WASHINGTON — Tagg Romney bolted up the stairs one recent Sunday morning as his father dressed for church, stricken about the latest news from the Republican Party’s tumultuous nominating contest.
“He was white in the face,” Mitt Romney said of his eldest son. “He said, ‘Can you believe what Donald Trump just said?’ ”
Trump, in an interview on CNN, had refused to disavow the endorsement of David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. (Trump later blamed a faulty earpiece for his evasive answers.)
For Romney, the front-runner’s seemingly coy remarks about the KKK were the final straw.
The GOP’s 2012 nominee had been astonished and dismayed over Trump’s divisive rhetoric and unchecked rise to the top of the party’s presidential field.
Yet he kept his counsel for months, refraining from any public rebuke, partly because of worries within his inner circle over what Trump would say in a counterattack.
Now Romney felt he could no longer remain silent, he said in a 45-minute interview with the Globe last week about the damage Romney believes the New York real estate mogul and reality TV star has wrought on the Republican Party.
Something his son Josh mentioned while they were driving one afternoon stuck in his mind: What will you tell the grandkids?
Romney decided on the spot that morning in Utah that he would give a speech denouncing Trump. Within hours, he poured months of frustration into a written draft, delivered four days later, a scathing indictment of Trump as a “fraud’' and “phony.’’
“Part of it is, there’s a reluctance as the prior nominee, the guy who didn’t win – ‘Hey go out to pasture fella,’ ” Romney said in the Globe interview. “But the hesitancy was overcome by the outrage.”
Defense of McCain
In July, about a month after Trump announced he was running for president, Romney showed up at the Beechwood Hotel in Worcester ready to host a prewedding reception for two of his longtime aides, Will Ritter and Kelli Harrison.
Amid the celebration, people at the party — the aides and advisers who bonded over Romney’s campaigns — began murmuring and checking their Twitter feeds. In Iowa, Trump had just disparaged John McCain, saying he was not a war hero.
“Can you believe this?” one attendee said, aghast.
Romney couldn’t. The comment cut at many things that Romney despises: It didn’t honor service to country. It was crass. It was just plain disrespectful to a senior party statesman.
Romney whipped out his phone. He wanted to tweet something. No longer relying on a large staff who proofread every word, Romney drafted it himself: “The difference between @SenJohnMcCain and @realDonaldTrump: Trump shot himself down. McCain and American veterans are true heroes.”
The differences between the 2012 nominee and the 2016 front-runner could not be more vast, and in some ways Romney’s failures have helped fuel a hunger among angry voters for Trump.
Romney is the cautious family man, a pious Mormon, buttoned-down and cautious — wooden and unable to inspire, in the eyes of his critics.
Trump is a freewheeling throwback to New York’s 1980s, a former playboy whose spontaneity, overt lust for wealth and power, and disregard for party protocol makes him the yin to Romney’s GOP yang.
Romney viewed Trump’s remarks about McCain as intemperate. His tweet, he said, fit the sideline role he felt he could fill in the Republican primary once he decided last winter, after a brief flirtation, not to run.
“I felt that I could be most effective in being kind of an umpire in the process, calling balls and strikes and fouls,” Romney said.
But starting with Trump’s first inning, where Romney saw fouls, a big part of the Republican base saw base hits.
“He continued with a number of colorful and I believe badly off target pronouncements,” Romney added. “One, about Mexicans. Two, saying that John McCain wasn’t a hero, that he preferred people who didn’t get caught to our POWs. I thought those were the kinds of things that would shoot down his candidacy. Instead it propelled it.”
Helped validate Trump
Romney himself bears at least a small portion of blame for Trump’s rise. He gave Trump legitimacy as a party player in 2012, when he accepted Trump’s endorsement in an elaborately staged event held at Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas.
Up to that point in the campaign, Trump had been a leading part of the “birther’’ movement, a discredited effort to claim President Obama was not born in America.
If Romney’s goal was to rally a certain part of the GOP base around him, it also raised eyebrows in the party establishment.
‘‘I do not understand the cost benefit here,’’ conservative commentator George Will said on ABC News. ‘‘The cost of appearing with this bloviating ignoramus is obvious, it seems to me.’’
‘‘Donald Trump is redundant evidence that if your net worth is high enough, your IQ can be very low and you can still intrude into American politics,’’ Will continued. ‘‘Again, I don’t understand the benefit. What is Romney seeking?’’
Trump stayed close to the campaign. Ann Romney attended a fund-raiser in New York, where Trump, for her birthday, unveiled a cake depicting her riding a horse. Trump also was one of the draws for an earlier Romney fund-raiser held at the Intrepid Museum in New York.
“We have a great candidate,” Trump said as he walked in. Asked what advice he had for Romney, he said, “Just be the way he is. He’ll do fine.”
Romney did not say he regretted accepting the endorsement in 2012.
“That was a different time,” Romney said in the Globe interview last week. “He was a media personality and his biggest foible at that point was the whole birther thing.”
Romney recalled sitting in Trump’s office, telling him that such attacks were baseless. Romney pointed to his own father, who was born in Mexico to US parents and later ran for president. But Romney and Trump were never personally close. Romney says he hasn’t spoken with Trump in at least two years.
Throughout the fall of 2015, as Romney sat with his family and watched the Republican debates, he was amazed at what he saw.
Not only from Trump, he said, but from the other Republican candidates on the stage.
“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,” he said. “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.
“Some would aggressively avoid saying anything critical of Donald Trump,” he said. “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.”
Romney began growing concerned about Trump’s rhetoric on immigration — something that harmed his own campaign — and his talk about banning Muslims. Trump, he said, was performing “a calculated draw on bigotry to advance his political prospects.”
Romney referred to pages in his journal as he recounted, in the phone interview, his growing discomfort. He said he was approached numerous times throughout the fall about getting into the race.
“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,’ ” Romney said. “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.”
As the weeks wore on, he grew increasingly concerned about the Republican Party’s inability to combat Trump.
“I was beginning to feel that the peril represented by a Donald Trump nomination was not being effectively communicated by the other candidates,” he said.
In January, Romney considered doing an interview to point out what he viewed as Trump’s flaws. He called some of his closest advisers.
Romney often has presidential politics on his mind, and he talks frequently with his former campaign advisers, Stuart Stevens, Spencer Zwick, Beth Myers, Bob White, and Matt Rhoades, and former Utah governor Mike Leavitt.
“Almost all of my advisers that I go to for counsel felt that was the wrong thing to do,” Romney said. “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,’ ” he added. “They pointed out that this was the job of the people running for president, not for me.”
Romney agreed to hold his fire.
But then came the anniversary of a moment from four years ago that is still etched in Romney’s memory: The January day, during the 2012 campaign, that he released his tax returns, after weeks of controversy. He was struck by the fact that none of the candidates in the 2016 race had been forced to release their taxes. He thought that deserved to be an issue.
“Actually, the tax issue was one that I found very compelling and wanted to push aggressively myself,” Romney said. “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?’ ”
But Mitt felt it was important. He thought it was a vulnerability for Trump, and he wanted to expose it.
“There’s only one purpose that one dodges and diverts, and that’s because you don’t want to show what’s in them,” he said.
“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.”
Prominent Republicans throughout most of the campaign have been reluctant to take on Trump aggressively. There is a leadership void in a fractured party, with few having the kind of platform to take on a boisterous front-runner.
A few weekends back, Romney hosted his former running mate, House Speaker Paul Ryan, to his home in Deer Valley.
“Interestingly, by the way, we almost never spoke about presidential politics,” Romney said. “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.’’
But the campaign was clearly on Romney’s mind. And it was just days later when Trump declined to immediately denounce the KKK and Romney decided to give his speech.
For many viewers, Romney’s speech was the most comprehensive denouncement of Trump’s candidacy so far. He said Trump’s foreign policy views were amateurish, his business background was unimpressive, and his temperament was just plain childish.
“Think of Donald Trump’s personal qualities, the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics,” Romney said in the speech. “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.”
Trump quickly fired back, calling Romney “a choke artist” who at one point was “begging” for his endorsement. “I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees,” Trump said.
Romney was prepared for the attack, and has been undeterred.
Romney’s decision to speak out, which ushered in a more aggressive tone from other candidates and preceded a huge negative advertising barrage in Florida, may have helped erode some of Trump’s standing in the polls. But so far it doesn’t appear to have had a race-altering impact.
Tuesday’s pivotal, winner-take-all elections in Florida, Ohio, and several other states will prove whether Trump can withstand the criticism. Romney has offered to help any of the candidates except for Trump. He’s recorded robocalls for Marco Rubio and John Kasich. He’s hoping to do something soon with Ted Cruz.
Romney decided not to endorse so far because he thought he could be more effective attacking Trump as an unaligned arbiter. That will probably soon change. “I presume I will be endorsing someone after [Tuesday],” he said. “I can’t tell you how quickly.”
“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.
“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.’’
A lesson from 1964
In 1964, a 17-year-old Mitt Romney joined his father, George, at Republican National Convention. George Romney urged the party to adopt a platform rejecting “extremists,” but he failed, Barry Goldwater became the party’s nominee, and Romney was furious.
As he wrote later in a letter to Goldwater, George Romney feared those who were “preaching and practicing hate and bearing false witness on the basis of guilt by association.”
“With such extremists rising to positions of leadership in the Republican Party, we cannot recapture the respect of the nation and lead it to its necessary spiritual, moral, and political rebirth if we hide our heads in the sand and decline to even recognize in our platform that the nation is again beset by modern ‘know nothings,’ ” Romney wrote.
If Trump is the nominee, Mitt Romney could face a similar dilemma this summer in Cleveland. “He didn’t endorse [Goldwater],” Romney says of his father. “I likewise will not endorse Donald Trump. I won’t vote for him.”
Romney doesn’t know yet if he would show up in Cleveland for a Trump nomination. “I just don’t know. I haven’t thought ahead to what would happen at the convention,” he said.
But Romney says he sees no way that he would become the nominee amid a chaotic contested convention.
“I don’t see any scenario of that nature,” he said. “The nominee of the party will be one of the four people still in the race. It’s inconceivable and unrealistic to think otherwise.”
At the time of the interview, Romney was preparing for his 69th birthday celebration, on Saturday, March 12. As the candidates campaigned, he planned to sit down, surrounded by family, to a dinner of Ann Romney’s meatloaf cakes and mashed potatoes.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.