For Republicans fearful of a Donald Trump presidency, Mitt Romney was their voice and conscience. The GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee became the unyielding face of the resistance to the party’s 2016 nominee.
Then Trump won.
One by one, Republicans who stood up to Trump or questioned his statements and antics have made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower to kiss the president-elect’s ring, or joined his administration, or decided uncharacteristically to just keep their mouths shut.
And at long last Tuesday night, the figurehead of the “Never Trump” movement also capitulated. After an intimate dinner with Trump of frog legs and diver scallops at a fine Manhattan restaurant (in a Trump-owned building, naturally), Romney publicly acquiesced.
In an apparent attempt to secure Trump’s trust in him as a possible secretary of state, Romney lavished praise on the president-elect: Trump’s dinner company was “enlightening and interesting and engaging” and his transition appointments give him “increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.”
Romney’s turnabout illustrates the power that comes with winning — the ability to reshuffle the political hierarchy.
In less than two months, Trump will be the president of the United States. And with Romney’s move, Trump has officially and almost completely cowed the elements of the Republican Party that had shunned the real estate tycoon and reality-television star during the turbulent campaign.
Some Republican Trump critics — such as Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) — have shown some signs of resistance and could emerge as counterweights to the new administration on some issues.
But so far, at least, their postures have been relatively meek. McCain declared Tuesday that he was finished talking about Trump. Asked to weigh in on Trump’s call to penalize people who burn the American flag with jail time or loss of citizenship, McCain told CNN, “I have not been commenting on Mr. Trump, and I will continue not to comment on Mr. Trump.”
There are several reasons Romney and other Republicans who resisted Trump may have decided to bend the knee. For one, they are patriots and want to see the 45th president succeed for the good of the nation. But they also are ambitious and may want to serve in the administration, or at least see no upside to antagonizing a powerful enemy in the Oval Office.
“The GOP is folding like cheap tents to Trump’s authoritarian nature/nationalist message,” Matthew Dowd, formerly a top strategist on President George W. Bush’s campaigns and now an ABC News analyst, tweeted Wednesday morning.
In a blistering speech in March, Romney called Trump a “con man,” a “fake” and a “phony” who would lead the country to recession and peril. “He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill,” Romney said.
But late Tuesday, after his dinner with Trump, Romney delivered a 332-word statement to the media that tried to wash all of that away. He also sounded a note of humility and subservience.
“By the way, it’s not easy winning,” he said. “I know that myself. He did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful in. He won the general election and he continues with a message of inclusion and bringing people together, and his vision is something which obviously connected with the American people in a very powerful way.”
This may not have been the public apology that Trump’s ardent loyalists have demanded, but Romney’s groveling no doubt pleased the president-elect.
In another tweet Wednesday, Dowd wrote, “The degree of difficulty in Romney’s dive last night was greater than a reverse 4½ somersault in tuck position. Stunning flipflop.”
Romney is a finalist to serve as Trump’s secretary of state. People familiar with Romney’s thinking say he is eager to return to public service and feels a sense of patriotic duty to help the new president. Since ending his 2012 campaign, Romney has become increasingly animated by world affairs and spent considerable time reimagining the United States’ place in the world after the Obama years. So he sees serving as the nation’s top diplomat to be a natural assignment.
Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist, wrote recently in the New York Times about the dilemma Republicans who opposed Trump face during this transition phase.
“If they fear how Trump might govern, can they in good conscience work for him?” Douthat wrote. “The answer, for now, is that they can and should — and indeed, precisely because they fear how Trump might govern, there is a moral responsibility to serve.”
At Tuesday’s dinner, Romney and Trump were joined by Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman and incoming White House chief of staff, who is close to both men.
Priebus described the conversation as productive and relaxed, saying they talked not only about foreign policy but also about sports, bonding over their shared regard for the New England Patriots and star quarterback Tom Brady.
Asked Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” whether Trump and Romney had reached a personal comfort level, Priebus said: “Oh, I think so. I mean, I think it’s getting to that point.”
He added: “Obviously there’s a lot of respect, I think, for each other. And I think the relationship has built over time. They’ve talked many times on the phone.”
As Trump has met with dozens of potential appointees and other political and business leaders in recent weeks, his advisers have stressed their ideological diversity and the fact that many did not support him or offered their support only nominally.
Consider, for instance, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. She spoke out against Trump during the primaries. After he won the Republican nomination, she eventually supported him, but she did little to help him in the general election. Yet after the election, she hit it off with Trump, and he was impressed enough with her to nominate her to serve as his ambassador to the United Nations.
“He’s one of the most inherently curious people I’ve ever met in my life,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Tuesday night on Fox News. “To be in these meetings — we’ve had this galaxy of extraordinary men and women from a broad range of backgrounds, you know, many Republicans, even some Democrats who have come in and sat down.”