Shortly after Donald Trump won the presidential election, one of Mitt Romney’s closest friends sent him an urgent plea over email: Move past the campaign hostility and, for the “best interests of the country,” consider joining the new president’s team as his secretary of state.
Then the friend, Stephen Pagliuca, who worked with Romney at Bain Capital and has socialized with Trump, urged advisers to the president-elect to press Trump to name Romney for the State Department job.
Pagliuca’s messages, which he sent shortly after he saw that Romney’s name was being floated, are part of the behind-the-scenes effort to heal a seemingly unbridgeable divide between two bitter foes, one a beloved figure of the Republican establishment and the other who upended his party hierarchy and won the White House as an avowed outsider.
During the campaign, Romney called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud,” and Trump said Romney was a “choker” who walked “like a penguin.”
But Pagliuca, a co-owner of the Boston Celtics and a Democrat, said he knew something that others didn’t. When he golfed with Trump at a Boston-area course some years ago, Trump had talked at length about how much he admired Bain Capital, a private equity firm that Romney led until 1999.
Today, as Pagliuca and other Romney backers see it, Trump, 70, and the 69-year-old Romney had far more in common than many realize: Both came to prominence as risk takers and dealmakers, and both have spent much of their lives seeking to emulate and outdo the success of their fathers. Trump’s father, Fred, was a New York City developer, and Romney’s father, George, was a governor of Michigan who unsuccessfully sought the presidency.
This shared background may not be enough to persuade Trump to nominate Romney to be his secretary of state.
Nevertheless, Trump has made clear that Romney is a candidate for the job, and the two met Tuesday night for nearly two hours over dinner at Jean-Georges restaurant in New York, accompanied by the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, who is slated to be White House chief of staff.
Speaking to reporters, Romney sounded nothing like the man who earlier this year declared Trump a fraud, remarking instead that he was deeply impressed with the president-elect. He did not apologize for his earlier criticism.
Romney said that his conversation with Trump was “enlightening and interesting and engaging” and that he had been “very impressed” by Trump’s victory speech, which called for inclusion. “By the way, it is not easy winning [the presidency]. I know that myself. He did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful,” Romney said.
The former Massachusetts governor said he has been impressed by Trump’s transition operation and by the people selected for other Cabinet posts. Romney said that all of those factors “give me increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to” a bright future.
Trump’s consideration of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee has drawn outrage from some, but advocates argue that Romney’s background and intellect would provide a crucial balance for the foreign policy team.
“I think Trump sees that,” Pagliuca said.
Romney, meanwhile, sees the possible job not just as a way to fulfill his desire to serve, but also to salve deep wounds, having lost both the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and the 2012 general election campaign for president.
“Romney’s motivation, I suspect, is that losing twice still stings, so achieving a prominent position like secretary of state would wash away some of the bitterness of losing two presidential elections,” said Rob Gray, who served as a key adviser during Romney’s Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign and governorship.
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Romney associates said they see him as a person who would make up for Trump’s deficiencies.
“I would describe a potential relationship as complementary,” said Marc Wolpow, who worked with Romney at Bain Capital from 1990 to 1999 and also has met Trump. “I think if you would merge both of them you’d have the perfect president. . . . Mitt could be the good cop to the bad cops that surround Trump.”
Wolpow said the two men probably see qualities in the other that each is missing. Romney, he said, failed to connect with blue-collar voters and made “excuses” for his wealth, but he possesses the diplomatic skills to be secretary of state. Trump hit it off with many average voters and cited his financial fortune as part of his appeal, but his brusque manner could be problematic in handling world affairs.
“Mitt has the brilliance, the analytical mind, the temperament,” Wolpow said. “I think Trump sees in Mitt . . . qualities that Trump doesn’t have, and I think Mitt sees in Trump qualities that Mitt doesn’t have.”
Associates said Romney’s Mormon faith also plays a role. Although they said Romney would not try to use the position of secretary of state to directly influence people to consider converting to his religion, the job would be one of the highest-profile government positions ever held by a Mormon, which could help the church’s effort to gain acceptance around the world.
Trump, for his part, has a history of working with Mormons and has said he values their work ethic. Trump once counted as his closest friend and business associate a Mormon named Stephen Hyde, who oversaw Trump’s Atlantic City casino empire until he died in a 1989 helicopter crash. Trump, in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year, said he admired the way Hyde devoted himself to his work and his church, recalling that the company deducted Hyde’s tithing directly from his paycheck.
“Every month he would give a big percentage of his salary to the Mormon church, which I always respected a lot,” Trump said.
Romney’s moralistic sense of responsibility couldn’t be more different from Trump’s self-styled playboy lifestyle, which has included two divorces and a high-profile affair. But Trump and Romney share a trait that is important to both men: Trump, whose brother died of symptoms related to alcoholism, and Romney share an aversion to alcohol; both men have said they never drink.
Romney, like Trump, does not have deep experience in foreign affairs. He served as a Mormon missionary in France, did some deals around the world and oversaw the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. During the 2012 campaign, he relied heavily on a group of foreign policy and military advisers, not always successfully. During a visit, he stunned British organizers of the Olympics by saying their efforts at security were “disconcerting.” The Guardian headlined a story about his visit, “Mitt Romney visits London while stumbling on almost every front.”
Romney famously labeled Russia as the No. 1 geopolitical foe of the United States, a view mocked by some at the time but later seen as prescient, given Russia’s annexation of Crimea and other actions. Trump has taken a rosier view, signaling that he wants to reset Russian relations.
Romney, whose father was born in Mexico — where the family had moved to escape anti-polygamy laws in the United States — has urged closer ties between the United States and its southern neighbor. Trump has promised to build a wall between the nations and make Mexico pay for it, and he proposed banning most Muslims from entering the country. That prompted Romney earlier this year to say Trump “creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants.”
The two agree, however, on many other foreign policy issues, such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a top priority for Trump. Romney said in 2012 that he would declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, a pledge duplicated by Trump. When Trump endorsed Romney in 2012, Romney said he was “very pleased” because Trump “shares my concern about China — the fact that China has been able to run roughshod over many industries in this country. Presidents have complained about it, but really haven’t taken action to stop China from taking away our jobs.”
Trump initially mocked Romney’s plan to have 11 million illegal immigrants “self-deport,” calling it “crazy” and “maniacal,” warning that it would cause the Republican Party to lose many Hispanic supporters. But Trump eventually one-upped Romney on his proposal, calling for forced deportation and saying some Mexican immigrants were criminals and “rapists” and “some, I assume, are good people.”
As for Trump’s assertion that Romney walked like a penguin, the president-elect recently looked at Romney and saw a different visage. He said Romney, who is invariably formal, well-coifed and finely dressed, “looks the part” of secretary of state.