The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Timeline: Romney’s criticisms of Trump have always been moderated by his own ambitions

Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate and incoming U.S. senator from Utah, sharply criticized President Trump. (Video: Reuters)

Sen.-elect Mitt Romney (R-Utah) began 2019 by taking an unusual step for a Capitol Hill freshman: In an opinion essay written for The Washington Post, he attacked Donald Trump for failing to demonstrate the character needed for the office of the president of the United States.

Romney, of course, is not just any Senate newcomer. Nor is it novel for him to criticize President Trump. If anything, Romney’s essay might have been expected, given that it comes at a time in his political career when he doesn’t need Trump for anything.

A review of Romney’s interactions with Trump since the beginning of 2011 — a period covering both men’s presidential bids and Romney’s Senate race — makes clear that Romney’s attacks on Trump are well attuned to the political thermostat. When he wanted Trump’s support, for example in 2012, Romney refused to criticize Trump’s birtherism — unlike his strong criticism of Trump in summer 2017 after the president waffled on criticizing self-proclaimed white nationalists at a rally in Virginia.

In reviewing the past eight years of interactions between the two, we assigned a rough value for how warm or cold relations were between the two (an admittedly subjective analysis). Roughly speaking, the periods in which Romney has spoken most warmly about Trump correlate to moments when Romney was seeking political office to which Trump might contribute. An exception was shortly after Trump took office, when Romney offered his support for Trump’s success.

Here’s how Romney and Trump’s relationship has evolved.

March 2011

In an interview on “Good Morning America,” in which he floated the idea of running for president, Trump first raises questions about President Barack Obama’s citizenship.

“Everybody that even gives any hint of being a birther — a word you didn’t use — even a little bit of a hint, like, gee, you know, maybe, just maybe, this much of a chance: They label them as an idiot,” Donald Trump tells the network’s Ashleigh Banfield when she asks whether he thinks Obama was born in the United States. After insisting that he was not an idiot, Trump explains his purported rationale:

“The reason I have a little doubt — just a little! — is because he grew up, and nobody knew him. When you interview people — if I ever got the nomination, if I ever decide to run — you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten, they’ll remember me. Nobody ever comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. Very strange. The whole thing is very strange.”

April 12, 2011

The day after announcing his 2012 candidacy, Romney dismisses Trump’s birtherism in an interview on CNBC.

“I think the citizenship test has been passed. I believe the president was born in the United States,” Romney tells host Larry Kudlow, now a member of Trump’s administration. “The man needs to be taken out of office, but his citizenship isn’t the reason why.”

April 19, 2011

“Mitt Romney was a small business guy if you really think about it,” Trump says in an interview on CNN. “He was a hedge fund. He was a funds guy. He walked away with some money from a very good company that he didn’t create. … He’d buy companies; he’d close companies; he’d get rid of jobs.”

“I’m much bigger than this man and have a much, much bigger net worth. I mean my net worth is many, many, many times Mitt Romney,” Trump adds.

April 25, 2011

“He’s a terrific guy, and I wish him the very best,” Romney responds on Fox News. “I hope he runs. Come on in, the water’s fine.”

May 2011

Trump’s theoretical presidential bid is submarined after gaining little traction in polls and after Obama mocks him relentlessly at the White House correspondents' dinner.

On May 16, Trump announces that he will not run.

September 2011

Trump and Romney meet in New York. Romney describes the meeting on “Morning Joe":

“We didn’t eat lunch together, but we did spend time together,” he says. “I enjoy Donald Trump; he was colorful.”

Late 2011

Trump agrees to moderate a debate among the Republican candidates hosted by the conservative site Newsmax and slated for the end of December.

Dec. 6, 2011

Romney joins other candidates in declining to participate in Trump’s debate. Unlike Jon Huntsman — who tells Fox News that he was “not going to kiss [Trump’s] ring, and I’m not going to kiss any other part of his anatomy” — Romney was polite.

“I spoke with Donald Trump earlier today and indicated that we just can’t make this debate, and we focus on the other two,” Romney tells Fox. “And, I will be campaigning.” Trump, he says, “understood my perspective and wished me well.”

Dec. 12, 2011

"I'm surprised that Mitt Romney said no,” Trump tells MSNBC. “Frankly, I'm surprised, because he really wants my endorsement. I mean, he wants it very badly."

Feb. 2, 2012

At an event in Trump’s hotel in Las Vegas, he offers Romney that endorsement. The timing was important: The Nevada primary was looming, and Newt Gingrich had surged in national polling. The endorsement itself probably didn’t make much of a difference, though: Romney won the state by 29 points over Gingrich.

"There are some things that you just can't imagine happening in your life,” Romney says, after Trump hands it off to him. “This is one of them.” He goes on to say that being in Trump's hotel and getting his endorsement is a “delight."

May 2012

Romney declines to disavow Trump's comments about Obama.

“You know I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” he says. “But I need to get 50.1 percent or more, and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”


Romney wins the nomination. Trump endorses him repeatedly on Twitter. Romney loses the general election.

Shortly after the loss, Trump blames Romney for not using him more.

Dec. 27, 2012

Trump criticizes Romney’s reaction to the loss.

By early February 2013, he begins using Romney as a foil to advance his own prospective political ambitions.


Trump repeatedly bashes Romney on Twitter and tells Fox News’s Sean Hannity that Romney “choked.” He criticizes the Affordable Care Act by calling it “Romneycare/Obamacare.”

January 2015

As both he and Romney flirt with 2016 runs, Trump slams Romney in Iowa.

“The Republicans cannot be so stupid as to give him a second crack, because, honestly, he choked,” Trump says in an interview with Fox News after that appearance. “He wasn’t able to get it done. He should have been able to get it done. There is no excuse for it. And you cannot give that person a second chance, unfortunately.”

June 16, 2015

Trump announces his candidacy, immediately focusing on immigration and disparaging migrants from Mexico.

July 4, 2015

Romney is asked about Trump's comments.

"I think he made a severe error in saying what he did about Mexican Americans,” Romney says.

July 18, 2015

Trump says that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was not a hero because he was captured after being shot down over Vietnam.

Romney replies in a tweet.

Feb. 24, 2016

In an interview on Fox News, Romney suggests that Trump is trying to hide something by not releasing his taxes.

"I think we have good reason to believe that there’s a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes. I think there is something there,” Romney says. “The reason I think there is a bombshell in there is because every time he is asked about his taxes, he dodges and delays."

Over the next few days, he reiterates this idea in tweets. Trump, on the same platform, mocks him.

Feb. 29, 2016

After being endorsed by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Trump declines to reject Duke or the Klan in an interview with CNN.

"I don't know anything about what you're even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists,” he tells the network's Jake Tapper. “So I don't know. I don't know — did he endorse me, or what's going on? Because I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists."

He later blames his response on a faulty earpiece.

Romney attacks him for it.

March 3, 2016

As Trump continues to win Republican delegates, Romney delivers an unusually potent speech attacking his candidacy.

“'Let me put it very plainly,” he says. “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”

He also targets Trump's main selling point.

“Look, his bankruptcies have crushed small businesses and the men and women who work for them. He inherited his business, he didn’t create it,” Romney says. “And whatever happened to Trump airlines? How about Trump University? And then there’s Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius he is not.”

“Here’s what I know,” he says. “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”

Trump responds.

March 18, 2016

Romney endorses Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).

Nov. 8, 2016

Trump wins the presidency. Romney later reports that he wrote in a candidate for the presidency in lieu of voting for Trump: his wife, Ann Romney.

November 2016

As Trump puts together his Cabinet, he meets several times with Romney, purportedly to consider him as a candidate for secretary of state. The two are photographed somewhat awkwardly sharing a dinner at a restaurant at a Trump hotel in Manhattan.

After the dinner, Romney says that the conversation was “enlightening and interesting and engaging” and that Trump’s picks for his administration gave him “increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.”

Romney reportedly was asked to apologize for his rhetoric about Trump during the campaign, an apology he refused to offer. Trump gave the job to ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson.

Early 2017

After Trump takes office, Romney offers him his support, saying in a February interview that “what people recognize is that he's doing what he said he'd do. I'm sure that's very encouraging to a lot of people. I think all of us, whether we are for him or someone else, have high hopes for our president."

But he also stands by his critiques: “I expressed honestly what my belief was with regards to temperament and character.”

Aug. 19, 2017

After Trump equates anti-racist protesters with self-proclaimed white nationalists and Nazis rallying in Charlottesville, Romney calls for Trump to change his tune.

“His apologists strain to explain that he didn’t mean what we heard,” Romney writes on Facebook, calling it a “defining moment” for Trump. “But what we heard is now the reality, and unless it is addressed by the president as such, with unprecedented candor and strength, there may commence an unraveling of our national fabric.”

December 2017

Trump visits Utah for the first time as president, the red state that saw the most significant erosion for the Republican presidential candidate between 2012 and 2016. During the visit, Trump goes out of his way to praise Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R), against whom Romney was rumored to be planning a primary challenge.

In Alabama, Republican Roy Moore hopes to win a special election to serve in the U.S. Senate — but his campaign is hobbled by allegations that he’d had inappropriate sexual contact with a teen girl several decades before. Trump remains stalwart in his support for Moore. Romney, on the other hand, says that Moore would be a “stain on the GOP and on the nation.”

“No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity,” he writes on Twitter.

Feb. 16

After Hatch announces that he plans to retire, Romney announces that he will run for the Utah seat.

Trump endorses him.


After Romney easily wins the primary, Trump tweets his praise for Romney and his family.

Nov. 6

Romney wins election.

Jan. 1

As he prepares to take his position as Utah's junior senator, Romney writes an opinion essay for The Post in which he excoriates Trump — personally, if not on policy.

“As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit,” Romney writes. “With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.”

Jan. 2

Trump responds on Twitter.