Mitt Romney hasn’t exactly been hiding his thoughts about how President Trump has acquitted himself as leader of the free world or even the Republican Party.
On the morning of Dec. 4, Trump tweeted his endorsement of controversial former judge Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election, saying he needed Moore’s vote in the Senate. A few hours later, Romney called Moore “a stain on the GOP” and suggested that Republicans would be “losing our honor” if the man accused of pursuing teenage girls won.
In mid-October, Romney took to Twitter to praise Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a “champion of character” who had been “Lincolnesque” the previous night. He was referring to a speech, delivered by McCain at an award ceremony in Philadelphia, in which he denounced Trump’s governing philosophy as “half-baked, spurious nationalism.”
Now, as Romney plots his path toward running for the seat of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who plans to retire, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee has positioned himself to take on a leading role as the highest-profile Trump critic among Republicans in Congress — if he wants it. Romney has not announced his intentions, but his close advisers have signaled that he would very much like another turn in the national spotlight.
The question is what version of Romney would show up on the campaign trail and arrive in Washington early next year, should he win a race in which he would be considered the heavy favorite.
Would it be another turn as the prominent #NeverTrumper who railed against the then-candidate as “a phony, fraud” in a futile effort to deliver the 2016 nomination to another Republican?
Would it be as the vanquished supplicant who, soon after Trump’s improbable victory, performed multiple auditions for the role of secretary of state?
Or would Romney blend into the milieu of many Senate Republicans as an indirect critic of Trump’s behavior and style without really confronting the type of presidential actions that he predicted, in March 2016, would be based on the “very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss”?
As with other Republican figures of this moment, Romney may end up blending all three of those prototypes. One thing is almost certain: Utah’s next senator will not fawn over Trump the way Hatch has.
“This is one of the great privileges of my life to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States, who I love and appreciate so much,” Hatch said at a Rose Garden ceremony celebrating last month’s passage of tax legislation.
For traditional conservatives yearning for the next anti-Trump Republican, Romney’s entrance on the scene cannot come soon enough. They are a beaten band whose ranks are diminished and ailing, recoiling from a president who uses 140-character tweets to make diplomatic pronouncements that often reject four decades of Reagan-Bush ethos.
Their loudest clarion has been McCain, whose diagnosis with brain cancer in July was followed by a prominent vote against the GOP repeal of the Affordable Care Act despite Trump’s last-minute pleading. The 2008 Republican nominee also gave several prominent speeches and media appearances rejecting Trump’s insular nationalist instincts.
But McCain, 81, will play an uncertain role in the months ahead. He has returned to Arizona to try to recover from an aggressive treatment of chemotherapy and radiation. His aides have said they hope he returns later this month.
The other most prominent GOP critics, Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), continue to criticize Trump, both on his world view and general demeanor. But they also both announced they would retire at the end of this year rather than run for reelection as anti-Trump Republicans.
In his announcement, Flake admitted that he probably could not win the nomination this year in a GOP primary because of his outspoken stand against Trump. But on Wednesday, he seemed to like the idea of a new Trump critic in the chamber.
“Run, Mitt, run,” Flake told reporters Wednesday at the Capitol.
The other leader of anti-Trump Republicans had been Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime McCain sidekick who has grown into a Trump confidant. They regularly play golf together, and Graham trades intelligence with Trump about what is happening on Capitol Hill. The president’s other onetime rivals for the 2016 Republican nomination — Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) — have largely fallen in line and rarely criticize Trump, certainly not as McCain, Flake and Corker have.
It’s possible to envision that by the time the next Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, 2019, Romney could be the only voice left in the Senate appealing to the collection of neoconservatives and establishment Republicans that never fell in line with Trump.
“His is not the temperament of a stable, thoughtful leader. His imagination must not be married to real power,” Romney declared in March 2016, in a speech that tried to organize Trump’s remaining competitors to block his path to the nomination.
It failed. And the rest of the campaign is history, right down to Romney’s own dalliance with becoming Trump’s secretary of state soon after Election Day. They met on multiple occasions, including a public outing to a Manhattan dinner spot where cameras captured the moment.
Some of Trump’s closest advisers waged a public fight against Romney, calling him a traitor who could not be trusted. By the time Trump selected Rex Tillerson to run the State Department, Romney looked embarrassed.
His critics viewed that moment as telling. “Consider him kissing up to Trump post-election and the ways in which his ‘duty’ always coincided with self-promotion,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, a senior adviser to Nevada Democrat Harry M. Reid, the ex-Senate majority leader who constantly ridiculed Romney in 2012.
The most unfulfilling path for a Sen. Romney — the one that somehow splits the difference between disdain for Trump and toeing the line — is the one that most Republicans have chosen.
Younger Republicans such as Rubio and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) have at times taken strong positions that seemingly poise them to torpedo a key nomination, only to quietly back away a few weeks later. Sometimes they denounce Trump’s confrontational tweeting style — but retreat when pressed about how far they would like to see the congressional investigations go in examining the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Less than two years ago, Romney said this of Trump: “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.”
If he winds up in that somewhere-in-between spot in the Senate, it will be a disappointment to those who hailed that speech against Trump in March 2016. It will probably be an even greater disappointment to himself.