DETROIT—Mitt Romney on Thursday morning unleashed a full-throated indictment of Donald Trump — criticizing everything from his temperament to his personal qualities to his business acumen — as he urged Republican Party voters to select anyone but Trump as their nominee.
“Here’s what I know: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.”
Trump immediately fired back, calling Romney a “choke artist’’ for his failed 2012 president bid.
Romney’s speech, delivered at the University of Utah several hours before Republicans were scheduled together in Michigan for another debate, marked a new and more aggressive phase for Romney as the Republican establishment desperately tries to halt Trump’s momentum.
Romney also appeared to concede that none of the candidates in the field can defeat Trump on their own, and he outlined the terms for a contested convention. Romney recommended that Republicans support different candidates in different states, in a bid to deny Trump victories wherever possible and prevent him from winning enough delegates to secure the nomination.
“I would vote for Marco Rubio in Florida, for John Kasich in Ohio, and for Ted Cruz or whichever one of the other two contenders has the best chance of beating Mr. Trump in a given state,” he said. Florida is Rubio’s home state, Ohio is Kasich’s.
It had all the hallmarks of a big Romney speech. He was dressed crisply in coat and tie, and read prepared remarks from a teleprompter — a contrast to Trump’s off-the-cuff events. The 20-minute remarks were also marked by sobriety and substance, coming after the petty attacks that have marked the current debate among Republican candidates making fun of Trump’s hands, tan, and hair.
Romney predicted that Trump would unleash a barrage of personal attacks — “Watch, by the way, how he responds to my speech today,” Romney said — and Trump indeed blasted back.
During a rally in Portland, Maine, he called Romney a “failed candidate” and “irrelevant.”
“I have a store that’s worth more money than Mitt,” he said. Then, Trump charged, Romney “disappeared” in the 2012 campaign because “Mitt was looking for zoning for a nine-car garage or something.”
“He was begging for my endorsement,” Trump said. “I could have said ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”
Romney never mentioned that endorsement, which he gladly accepted at Trump’s gold-gilded hotel in Las Vegas.
Just after Romney’s speech was finished, the 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain, joined him in criticizing Trump.
“I share the concerns about Donald Trump that my friend and former Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, described in his speech today,” McCain said in a statement. “I would also echo the many concerns about Mr. Trump’s uninformed and indeed dangerous statements on national security issues.”
Romney’s speech could come too late – Trump already has significant momentum and a large lead in delegates accumulated – and it also comes from a messenger whom many conservative activists have long distrusted.
“Romney embodies the establishment,” said Hogan Gidley, a Republican consultant. “A lot of people who are anti establishment — and a majority of the voters this cycle are – they think 2012 was an election we should have won.
“When the establishment attacks Donald Trump, Trump gets stronger and the establishment candidates get weaker,” he added. “It’s an odd dynamic and it’s a weird paradox they find themselves in.”
Romney began his speech on Thursday saying that he was not announcing a candidacy, and would not be endorsing anyone. Instead, his speech was a non-endorsement of one person: Trump.
“Of the remaining candidates, the only serious policy proposals that deal with the broad range of national challenges we confront have come from Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich,” Romney said, naming the only three others in the race.
Kasich, speaking to reporters in a hotel conference room in Detroit, said he appreciated Romney’s comments — “Mitt’s a good guy. He’s very troubled about the direction of the country,” he said — but he added that the party should resist some of the personal critiques of Trump.
“I already told Mitt, you don’t beat Trump by personal attacks,” he said. Referencing a man he met recently in Chicopee, Mass., he added, “The guy in Chicopee isn’t interested in name-calling.”
“I just don’t want to go and talk about the size of his hands, or what kind of tan he has,” Kasich added. “That’s not the way to get this done.”
Romney outlined what he views as a world desperately in need of a strong and responsible leader. But he also outlined why the current Republican front-runner, in his view, is not that leader.
“Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics,” Romney said. “We have long referred to him as “The Donald.” He is the only person in America to whom we have added an article before his name. It wasn’t because he had attributes we admired.”
Romney continued urging Trump to release his taxes, saying there would be a “bombsell” inside of them.
“I predict that there are more bombshells in his tax returns,” he said. “I predict that he doesn’t give much if anything to the disabled and to our veterans.”
The man whose business career came under harsh scrutiny in 2012 also criticized Trump as a business failure.
“He inherited his business, he didn’t create it,” Romney said. And what ever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there’s Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks, and Trump Mortgage? A business genius he is not.”
He also unleashed an attack on his morals, and the controversial rhetoric that has been a hallmark of Trump’s campaign
“There is dark irony in his boasts of his sexual exploits during the Vietnam War while John McCain, whom he has mocked, was imprisoned and tortured,” he said.
“His domestic policies would lead to recession,” Romney added. “His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.