“I’m having fun,” Sen. Mitt Romney said of his short time as a senator. | Alex Wong/Getty Images
‘The lane that I’ve chosen has almost no one in it,’ the Utah Republican and two-time presidential hopeful says.
By BURGESS EVERETT
05/31/2019 05:32 AM EDT
When asked about Republicans’ criticism of his occasional anti-Trump stances, Mitt Romney doesn’t miss a beat: “I have to show you something.”
He grabs his iPad and pulls up an article: “Romney: why the Republican pros distrust him.” It’s a 1964 Look Magazine profile about his father, George, a former moderate governor of Michigan, which claims that “party people are troubled by what he says.” Story Continued Below
Mitt Romney’s point is simple: Drawing GOP crossfire is essentially part of the Romney family business.
With both a pledge to be independent and membership in a party that demands support for President Donald Trump at every turn, the junior senator from Utah faces a squeeze on essentially every major vote he takes and each response to Trump’s controversies.
Romney has voted this year against Trump more than most other Senate Republicans, torpedoed Herman Cain’s chances on the Federal Reserve and even defended former President Barack Obama. Yet he still broadly supports Trump’s agenda and is with him far more often than not.
“People on the left: ‘You’re not hard enough on the president.’ People on the right: ‘You’re too hard on the president.’ The lane that I’ve chosen has almost no one in it,” a chuckling Romney says during a 30-minute interview in his Washington office. “There’s a long history and a family trait of saying what you believe and not worrying about what other people think.”
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Though Romney is less tempestuous than former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Utah senator has brought something similar to the Senate. Like McCain, Romney is a former GOP presidential nominee whose comments carry far more weight than the average senator. And Romney enjoys a similarly tense relationship with the president.
Romney unleashed an op-ed critical of Trump just two days before he was sworn into the Senate, then quickly sought to fight off the government shutdown over Trump’s wall. Since then, Romney has settled into his self-proclaimed one-man lane, quickly mending fences with irked GOP colleagues, making the media rounds and working on bipartisan legislation.
He even says he’s likely to run for another term, a rebuttal to those in the Capitol who privately wonder if he’s on some sort of a six-year kamikaze mission against Trump. Instead, he says he’s hoping to make huge breakthroughs on issues such as immigration and the national debt that have eluded Congress for decades.
At his core, Romney is not an explicit Trump foe, though he doesn’t enjoy the spur-of-the-moment phone calls or personal attention that most Republicans senators do. Romney also won’t yet support Trump’s reelection campaign. He says Trump is essentially ensured the Republican nomination, but calls his challenger Bill Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, a “terrific guy.”
Yet Romney is also no Justin Amash, the first Republican to back impeaching the president, and doesn’t support removing Trump from office. His advice to the Democrats is to “let the American people decide” in the 2020 election.
“I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and figures out how to be a counterbalance to the president,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Indeed, Romney supports Trump’s tough-on-China policies and his hawkish stance toward Iran, gushes about the Trump economy and has voted for almost all of the president’s nominees.
“He’s by and large followed the Republican playbook. So I’ll be with him. The places where I’m not with him from time to time will be matters of conduct or communication that I think are highly divisive or misogynistic or anti-immigrant,” Romney says of Trump. “In places like that, I think it’s important for my own personal integrity to stand up and say, ‘No, I disagree with that.’”
Romney paused for a moment, then finished: “Maybe it will influence his thinking. Probably not. But it will certainly allow me to be true to the things I believe.”
This may be the most Democrats can wish for from a Republican senator.
“It’s refreshing how independent minded he is,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who traveled to the Middle East with Romney and runs a Foreign Relations subcommittee with him. Romney “agrees with the president on a lot. He just doesn’t view it as his sacred responsibility to agree with the president on everything.”
Romney’s op-ed lighting into Trump’s character drew immediate ire from his colleagues and even his niece, GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. “Jeff Flake on steroids,” wrote Georgia Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). But that controversy cooled as Romney established himself as a relatively quiet presence behind closed doors, according to GOP senators. He’s seeking to have individual meetings with all 100 senators and has already completed more than 60.
And he’s in a good enough mood to frequently relay his oddball and sometimes corny sense of humor. After predicting Trump would easily win the Republican nomination, Romney then explodes into hearty laughter after delivering this line: “I do know who the Democratic nominee is going to be. But I’m not telling you.”
“I’m having fun,” Romney says of his short time as a senator.
But Romney has shown that even with his upbeat attitude, he can take serious action. He was the leading senator against Cain, called Trump to personally inform him he wouldn’t support his national emergency declaration and opposed a judicial nominee who had dubbed Obama an “un-American imposter.” In a March White House meeting with the president, Romney criticized Trump’s tariffs on U.S. allies.
It’s not difficult to imagine Romney at some point becoming a headache for GOP leaders.
“He is very independent. And I get that. And I guess the only thing [is] that we always want to make sure that people are communicating to each other their positions,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the party whip.
“Sen. Romney is a very sophisticated, very polite sort of guy. And I’m sure the president’s style rankles him,” said one Republican senator. But Romney’s anti-Trump votes haven’t “made the difference in the outcome. That’s where people start to get a little sensitive.”
The Utah senator has not been the deciding vote against a key party priority the way McCain was on Obamacare repeal. That’s kept some Democrats’ praise for Romney in check.
“He’s given me a lot of hope that he will chart an independent course,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I have to tell you I had a lot of dashed hopes and high expectations from my Republican colleagues that have been unfulfilled.”
Animating his independent streak, Romney harbors little internal ambition within the Senate power structure. He doesn’t want to be the chairman of the party’s campaign arm, though he’s donating to colleagues and offering to campaign for whomever he can help.
Romney is preoccupied by larger issues: Balancing the budget, immigration reform and climate change. If there’s political capital for Romney to earn and spend during his time as a senator, it will be there, not necessarily on poking the president to earn a quick headline.
He’s able to assume his stance because his constituents are conservatives, but not emphatically pro-Trump. At town halls, he asks constituents to raise their hands if he’s too easy on Trump and then if he’s too hard on him: Voters’ responses are usually split down the middle.
“People look around the room and say: ‘Oh, we don’t all think the same way here.’ And you know, there are some people who support my approach, there are others that don’t,” Romney said. A Salt Lake Tribune poll showed Romney’s stance of standing up to Trump at times has a 54 percent approval rate in the state.
Romney’s outlook and courting of Democrats suggests that he can see himself serving well into the post-Trump era.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney was able to take care of his goals in one term before retiring. Now as the 97th-most senior senator, Romney understands it might take a good deal more time to finish his Senate checklist.
“If I get everything done in one term, well, I’ll probably not be looking for another term,” Romney said. “But it’s very unlikely. So it’s far more likely that I’ll be here more than one term given the agenda that I have.”
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