SALT LAKE CITY — A second meeting over dinner Tuesday night between President-elect Donald Trump and Mitt Romney suggests one of Trump’s toughest critics during the campaign is still in the running to become secretary of state.
“It sends a signal that Romney is a serious candidate, that this was about more than a courtesy interview,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
After the meal, Romney offered a glowing review of Trump’s transition thus far and his winning campaign, according to the Associated Press. Romney noted that “it’s not easy to win,” adding that Trump offered a vision that “connected with the American people in a very powerful way.”
He also said he has “increasing hope” that the president-elect can lead the country to a “better future.”
The dinner in New York City, which included Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, comes as key members of Trump’s transition team are publicly criticizing the possible pick for the diplomatic post.
Choosing Romney, who slammed the billionaire businessman as a “fraud” and a “phony” in a speech last March at the University of Utah, would leave Trump’s supporters feeling “betrayed,” Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said Sunday.
Others who supported Trump, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have also pushed back against Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee considered an adopted Utah favorite son.
Trump is looking at other candidates for the job once held by his Democratic rival in the presidential race, Hillary Clinton, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, retired Gen. David Petraeus and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker.
But after what Romney termed “a far-reaching conversation” about U.S. interests around the world with Trump during their well-publicized meeting earlier this month, the second meeting was set despite the split among Trump loyalists.
“There’s obviously a great deal of controversy within the Trump team about appointing Romney that’s spilled out into the open in ways that are highly unusual,” Karpowitz said. “The whole process has been more public than we typically see.”
The Washington Post credited one of Romney’s closest friends, Stephen Pagliuca, with helping to ease the way for Romney and Trump to get past their campaign rivalry.
Pagliuca, a co-owner of the Boston Celtics basketball team who has socialized with Trump, also reached out to the president-elect’s advisers to suggest Romney be considered for secretary of state, the newspaper reported.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who helped win over the state’s Republicans to Trump, told CNN that while there will also be “some criticism” of Romney, he wouldn’t join the new administration unless he could be supportive.
“I was glad to see them invite Mitt back,” Hatch said. “He’s going to be loyal. He’s going to be somebody who will carry the ball for them. That’s one of his great attributes. We’ll just have to see what happens.”
Kirk Jowers, the former head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said typically, meeting for the second time about a job with a president-elect over dinner “would be a phenomenally good sign” that the decision had been made.
“But with Trump, you just don’t know,” Jowers said. “I think Romney has been a profile in courage to go through this process. I know how much he loves his country and that’s why he’s willing.”
Karpowitz said Trump “seems to thrive on this uncertainty, the drama of the process. In many ways, it does seem like a version of (Trump’s former reality TV show) ‘The Apprentice.’ Who will be sent home?”
Romney needs to decide if he wants to work in that atmosphere, Karpowitz said, especially since having top advisers to the new president in open revolt against him “makes it very dicey.”
He said Trump and Romney are likely talking about how much influence the new administration’s secretary of state will have on foreign policy, since the pair disagreed on many aspects, particularly when it comes to Russia.
At some point, though, all of the public attention on Romney’s interest in the job and the negative reaction to him “just becomes humiliating” if a decision isn’t forthcoming, Karpowitz said.
“I think his reputation is at risk in several ways. One is he’s humiliated by the process. The other is that he gets the job, and has to carry water on behalf of policies he doesn’t really believe in,” he said.
Because Romney stood up so strongly against Trump during the primary, it could hurt him to be viewed as “the face of Donald Trump to the world,” Karpowitz said, especially if he has little say as secretary of state.
Don Peay, who headed Utahns for Trump and is close to the Trump family, told KSL Newsradio’s Doug Wright that the new administration is working hard to get the best people.
As for Romney, Peay said his harsh words are like a bullet in a gun that’s been fired because they cannot be taken back.
“I think we all just learned a lesson here,” Peay said. “Gov. Romney is a great guy, a super talent. But you know, some of his words have stung some people and I think Trump is trying to work through that.”
Still, he said the dinner meeting never would have been scheduled had Trump and Romney not been willing to make that effort.
“Two gentlemen like that don’t waste each others’ time,” Peay said. “Time is infinitely valuable so there’s obviously something going on there. We’ll probably know Wednesday or Thursday.”
Contributing: Ladd Egan