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Opinion | Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

Secretary of State Romney? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Mitt Romney walks to speak to the press as President-elect Donald Trump gives the thumbs up after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, Nov. 19, in Bedminster Township, N.J.
Mitt Romney walks to speak to the press as President-elect Donald Trump gives the thumbs up after their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, Nov. 19, in Bedminster Township, N.J. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In his wildest dreams, Mitt Romney couldn’t have imagined that after condemning Donald Trump for “dishonesty,” “bullying,” and “third-grade theatrics,” he’d be meeting with President-elect Trump at Trump’s New Jersey golf club, in contention for secretary of state.

Life’s weird that way, and a few months are an eternity in politics. Why would a thin-skinned president-elect who values loyalty uber alles choose a man who called him a “fraud”? And why would Romney, the morally upright 2012 Republican nominee, set aside his principles to serve someone he declared unfit? Well, there’s a reason “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” is a cliché: It’s true.

I don’t mean to be flippant. The former Massachusetts governor would be an inspired choice for Trump, and if Romney is offered the job, he should take it. For Trump, the upside is obvious: an olive branch to the “Never Trump,” establishment wing of the GOP. Trump would look big enough to set aside ego and bring on board rivals who offset his weaknesses. Where Trump is brash, unfiltered, and undiplomatic, Romney is smooth, professional, and even-tempered. His selection would be a balm to nervous allies, a signal of foreign policy in the competent hands of someone who sees the value of alliances and trade that have strengthened our security and been a net benefit to our standard of living.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence confirmed Romney is under “active and serious consideration.” Transition officials said Romney’s patrician look (not unlike Secretary of State John Kerry’s) is straight out of “central casting” for a top US diplomat. Looks matter to the former reality TV star, who used the same Hollywood phrase to describe Pence before choosing him.

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So what’s in it for Romney? It’s a great job. As it was for Kerry and Hillary Clinton, it’s a capstone to a career that stopped short of the highest rung. A debate roiling Washington circles now is whether to serve someone whose integrity and beliefs you question. Former Romney advisors tell me he’s driven by patriotic duty and would likely rather be inside preventing mistakes than outside cringing as they happen. If Romney is there to provide facts, maybe Trump will shift some views.

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Mary Beth Long, a former assistant secretary of defense who advised Romney in 2012, called him a “foreign policy natural” with “great instincts on NATO and our defense interests, and a prescient concern” about Russia. President Obama mocked Romney in 2012 for calling Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Since then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, its bombing of Syrian civilians and of US-backed rebels, its hacking of e-mails and probing of US voting systems, to embarrass and to sow doubts in democracy, prove Romney wasn’t all wrong.

Some clashes are inevitable. Romney is squarely in the foreign policy mainstream, and his 2010 book “No Apology” calls for promoting US interests through soft and hard power, free trade, and globalization.

Like all newly elected presidents, Trump is evolving, and it’s possible his most outrageous statements were opening gambits, not final positions. I’m told that Trump was unaware that contributions NATO members make for joint security are not paid to the United States. Everyone has a learning curve, and Trump’s will be steeper.

Romney may not get the job. Senate Foreign Relations chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee is another mainstream Republican who could be a moderating influence. My advice is to get assurances — a direct line to the president; regular meetings; the right to bring in trusted people; and a pledge that Trump won’t take major steps without consulting first. Finally, draft a resignation letter, and if asked to do anything that compromises US interests or violates your integrity, be prepared to use it.

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Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.