Can Mitt Romney be an effective check on Trump?
Now that he’s entering the US Senate as part of the majority party, Mitt Romney has real power. He also has some real problems with Donald Trump, which the former Massachusetts governor laid out in a buzzy op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday that trashed Trump’s handling of the presidency and promised that Romney would “speak out” against “statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”
Speaking out, of course, is grand — and publishing such a scathing op-ed on the eve of his swearing-in sent an encouraging symbolic message. But the bigger test is whether Romney, who was elected in November to represent Utah, will actually put some of his new power behind those words. If he does, he can help both the country and the Senate weather the Trump presidency.
That’s a big if, and here in Massachusetts it’s easy to snicker at Romney’s latest political reinvention. Romney has been a Massachusetts moderate, a varmint-hunting conservative, a vocal critic of candidate Trump, and a tame recipient of President Trump’s support in his most recent Senate run. Romney is also shadowed by the sad examples of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, Republican senators who criticized Trump rhetorically but were unable or unwilling to use their power to influence his behavior.
It’s not that Republicans like Romney should be expected to start voting for Democratic bills just to signal their displeasure with Trump. But senators can withhold their votes on bills or nominations to extract concessions; horse-trade to get what they want; support subpeonas; and conduct real oversight of federal agencies. At the very end of his Senate career — that is, when it no longer really mattered — Flake said he would stop voting for Trump’s judicial nominees until legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller passed. Imagine if Flake had made use of his leverage like that in September.
Trump’s nominations to fill cabinet vacancies will pose an early opportunity for Romney to translate his words into action. As Romney noted in the Post op-ed, the president has replaced experienced officials with “senior persons of lesser experience.” Senators will need to scrutinize the nominees Trump puts forward. They need to take an especially hard look at attorney general nominee William P. Barr: If Barr can’t guarantee to senators that he’ll allow the Mueller probe to reach its conclusion without interference, and make its results public, the Senate should reject him.
Implicitly, part of Romney’s op-ed was directed at the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has seemed comfortable turning his chamber into an appendage of the White House. Under McConnell, Senate Republicans have generally looked the other way from the president’s various disgraces as long as he keeps supporting GOP nominations and legislation.
That’s just the kind of bargain that Romney criticized in his op-ed: “policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency,” he wrote. Challenging Trump will also inevitably mean challenging the way McConnell runs the Senate, and pushing the Senate GOP to act independently of the White House.
With the op-ed, Romney triggered a frenzy of speculation that he was preparing to challenge Trump from within in the 2020 Republican primaries. He denied any intention to run in a CNN interview Wednesday afternoon. Whatever his plans, it’s encouraging that Romney is picking up the baton from Corker and Flake, whose Senate careers ended Thursday. The resistance to Trump needs to be bipartisan.