Congress

Mitt Romney marches alone: ‘I don’t believe I’m leading a wing of the party’

The Republican presidential nominee turned senator says he isn't plotting a Never Trump coup.

Mitt Romney

A conservative group accuses him of being a secret Democratic asset. President Donald Trump calls him a pompous ass and the president’s son says he may be “colluding to bring down our president.” One of his own Senate colleagues asserted that he’s following Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s path.

But for all the speculation that Mitt Romney is plotting against Trump as the impeachment threat spikes, the Utah GOP senator says there’s no Never Trump coup in the works.

“I don’t believe I’m leading a wing of the party. Because there’s no wing that’s very large that is aligned with me,” Romney said in an interview this week after a two-week recess.

“Since I’ve been back, I have not spoken with a single senator about the impeachment process or about the implications of the process that’s going on or how I would vote,” he added.

Yet Romney is on the leading edge of the two most intense fights of Trump’s presidency: The GOP rebellion against his abrupt troop withdrawal from northern Syria and the fast-moving impeachment inquiry into Trump and his aides’ efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden.

Romney’s willingness to confront Trump is earning the 2012 GOP presidential nominee little apparent goodwill in his own party. There are few like-minded fellow Senate Republicans, and he’s facing withering attacks from the president’s supporters, including from conservatives back home.

But Romney was just elected to the Senate last year and has five more years before he faces voters, blunting any immediate blowback despite the president’s calls to “impeach” him (and, of course, because senators can’t be impeached). He also has a larger mission in mind: Propping up what remains of the GOP’s independence from Trump.

“There are many young people who might tend to think that the Republican Party is only represented by one point of view, the president’s point of view, were there not people like myself,” Romney said. “We are not a pup tent … rather a much larger tent. And we can accommodate different people with different views.”

Yet today’s party is not a forum for free-flowing debate about Trump. He’s still popular with the conservative base, and as the GOP looks to defend its narrow Senate majority, most Republicans are riding with the president.

In fact, outside of foreign policy, Romney said he finds himself seeing “eye-to-eye” with the president on most issues. But stylistically, they couldn’t be more different, with Romney’s measured, sometimes awkward style naturally at odds with the bombastic, erratic and combative tactics of Trump.

Perhaps most ironically is that Romney says he and Trump get along fine on a personal level. He met with Trump about a Cabinet position after the 2016 election and Trump endorsed him in his 2018 Senate run and 2012 presidential bid.

“I knew him before politics. It was interesting and entertaining to hang out with him,” Romney recalled. “I’ve been to football games with him. I flew on Trump aircraft from New York down to his home in Mar-a-Lago before it was a club. I’ve had dinner in his home.”

These days, Romney is staying neutral in the 2020 presidential race — currently refusing to endorse Trump’s reelection while keeping the door slightly ajar because “circumstances can change.” He hears the argument that dissent within the party could help a Democrat defeat the president but says he’s focused on motivating voters “frustrated or concerned about the president” not abandon the party writ large and find conservatives they can support.

But the fact that the 2012 GOP nominee is unlikely to support his successor makes for a combustible relationship.

“I hate to see it. I’ve got a world of respect for Mitt,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). But Trump “thinks if you turn the other cheek too far, you just get it in the neck.”

“Cats and dogs,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) of the two. “Hatfields and McCoys.”

“Certainly got the fur flying,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).

Romney felt the full force of Trump’s wrath earlier this month after the Utah senator said it was “appalling” the president had called for China and Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.

Trump’s tweets calling Romney a “pompous ‘ass’” and a “fool” are among his most intense personal attacks on a sitting Republican. On Wednesday, Donald Trump Jr. shared a “Club for Growth” attack ad airing in Utah and called Romney “bitter and angry.”

Romney is comfortable returning the favor.

On Thursday he excoriated Trump’s Syria shift from the Senate floor, calling U.S. diplomacy “so weak and so inept” that Turkey is calling the shots.

In the interview, he bluntly criticized the president with little regard for a counterattack, comparing Trump’s Syria policy to a shattered vase that can’t be put back together and saying the problems with Trump’s demands for foreign probes of Biden are “as plain as the nose on your face.”

“It’s important for the administration to know how badly this decision has been received. And what the consequences of his decision are,” Romney said. “Is it OK for the president of the United States to ask a foreign country to investigate a political foe? The answer is no.”

Few Republicans are making the same declaration without qualifying it with an attack on Democrats or asserting that the president has not committed an impeachable offense. Romney notably is neither criticizing nor cheering on the House’s impeachment probe.

Romney’s posture may be taking a toll back home among Trump-supporting Republicans, even though the president barely cleared 45 percent of the vote in Utah in 2016.

“He’s made some bad comments about Donald Trump, and Donald Trump has done everything we’ve asked him to do,” said Leland Pollock, a Garfield County commissioner. “If [Romney] decides to run in 2024, I’ll even put my black hat in the ring. I would run myself.”

“The people who are in love with Mitt Romney right now are the Democrats. And there aren’t a lot of them in Utah,” said Darin Bushman, a Piute County commissioner. “I actually did vote for him. And I regret that to this day. If I had to do it over tomorrow, I would vote for the Democrat.”

Romney says he doesn’t conduct polls in Utah and “gave up trying to be popular in high school.” And GOP state Sen. David Hinkins said that while his constituents wish Romney wouldn’t so quickly criticize the president, there’s also no upside to being a potted plant, either.

“A lot of people wouldn’t think much of Romney if he didn’t kick back a little. Trump’s not been the most friendly,” Hinkins said. Utahans know that “sometimes President Trump has it coming back to him … sad part is they love both of them.”

Romney’s fundraising acumen is also still an asset to the party. He’s aiding senators and Senate hopefuls as well as the Utah GOP in trying to take back the state’s 4th Congressional District won by Democrats in 2018.

“When it comes to his support of the state party, there’s no doubt that he is a team player,” said Derek Brown, Utah GOP chairman.

At times, Romney’s Republican colleagues in the Senate have rebutted him in real time as they seek to defend the president.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) called Romney a potential “Jeff Flake on steroids” after Romney’s op-ed in January questioning Trump’s character. After Romney rapped Trump for his conversations with the Ukrainian president last month, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) compared Romney to Pelosi.

“The first reaction shouldn’t be a negative,” Scott said Thursday of Romney’s reactions to Trump. “It should be: How do we help somebody?”

“We’ve got a Republican president trying to do the right thing,” Perdue added. Romney’s “a person before he gets sworn in the Senate saying [Trump] didn’t have the character to be president.”

Still, few Republican senators wanted to talk about Romney’s now long-running dispute with the president in interviews this week.

“Trump is just going after him with a bat. And I’m struck that I’m not seeing Republican colleagues come to Mitt’s defense,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

Republicans just don’t see an upside to refereeing a fight between two of the party’s most prominent figures.

“It’s not my job to decide to get involved in that. They are two very different guys, they’ve got their issues with each other. That’s their business,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whom Trump has not lashed despite his mild criticisms of the president’s calls for foreign probes into Biden.

Yet Democrats must also choose their words carefully. With the president’s allies dinging Romney as a threat to Trump’s presidency, plaudits from the minority party aren’t in Romney’s interests, either.

“I don’t want to praise him,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Because I don’t want him to get him in any more trouble than he’s in.”