President Donald Trump threw a jab at Senator-elect Mitt Romney, following the former presidential candidate’s scathing op-ed on Trump in the Washington Post. USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – When Sen. Mitt Romney met with constituents this month in his home state of Utah, he didn’t shy away from the topic that has put him in the national spotlight: his tensions with President Donald Trump.
Trump, battling an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives over the Ukraine scandal, was furious when Romney called it “wrong and appalling” for the president to urge foreign governments to investigate Joe Biden, his political rival. That prompted Trump to blast Romney as a “pompous ass” and tool of the Democratic party.
“How many of you in the room think I’m being too tough on the president?” he asked as about half of those in the audience raised their hands. “And how many think I’m not being tough enough?” leading the other half to do so.
Romney said he didn’t conduct the impromptu poll because he was having second thoughts about voicing his opinions, but, instead, to show constituents that they can respectfully disagree with one another.
“People tend to associate with people of like mind, and they assume everyone thinks the way they do,” he said. “And so, our town hall meetings have been quite civil.”
Civility has been in short supply in the nation’s capital, where Trump is fighting an impeachment investigation he says is an illegitimate “witch hunt.”
A Q&A with Mitt Romney: Utah senator talks impeachment inquiry, legacy and his relationship with Trump
If the House adopts articles of impeachment against Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate would then have to weigh whether to remove the president from office. Removal would require a vote by two-thirds of the Senate, meaning at least 20 of the 53 Republicans would have to defy Trump if every Democrat supported conviction.
Are there other Mitt Romneys?
Impeaching a U.S. president might not be the be-all-end-all for their career. We explain why this is the case. Just the FAQs, USA TODAY
As Trump’s most vocal Republican critic in Congress, Romney has become a focus of attention, even though he has made clear he is nowhere near a decision on how he would vote should the impeachment question land in the Senate.
Romney’s willingness to discuss his differences with Trump stands in contrast to many other Senate Republicans who have batted away questions about Ukraine and other controversies involving Trump. During the recent Senate recess, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Cory Gardner of Colorado were among several senators who appeared visibly uncomfortable when pressed by reporters on Trump and Ukraine.
For the most part, Republicans have steered away from crossing Trump. When they have, the clashes have been short-lived or came from conservatives set to retire from Congress or who left the party entirely, such as Michigan Rep. Justin Amash.
But Romney is a senator with stature as the former presidential nominee with a national following who represents a state where polls show him considerably more popular than Trump. And he is generally well-liked by his colleagues on Capitol Hill.
All that makes Romney a bigger threat to Trump because of the possibility his criticisms could embolden other Republicans to break with the president.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, said that may help to explain why Trump has so fiercely lashed back at Romney.
“Trump can’t afford to have a lot of Mitt Romneys in the Senate, so he’s going to push back very hard on the one that’s there right now in hope of discouraging his colleagues from joining him,” said Conant, a former aide to Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
If the 72-year-old freshman senator is rattled by the backlash, he is not showing it.
“I try and do what I think is right,” Romney, the former 2012 Republican presidential nominee, told USA TODAY in a 30-minute interview in his Washington office.
“I’m not going to worry so much about, about the consequence or praise or, or lack thereof,” he said. “And I hope that my kids down the road will say yeah, you know our dad, our grandfather, our great-grandfather was a person of integrity and honored his oath of office.”
Romney’s stature as a former GOP standard-bearer and his popularity in Utah afford him far more political leeway than other Republican lawmakers have to criticize Trump.
The Mormon faith, which Romney shares, has shaped Utah’s political landscape in ways that make Trump a more controversial figure than he is in other Republican states, said Utah State University political science professor Damon Cann.
Many Utahns don’t share Trump’s hard-line views on illegal immigration and have trouble embracing a twice-divorced former casino mogul with a propensity to use obscenities to attack his opponents, Cann said.
The president won Utah in 2016 with 45% of the vote, the lowest percentage for a state he won. And a Utah Political Trends survey released earlier this month found only 41% of voters said they would vote for Trump in 2020.
Romney won his Senate race in 2018 with the support of nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters.
“Mitt Romney has a long electoral leash with this constituency here because he remains incredibly popular in Utah,” Cann said. “The fact that he’s been willing to take on Trump has not caused any problems with his constituency.”
‘Light the fire within’
When visitors walk into Romney’s personal office, they are greeted by a torch from the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City that hangs on the wall near his desk.
It bears the inscription: “Light the fire within.”
As the leader of the organizing committee for the 2002 Olympics, Romney was widely credited with turning the event around after it was shrouded in controversy because of an international bribery scandal.
Relaxing in one of his office’s mahogany chairs, Romney spoke about his family, his favorite sports figures and recalled the hunt for a good cheeseburger during his time as a missionary in Paris in the 1960s. At the time, he could find the American classic only in the U.S. Embassy cafeteria.
His easygoing banter ran counter to the formal and distant image he had during the 2012 presidential election.
As he spoke, the TV in his outer office was carrying a Trump speech about Syria – another issue on which Romney has pointedly criticized the president.
In his Senate bid last year, Romney promised to bring “Utah values” to Washington by pushing efforts to welcome immigrants, open up more federal lands for recreation, grazing and mining, expand water rights for the state, and reduce the federal debt, which he said would be addressed in a soon-to-be-unveiled bipartisan bill to curtail “excess spending.”
After the president denounced Romney as a “pompous ass” earlier this month, the senator heard from his 2012 running mate – former House Speaker Paul Ryan.
A Republican aide familiar with the pair’s communication said the former Wisconsin lawmaker offered words of empathy and encouragement.
Romney offered similar support over the years as Ryan, in his role as speaker, became a prime target of the president’s ire himself.
‘Hang in there’
“Hang in there,” “you’re doing the right thing” or “don’t be deterred” by “attacks on Twitter” were just some of the texts Romney would send his former running mate, the aide told USA TODAY.
“Mitt Romney is a man of integrity and unassailable character,” Ryan said in a statement for this story to USA TODAY. “I know Mitt will continue to speak loudly and clearly on the issues that matter most, advancing conservative principles and making crystal clear what America’s role in the world should be.”
The pair are far from the only ones slammed as disloyal by Trump. Both of Arizona’s former GOP senators – the late John McCain and Jeff Flake – also sparred with the president. Trump has not abandoned the feuds, even though Flake has retired from the Senate and McCain passed away last year.
Flake told USA TODAY he and Romney stay in touch and had lunch recently. He said he wasn’t surprised that Romney is being as vocal as he is against Trump, noting that the Utah senator came in “with significant gravitas” and had promised to be a check on the president.
“He knows where I am,” Flake said when asked if he was encouraging Romney to speak out. “I had hoped he would stand up as he has, and he is. But I don’t want to suggest that I’m advising him to do anything.”
Most Republicans now serving in the Senate did not want to wade into the dispute between Romney and Trump.
“I don’t want to get in the middle of it,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, one of several GOP senators who declined to comment.
Of more than a dozen Republican senators interviewed by USA TODAY, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only one who took issue with Trump’s attacks on Romney.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate at all,” Collins said. “Senator Romney has served the country very well in a variety of capacities and he’s an excellent senator and my friend.”
Romney’s criticism of Trump did not start with the Ukraine scandal. During the 2016 campaign, Romney lambasted the then-Republican front-runner, calling him a “fraud” and a “phony.” But Trump ultimately endorsed Romney during his 2018 Senate run.
Lunch with Trump at the White House
Last March, the two discussed China trade policy during a lunch arranged by fellow Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Romney said he told the president he agreed with pushing back against China but not on the tariffs the administration imposed on steel and aluminum from Canada and Mexico.
“I don’t like tariffs on our friends,” Romney recalled. “So we had a discussion about that.”
Romney downplayed the friction with Trump, telling USA TODAY they’ve had social get-togethers long ago and that, even in the midst of a Twitter spat, he and the president “get along just fine on a personal basis.”
But when asked for whom he would vote in 2020, Romney declined to say.
“I’m not going to be weighing in on endorsements or who I would vote for in the presidential campaign,” he said.
Romney’s criticism of Trump has stirred speculation that he might influence other Republicans to make a break with Trump amid the impeachment inquiry.
Romney bristled at the suggestion, saying he hasn’t even discussed the issue of impeachment with any member of Congress, Democrat or Republican.
Rather, he said he sees his goal as strengthening Republican values that will live on for the next generation – and for the future beyond Trump’s presidency.
While he has criticized Trump’s role in pressuring Ukraine to launch investigations helpful to him politically, Romney has repeatedly emphasized that he has not come to any conclusion.
An ‘open mind’ on impeachment
When asked what he was doing to prepare for a possible impeachment trial in the Senate, Romney said, “I am making sure that I do everything I can to be unbiased and to keep an open mind.”
He added that he has not begun the legal analysis to determine whether the president committed an impeachable offense and should be removed from office.
Florida GOP Rep. Francis Rooney, a longtime Romney friend, said it’s hard to imagine the senator’s words are not making Republicans on Capitol Hill reassess the president’s conduct concerning Ukraine.
“I think he’s got to have some people thinking, don’t you think?” said Rooney, who announced last week he would not seek a third term after saying he would not rule out impeaching the president. “You may disagree with him, and I’m sure a lot of (GOP) people do – certainly in the White House – but you can’t say he’s not a leader. You can’t say he’s not speaking from his position with integrity.”
Impeachment aside, Romney said some of Trump’s policies have repelled minorities, young voters and suburban women and could harm the Republican brand longer term.
“I know there are people who are saying, ‘Hey Mitt, don’t say anything critical or don’t disagree with the president on anything because that hurts us’ and my view is no, it helps us because it’s important for young people, for instance, to see that there are Republicans who have different points of view,” Romney said. “You don’t have to all think exactly the same as the leader of our party to be a member of our party.”
One thing Romney says he won’t do is run for president a third time or try to be a spoiler by running as an independent.
“I’ve had my two strikes,” he said.
Romney said he has made peace with the fact that he won’t be the leader of the GOP, but he still wants to serve as its conscience.
“I think people who are on their way up have other considerations they’re thinking about. I’m not on my way up. All right? I’ve had my life,” he says. “My career, my family, my faith: Those define who I am. And so I’m really entirely free emotionally … to do entirely what I believe is absolutely right.
“I said to my kids, ‘My future is behind me.’”
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/10/28/mitt-romney-trump-republican-critic-congress-impeachment/4065346002/