Mitt Romney has huddled twice with President-elect Donald Trump in the past two weeks. And both times, it looked super awkward.
Here's meeting 1, when Romney traveled to the Trump National golf club in New Jersey to talk about the prospect of serving as Trump's secretary of state:
And here's the second meeting, on Tuesday night in New York City — with incoming Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus tagging along:
In both of the photos, Romney looks somewhere between perplexed, surprised and embarrassed. Sort of a: "Hey, look. I know what you're thinking. But, ah, well, it is what it is."
The operative question — for everyone — is "Why?" As in, why would Mitt Romney, two-time presidential candidate, 2012 Republican presidential nominee and all-around serious establishment guy, keep dancing to Trump's tune? Especially considering that Romney, back in March, condemned Trump as a "phony" and a "fraud" while Trump repeatedly blasted Romney on the campaign trail as a loser who let the party down by faltering in a very winnable race.
I've come up with two potential answers to the "why?" question — one of which makes Romney look terrific, the other which makes him look terrible.
The terrific answer is that Romney still feels a call to public service. That the same motivation that drove him to run for governor or take over the failing Salt Lake City Winter Olympics or even run for president — a desire to make things better and a belief he can do so — is what compels him to make nice with someone that, from a personal perspective, he clearly holds in utter contempt. Under this theory, Romney believes the best way to preserve his vision for the country and its role in the world — and protect those things from potentially harmful decisions by Trump — is to insert himself between the president-elect and the world. That only by going into the Trump administration can he keep really bad things from happening.
The terrible answer for Romney is that this willingness to subjugate his personal views about Trump is all in service of an overarching ambition for power that has defined his life. Romney critics — and those are the people pushing this theory — point to his past flip-flops on such issues as abortion and gay marriage as evidence that when a deeply held belief comes up against Romney's ambition, ambition always wins. So, Romney wants to be secretary of state more than he hates Trump. It's that simple a calculation.
I tend to put myself in the Romney-as-public-servant camp based on what I know of the man. But holy cow, must Romney be committed to serving the public if he's willing to play Trump's very public vetting game for secretary of state! Despite what he said in the wake of their dinner Tuesday, it's hard to imagine Romney's basic view about Trump has changed much from what he said about the president-elect in March. And even if Romney has softened somewhat, he and Trump could never be close given their vast personal and policy differences.
All of which helps to make this whole Romney-for-secretary-of-state drama all the stranger — and more compelling.