Over his long career, Mitt Romney has been a political chameleon.
He was the moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts, then the party’s conservative presidential nominee in 2012. He spoke out forcefully against Donald Trump before the 2016 election, then lobbied for a role in the new president’s Cabinet. He accepted Trump’s endorsement for his 2018 Senate run, then criticized the president’s character just before being sworn in.
Is another Romney transformation taking shape — into the senator who tries to rally Republican opposition to the president as the House impeachment inquiry gains momentum?
“There is a huge vacuum to be filled. He has the moral standing and the ability to do that and he certainly could be someone that disparate parts of the party and the country could rally around by just speaking truth,” said John Weaver, a former aide to the late John McCain, another Republican senator known for high-profile breaks with his party — and with Trump.
So far, Republican support for the impeachment inquiry has been largely nonexistent. A few Republicans in Congress have expressed tepid disapproval of Trump’s communications with Ukraine and China urging investigations into Joe Biden and his son, targeting one of the leading contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
Romney has been one of them. And he’s ramped up his criticism in recent days, operating with the relative safety of representing Utah, a Republican state where voters aren’t that high on Trump, and knowing he doesn’t need to run for reelection until 2024.
“By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling,” Romney tweeted Friday in the sharpest criticism of Trump to date by a Republican senator.
“He was stating the obvious, which also takes some courage to do in Washington these days,” said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. Some will certainly try to push Romney into a McCain-type role, Heye said, but it is far from certain whether Romney wants to assume it.
The backlash Romney could expect if he did was evident a day later when Trump swiftly fired back on Twitter. He called Romney a “pompous ‘ass’ ” who begged him for an endorsement.
“He is a fool who is playing right into the hands of the Do Nothing Democrats! #IMPEACHMITTROMNEY,” Trump tweeted.
Members of Congress cannot be impeached.
Many saw Trump’s weekend Twitter blast as a warning shot to any other would-be Republican dissidents on impeachment. With Trump’s high approval ratings from the Republican base, lawmakers from tightly contested districts and states know that stepping out of line could lead to an untimely political exit.
“It’s pretty easy to tell why [Republicans] won’t stick their neck out. They have primary election concerns and they have general election concerns,” Heye said.
Romney declined an interview request through a spokeswoman.
Romney’s recent criticism of the president sounds more like his March 2016 incarnation — when he delivered a passionate speech calling Trump a fraud and a phony — than the Romney who months later sat for a four-course dinner with the newly elected president as he was being considered for secretary of state.
Romney’s willingness to break bread with Trump was an “old school” move that showed he was capable of criticizing the president while not completely refusing to deal with him, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political newsletter.
“I think that Romney is at a point in his political career and his life where he can be true to himself and this is just what he’s going to do, and he’s a lot less worried about the consequences,” she said.
Romney initially was a lone Senate Republican expressing concern.
Last month, on the same day that the White House released its record of the Ukraine call, Romney spoke at the Atlantic Festival in Washington. He reiterated his comments from a few days earlier, when reports of a whistle-blower complaint about the call first surfaced, that the news was “deeply troubling.”
Asked at the event about his relationship with the president, Romney said he agrees with some of Trump’s policies. “But if you say or do something which I think is highly destructive or damaging to our national unity, then that’s something I feel I’ve got to speak about,” Romney said.
Since then, three other Republican senators have publicly taken issue with Trump requesting that China investigate his political opponent. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse argued in a statement that Americans “don’t look to Chinese commies for the truth.” Maine Senator Susan Collins said asking China to get involved in an investigation is “completely inappropriate.”
And this week, Ohio Senator Rob Portman said that although he still thinks impeachment is too extreme, he believes that Trump should not have asked China or Ukraine for help investigating Biden.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday found that 55 percent of respondents support an impeachment inquiry, including one in five Republicans.
Weaver, the former McCain adviser, said he thinks Romney will continue to try to bring other Republicans along with him. And sometimes there is courage in numbers.
“[But] it’s hard to know because the Washington, D.C., version of the party is really, outside of a handful of people, chock-full of people who only care about being here, not doing anything,” he said.
One anti-Trump national Republican organization has begun a national advertising campaign to encourage more Republicans to oppose Trump.
The group, Defending Democracy Together, is running a $1 million ad campaign in the districts of 15 House Republicans and 12 Senate Republicans, urging them to speak out against the president for the Ukraine call. The group said it targeted Republicans who seem the most likely to speak out.
Defending Democracy Together also ran ads in Utah, thanking Romney for already doing so — and encouraging more.
“You can either read what Mitt Romney is doing cynically or charitably, and a lot of it depends on how you view Mitt Romney,” said Sarah Longwell, the group’s executive director. “I believe he came back to the Senate because he felt like it was important for him to be there in this moment.”
Laura Krantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.