HOUSTON — Mitt Romney, whose 2012 presidential campaign was bedeviled over his own reluctance to publicly release his personal income tax returns, aggressively criticized Donald Trump on Wednesday for not releasing his returns.
It marked a new and more prominent role in the Republican nominating contest for Romney, who largely has kept to the sidelines until now.
And in a year of upheaval, it was another remarkable moment: the GOP’s previous presidential standard-bearer raising serious doubts about his party’s 2016 front-runner.
“I think we have good reason to believe that there’s a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes,” Romney said on Fox News. “I think there is something there. Either he is not anywhere near as wealthy as he says he is, or he hasn’t been paying the kind of taxes we would expect him to pay, or perhaps he hasn’t been giving money to the vets or the disabled like he has been telling us he’s been doing.”
Trump quickly responded, ridiculing Romney — whom he endorsed in 2012 in a gold-studded event at Trump Tower in Las Vegas — and calling him a loser.
“Mitt Romney, who totally blew an election that should have been won and whose tax returns made him look like a fool, is now playing tough guy,” Trump wrote on Twitter. Then, he added: “When Mitt Romney asked me for my endorsement last time around, he was so awkward and goofy that we all should have known he could not win!”
Mitt Romney,who totally blew an election that should have been won and whose tax returns made him look like a fool, is now playing tough guy— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2016
When Mitt Romney asked me for my endorsement last time around, he was so awkward and goofy that we all should have known he could not win!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2016
Romney acknowledged he didn’t have evidence of any scandal in Trump’s taxes, but openly speculated that since he hasn’t released them he is trying to hide something.
“Donald Trump has said he’s the best in the country for the disabled veterans and for the disabled generally. Well, if his taxes show that he hasn’t made any contributions to the disabled veterans or the disabled generally, that would be a big issue,” Romney said. “And I’m not saying that’s the case — I have no evidence of that. But I’m just saying there are things that could be issues.”
The attack carried no small measure of irony. Romney himself released his own taxes only under significant pressure, and he released only two years worth of returns. He made his first tax disclosures after he lost the South Carolina primary, under heavy criticism on the issue from then-rival Newt Gingrich.
Romney was also criticized by others with unfounded allegations, most prominently when Senator Harry Reid went to the Senate floor and claimed, without evidence, that Romney did not pay any federal taxes for 10 years.
Romney’s attack is directed at one of the most potentially sensitive areas for Trump: his wealth. Trump has made boisterous claims that he is worth well over $10 billion, even though Forbes and other estimates peg him at around $4.5 billion. And while releasing his taxes would provide a firmer figure, Trump has already said that he pays “as little as possible” on his taxes “and I have great people.”
“Remember Romney when he said, ‘No, no. I paid. I paid.’ He was trying to build it up: ‘Oh yeah, I’ve paid,’ ” Trump said at a rally in Iowa last month. “I pay as little as possible. It’s an expense, right? That’s the American way. I mean, do you want stupid people?”
Trump has said that he would release his tax forms but it will take some time.
“I have one of the world’s most complicated tax returns. It’s a massive return,” Trump said this month on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
In addition to Trump, two other leading candidates, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have not released their past taxes.
“We’ll absolutely release his tax returns,” a Cruz campaign spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier, said in an e-mail. “He has released six out of the nine years and [is] happy to do the rest.”
Rubio said he would release his taxes soon.
Romney has generally stayed out of the political fray during the presidential campaign, attempting to assume a role as an elder statesman for the party. He has had glowing words for Rubio — and some have speculated an endorsement could soon come — but so far he has remained neutral.
Romney gladly, but with befuddlement, accepted Trump’s endorsement during the 2012 campaign.
“Mitt is tough, he’s sharp, he’s smart,” Trump said then.
“There are some things you just can’t imagine happening in your life,” Romney replied. “This is one of them.”
But during this campaign, Romney has subtly jabbed at Trump from time to time, largely by tweeting that Trump is wrong to propose a ban on Muslims from entering the United States, or to offer complimentary words for President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
The remarks on Wednesday, though, were Romney’s most aggressive so far and reflected the Republican Party establishment’s growing worry that Trump will become the nominee.
“Donald Trump has the clearest path to become the Republican nominee,” Romney said. “I think for the other people still in the race, their path is becoming a slimmer and slimmer opening, and they’re having a difficult time communicating to their supporters just how they could become the nominee.”
He said that he was “sensitive” about the tax issue because it was an issue during his own campaign. He then speculated three times over four minutes that there is a “bombshell” in Trump’s tax returns.
“I think it’s pretty clear given Donald Trump’s dodging and weaving and delaying — I think last time he was asked about his taxes he said it’s going to be a month,” Romney said. “People have a right to know if there’s a problem in those taxes before they decide who our nominee should be.”
Romney noted that he put his tax returns out in January 2012 — a time frame that came after the first three nominating contests were held.
“We’re now in late February and we still haven’t seen either Donald Trump’s or Marco Rubio’s or Ted Cruz’s taxes,” Romney said. “And frankly the voters have a right to see those tax returns before they decide who our nominee ought to be.”Matt.Viser can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.