During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was one of the leading voices encouraging his party to pick someone — anyone — but Donald Trump. Romney was very clear, and very public, about how he felt about Trump.
So it’s disingenuous for Romney to try to claim, as he did Friday, that he wasn’t a leader of the “Never Trump” movement.
But the fact that Romney is trying to distance himself from himself underscores how even one of the president’s former top critics has come to accept that the Republican Party is Trump’s party. And that means as Romney cruises to become the possible next senator from Utah, we shouldn’t expect him to become Trump’s next Republican antagonist in Congress.
This exchange with reporters Friday is telling:
"You led the Never Trump movement. What happened with that?” a reporter in Arizona asked Romney, who is running for Senate in Utah and was campaigning for a Republican Senate candidate in Arizona.
“Oh, I don’t think that was the case,” Romney replied. “President Trump was not the person I wanted to become the nominee of our party, but he’s president now."
Two years ago, Romney gave a speech arguing a Trump candidacy (let alone presidency) could severely harm the country and the world: "Let me put it very plainly. If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”
Unlike the other Republicans vocally criticizing Trump at the time, Romney wasn’t running for president against him. He didn’t have to speak out, pointed out The Fix’s Aaron Blake. And yet he chose to speak out because he felt strongly that Trump was bad for the party and that he, as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, had a duty to say something about it.
It’s Trump’s party now, though. And Romney is clearly trying to adapt to it. So even though it defies logic for Romney to argue he didn’t lead the Never Trump movement, we can see why he’s trying to rewrite history.
Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party is evident even in Utah, where conservative voters were extremely skeptical of Trump during the election. But in the spring, Romney failed to win the Senate nomination outright at Utah’s Republican convention, in part because of his well-known past criticizing Trump.
Conservative candidates for Congress from Alabama to South Carolina struggled with their once-reliable base in the primary season for the same reason.
Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), one of the most conservative members of Congress, was forced into a runoff with a former Democrat because voters there remembered how she said she wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2016 after the release of a tape on which he was heard bragging about sexually harassing women.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) lost his job after a Trump tweet urging his district’s voters to pick someone else. In the summer, a Republican running for governor in Florida was attacked by his opponent for speaking out against Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting women and attacking a Gold Star parent.
Romney has clearly been watching the party transform into exactly the kind of party he warned against in 2016. He’s decided to adjust to survive rather than go down fighting. (Possibly not lost on Romney is that the two remaining Republican senators considered Trump’s chief critics are both retiring: Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee.)
And that means that if Romney does become Utah’s next senator in 2019, don’t expect him to come to Washington and be the Trump critic he originally was. Even one of the leaders of the Never Trump movement recognizes that battle is lost.