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How Mitt Romney survives the slings and arrows of team Trump

As Romney continues his public sparring with the president, observers try to make sense of his motives

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FILE - Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, attends the HELP Hearing: Implementing the 21st Century Cures Act on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 26, 2019.

Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney is doing just what he said he would do before taking office: calling out the president when Romney feels he’s crossed a line.

The Utah Republican continued sparring with President Donald Trump Wednesday, blasting the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, amid reports that Turkey was attacking Kurds in that region, key U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS

“Reports indicate Turkey is predictably attacking the Kurdish allies we abandoned,” Romney tweeted. “It’s a tragic loss of life among friends shamefully betrayed. We can only hope the President’s decision does not lead to even greater loss of life and a resurgence of ISIS.”

This was the latest blow in a running political confrontation, mostly on Twitter. The back-and-forth has inspired much hand-wringing in the media, as pundits and reporters tried to suss out Romney’s motives for publicly challenging Trump on ethics and foreign policy. 

On Sept. 22, Romney tweeted that “it would be troubling in the extreme” if allegations were true that Trump pressured his Ukraine counterpart to investigate political rival Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential hopeful.

He ramped up his criticism Friday, tweeting that “the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.” 

Trump struck back in a Twitter rant Saturday, calling the senator a “pompous ass” and a “fool,” but Romney ignored the personal jabs.

The president’s withdrawal of troops from Syria seemed to change the tenor of Romney’s criticisms. Not only did the Utah senator join dozens of senators and House members on both sides of the aisle Monday in opposing that decision, but he released a joint statement with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., formally calling on the administration to defend its decision before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, and Counterterrorism, which Romney chairs. 

Romney, a freshman senator and former GOP presidential nominee, has become the most outspoken Republican about the president’s conduct with foreign leaders, even as the House impeachment inquiry moves forward, raising the stakes.

News outlets have tried to unravel Romney’s motives. Trump’s supporters chalk it up to envy or an attempt to support impeaching Trump before the 2020 election. Romney’s supporters and political observers say he’s simply living up to what he said he would do while campaigning for retired Sen. Orrin Hatch’s seat.

“I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault,” Romney wrote in the Washington Post prior to being sworn in. “But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”

Exception to the rule

Romney’s op-ed in The Washington Post was a blistering attack on Trump that put the country on notice — while reminding Utahns — that he would not hold back expressing his views, even if it meant criticizing a president from his own party.

Romney’s campaign staff has said the question most often asked by voters when he campaigned for the Senate last year was how he would work with a president he had called a fraud and a phony during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries.

The relationship between the two men has always been tense and somewhat complicated. Trump endorsed Romney in the 2012 presidential race, then criticized him for losing. He later dangled a Secretary of State post before Romney even though Romney didn’t vote for him, then endorsed his Senate campaign although Romney never sought the president’s support.

At town hall meetings he hears complaints from constituents who say he’s either too soft or too hard on Trump. At one town hall in Farmington during the government shutdown in January, he began the evening by asking attendees to raise their hands if they thought he was too nice or too tough on the president. It was about 50-50.

An Associated Press poll in late 2018 found most Utah voters — 64% — would like to see Romney confront the president during his first term as senator.

He has stuck to his campaign promise, voting in line with Trump’s policies 79% of the time, while not hesitating to speak out against Trump. Romney voted against Trump’s emergency declaration to fund a border wall and said a rape allegation against the president in June “should be evaluated.”

But Romney’s outspoken critiques of the president these past two weeks have received extraordinary scrutiny and attention in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of an impeachment inquiry.

“Across the country, most GOP lawmakers have responded to questions about Trump’s conduct with varying degrees of silence, shrugged shoulders or pained defenses,” The Washington Post reported after talking to 21 lawmakers, aides and advisers. “For now, their collective strategy is simply to survive and not make any sudden moves.”

Romney is an exception.

Family tradition

Observers have posited various theories to explain Romney’s willingness to take a public stand where others do not. Trump allies like Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump, Jr., have argued that Romney is acting out of jealousy over Trump’s victory in 2016. Other partisans have even claimed Romney is part of a secret insurrection to oust Trump.  

Romney spokeswoman Liz Johnson dismissed as “blatantly false” a Vanity Fair piece this week that quoted an unnamed Romney adviser saying the senator believes he has the influence to “decide Trump’s fate in an impeachment trial.”

But moderate observers say Romney occupies a unique position as a former GOP presidential nominee, giving him a platform few freshman senators enjoy. He also has little to lose since he is not up for reelection until 2024 in a conservative state where voters have mixed views of the president. Trump won Utah in 2016 but captured just 45% of the vote. And a recent poll showed that same percentage of Utahns support his reelection.

“(Romney’s) sitting in a position right now where he he can take principled approaches,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “There are some who will not like that approach. But he has not crossed the line in terms of the big issues that Utahns care about that will likely bring any negative ramifications” such as religious freedom, the economy and appointing conservative judges.

“He told voters that he would call the president out when he felt like he should and he would support him when he agreed with him,” Perry said. “And I think it remains a consistent part of his time in the Senate.”

But according to a Politico story titled “Inside Romney’s Trump Strategy,” the 72-year-old conservative may be simply following a family tradition.

The senator’s father — late Michigan governor and Nixon cabinet member George Romney — was also known for speaking his mind, which some say killed his chances for the 1968 GOP nomination for president. It is a path that few other politicians would feel comfortable taking.

“The lane that I’ve chosen has almost no one in it,” Romney told Politico. “There’s a long history and a family trait of saying what you believe and not worrying about what other people think.”

Straying from the pack

Former Sen. Jeff Flake was also one to speak his mind regarding the president, which alienated the Arizona Republican from his party, voters in his home state and eventually resulted in him stepping down after one term in the Senate. He served six terms in the House.

He acknowledges that Romney is uniquely positioned to speak out against Trump, but he credits other traits for enabling the Utah Republican to survive the attacks the president will continue to level at him to send a message to other GOP lawmakers not to step out of line.

“Mitt is unfailingly polite to everyone and his colleagues like him,” Flake said. “I know that because they tell me. And he’s not going out of his way to criticize, he’s doing his job and that’s respected.”

But that respect doesn’t extend to Republican colleagues defending Romney when the president launches into personal attacks like what happened over the weekend.

“Nobody wants to be the zebra that strays from the pack and gets gobbled up by the lion,” a former senior administration official told the Washington Post.

Asked by Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace if he had a problem with the president calling his senator names and suggesting he should be removed from office last weekend, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said:

“I’m just going to say that Mitt Romney is a big boy, President Trump is a big boy, they can settle their differences and I’m not going to weigh in on that.”