty for us in the general election. As time went on, I began to watch more carefully what Donald Trump said about his taxes. As I recall, on the “Today” show he said, “My tax returns are beautiful, they’re huge. And yes I’ll be putting them out.” He gave the impression a couple for months as I recall. And then I kept watching what he said about his taxes. And interestingly he kept saying different things about whether he’d put them out, and when he’d put them out. And so it became pretty clear to me he was diverting attention from his taxes for a purpose. There’s only one purpose that one dodges and diverts, and that’s because you don’t want to show what’s in them.
Now that I’ve looked at it more closely, I happen to think that he will never release his tax returns. Even if he becomes the nominee, he will refuse to release his tax returns. Because they are ugly in one way I can only guess. I mean, I don’t know what makes them worth hiding so aggressively as he does. But anybody who hides something with such vehemence is clearly hiding something significant. And I believe not only was there a bombshell when he finally said that all 12 years had been audited, which by the way suggests the IRS certainly found them to be troublesome or at least worthy of a closer examination. But I believe you’ll find a bombshell of other kinds in there.
Did any of the people you still solicit advice from – were they on board pushing on the tax issue?
Actually the tax issue was one that I found very compelling and wanted to push aggressively myself. And was interested in doing so quite early — well, earlier than I actually did it. . . And the people I speak with for advice said, “Gosh Mitt, taxes are small bore for you to go out on. I mean, don’t you want to talk about bigger issues — the economy, foreign policy, and matters of that nature — rather than getting down into the minutia of someone’s tax returns?” And I found that to be pretty good advice. . . .
I keep a journal. I looked through my journal to see what was going through my mind at different times. And I will note that a number of friends and advisers in the fall of last year were telling me, “Mitt you’ve got to run, you’ve got to get in. you’ve got to run. That was something which I dismissed, believing I did not stand as good a chance at becoming the nominee as did Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or John Kasich. I felt they were in a better position. One they’d already gotten on the ballot in a lot of states. And their campaigns were underway. I just thought that I appreciated the confidence people had in me but I didn’t believe I was the right one to jump in.
How seriously were you considering that in the fall?
I dismissed it without consideration. It was raised by a number of people, both advisers and major fund-raisers and donors from the past who called or e-mailed me and said, “You’ve got to get in.” Even some members of the media said, “Mitt you’ve got to get in, what are you thinking?” And I did not give it any serious consideration. I felt it was very clear that I’d made my decision in January 2015 not to run. And there were people in the race who I continue to believe stood a much better chance of becoming the nominee and beating Hillary Clinton than I did.
On considering being more pointed with Trump earlier in the campaign. . .
In January of this year, 2016, I was inclined to do an interview on TV or radio or with print and just go pretty aggressively pointing out the weakness in Mr. Trump’s strategies and how divisive he was. And almost all of my advisers that I go to for counsel felt that was the wrong thing to do. They said “Look you don’t have a campaign staff, you don’t have a communications staff. If you go out and attack Donald Trump, why the return fire is going to be overwhelming, it will hurt you, and it will accomplish very little. Don’t do it.”
I literally had one of my advisers say, “I’m begging you not to do that.” They pointed out that this was the job of the people running for president, not for me. And that the time may come for me to speak out, but they felt at that stage — this was mid January 2016 — that I should stay on the sidelines and continue to play the role that I had considered appropriate for myself from the beginning. I felt that I could be most effective in being kind of an umpire in the primary process, calling balls and strikes and fouls.
But I was beginning to feel that the peril represented by a Donald Trump nomination was not being effectively communicated by the other candidates. I mean, I must admit I found it astonishing to watch the candidates below Donald Trump beat up each other and never lay a glove on the front-runner. I mean, when I was running everybody went after the front-runner and pointed out my weaknesses and foibles, and that’s part of the normal primary process. I don’t resent that at all.
But in this case, I mean, some would aggressively avoid saying anything critical of Donald Trump. And I was saying, “Well someone’s got to point out this idea that he always wins is baloney. To point out that his policies, if implemented would be devastating; would point out that he’s not at all what he pretends to be.
I felt that maybe that should come to me. But I ultimately agreed with those that gave me the advice that that was not the time.
Did something happen between then and mid February? When you went on Neil Cavuto and called on Trump to release his taxes? What shifted?
One was the comment we shouldn’t allow any Muslims to come into the country. And I recognized that for the bigotry it was. Which is, Mr. Trump could have easily said we shouldn’t allow people to come in from countries which have high levels of terrorism. That would be perfectly understandable, and that frankly was the language you heard from someone like Paul Ryan. But he knew that wouldn’t get the headlines and the anger and passion by saying let’s ban all Muslims. And of course just in the last few days saying Islam hates America. This is highly offensive and bigoted. And it is dangerous and counter productive because we rely on Muslims to help fight terror, and specifically ISIS.
This makes that objective far more difficult to achieve. So it’s a calculated draw on bigotry to advance his political prospects. And it does so sacrificing the security of our nation
So that happened. And then another thing happened. And this was actually the precipitating event. Which is that we had Paul Ryan at our home in Deer Valley for a weekend. He was doing fund-raisers for his House effort. Interestingly, by the way, we almost never spoke about presidential politics. It was clear to me that was something Paul did not want to discuss. I mean, I raised a couple of points and Paul would just nod or say, “That’s interesting.” But he did not want to engage on presidential politics, and I think that’s in part because he’s in a position which is not connected to that presidential race. So we didn’t talk about it.
[But on Sunday] Donald Trump had said to Jake Tapper that he didn’t know who David Duke was and he’d have to look into the organization and so forth. My son Tagg came running up the stairs. He was white in the face. He said can you believe what Donald Trump has said? And I was shocked as well.
I contacted my colleagues, my advisers, and counselors and said: “I’m giving a speech. I’m going to give it as soon as I can.”
Does the party, or the nation’s political leadership in general, hold some responsibility for the emergence of Trump?
I don’t know how to point fingers at people for Mr. Trump’s emergence. Mr. Trump has always been what he is. The enthusiasm for him is coming from the people. I don’t know why there is as much enthusiasm as there is. But I don’t know who you’d point to for being responsible for that
There’s understandable anger as even Mr. Trump has pointed out, because people are losing jobs. They’re afraid of losing their job, and wages are not going up. At the same time the president has acted unilaterally without the involvement of Congress, and that has angered people. And when there’s anger, history shows there’s often desire to find a scapegoat or an easy answer.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders says, “Oh, it’s the banks. All the banks in New York, they’re the ones causing all of our problems.” And Donald Trump says, “It’s the immigrants. It’s all these people flooding across the border, and these foreign goods that are coming into our country.”
Well, as you know there have been more Mexicans over the last five years leaving American than those coming to America. More recent challenges are certainly not due to a flood of immigrants coming in today because more are leaving than are coming in. And with regard to foreign goods, there’s no question that the globalization of foreign trade has placed an enormous burden on American industry. But the right answer is not to try and put (up) tariff barriers, which will hurt us more than anybody else. But instead to make us more competitive.
You have spent much of your life involved in Republican Party politics. You were with your dad at the convention in 1964. You were the nominee four years ago. How worried are you about what happens to the party itself if Trump becomes the nominee?
If Trump becomes the nominee I think it would spell a very difficult period for our party down the road. One, I think it would mean we would lose the senate and perhaps even the house in 2016. Two, I believe we’d lose the White House. The great majority of polls show that Hillary Clinton would beat Mr. Trump. Down the road there’s no question but that his posture on a whole series of topics will hurt us with minorities and with millennials. And those happen to be groups that will become a larger and larger portion of the voting public. I don’t want to characterize Mr. Trump in these terms, but the words that the media surrounds his candidacy with are words like xenophobic, misogynist, racist, and bigoted. I’m afraid those are words that are never going to be accessible to the great majority of the American public. And so having them associated with your party is a real problem, near and long term.
Do you regret accepting Trump’s endorsement in 2012?
That was a different time. He was a media personality, and his biggest foible at that point was the whole birther thing, which I said to him I thought was not a productive course. And I pointed out in his office that my dad was born in Mexico, that the constitution says you have to be a natural born citizen. Because he was born of an American mother he was a natural born citizen. And therefore even if Obama was born outside the US, he was a natural born citizen qualified to be president. I thought it was an absurd attack on his part but it was certainly wasn’t something which led to the kinds of words that are being used today by some to describe Mr. Trump’s candidacy as bigoted and misogynist and so forth.
Is there any scenario you can envision where you would accept the nomination? If it’s a contested convention?
No. I don’t see any scenario of that nature. The nominee of the party will be one of the four people still in the race. It’s inconceivable and unrealistic to think otherwise.
What are we not talking about? What else is on your mind? [Romney, after ending the initial interview, calls back later with more thoughts]
If Donald Trump just represented a different strain of thought in the Republican Party — if it was the Tea Party wing or mainstream wing or whatever — I would have been perfectly content staying neutral. But Donald Trump represents a threat both to the party, and to the country. I believe he makes the world far more dangerous, I believe he puts America’s economy in jeopardy. And his temperament is totally unsuited for the presidency.
What I’ve done is a departure from what I expected, and reflects what I have heard and seen from him during the campaign.
But do you think you waited too long to really weigh in?
I’ll let the political scientists figure out when was the best and most poignant moment. I don’t know. Part of it is there’s a reluctance as the prior nominee, the guy who didn’t win — hey go out to pasture fella. There’s a reluctance to get in and speak for the party now. But the hesitancy was overcome by the outrage, over KKK and Muslims and other things.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.