SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said Friday that President Donald Trump’s appeals for Ukraine and China to investigate his chief Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden, appear to be not only “brazen and unprecedented,” but also “wrong and appalling,”
The Republican senator said in a statement shared on Twitter that “it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated” when the only American singled out by the president “is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process.”
By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) October 4, 2019
Romney’s harsh words about Trump’s efforts to pressure foreign leaders to go after the Democratic front-runner in the presidential race comes after the president told reporters on the White House lawn Thursday that “China should start an investigation” into the former vice president.
An impeachment inquiry into Trump based on his dealings with Ukraine over Biden is already underway in the House, and is backed by all but a handful of the majority Democrats but no Republicans, according to a compilation by the New York Times.
Utah’s only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, shifted on Friday to supporting the probe.
After declining to directly answer Thursday whether he supports an impeachment inquiry, McAdams said at an event at a senior center Friday that “an inquiry is necessary to get all the facts on the table,” although he added he avoids the term “impeachment” because it signals a judgment on the allegations has already been made.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a statement that he “read Trump’s statement as not asking China to investigate, but suggesting that it would be in China’s interest to do so.” Asked if that was an issue for the senator, his spokesman, Conn Carroll, said, “I think the statement speaks for itself.”
Other members of Utah’s congressional delegation — Republican Reps. Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart and John Curtis — stayed silent on the president publicly stating China, a foreign adversary currently engaged in a trade war with the United States over tariffs imposed by Trump, should investigate Biden. None responded to requests for comment Friday.
Romney, the most critical Republican in Congress of Trump’s actions, had already responded to the initial reports last month of a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, saying it would be “troubling in the extreme” if those allegations proved true.
Since then, new details have emerged about Trump’s activities, including a transcript of his July call with Zelenskiy that showed he specifically asked for a favor — a corruption investigation by Ukraine into Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company — as well as texts from administration officials.
“Mitt Romney is someone who’s not afraid to say what he thinks. I know that there are a lot of frustrations toward him at this point, especially with the president,” former Utah Congresswoman Mia Love, now a CNN commentator, said on the cable network Friday.
Love, who was publicly mocked by the president for not accepting his campaign help after her loss to McAdams last year, said Trump has to remember that members of Congress “have an allegiance to the people they represent. They don’t have an allegiance to the White House.”
Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who didn’t seek reelection last year, citing the political price of taking on Trump, responded on Twitter to a tweet from the president saying that requesting the help of a foreign country “is done all the time. This has NOTHING to do with politics or a political campaign against the Bidens.”
Flake tweeted, “No, Mr. President, asking foreign leaders to investigate your political opponents is not done all the time. And it isn’t right.”
Romney is seen as being in a unique position to question the president in Utah. The 2012 GOP presidential nominee who lost to President Barack Obama has remained popular in Utah since leading the successful 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He is also not up for reelection until 2024.
Trump, on the other hand, has struggled to win over voters in Utah despite the state being among the most Republican in the nation. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won Utah with just 45.5% of the vote, his lowest margin of victory nationwide.
“Mitt has the credibility with most Utahns to be able to stake out these kinds of positions and maintain respect and popularity among the vast majority of the state’s voters,” said Damon Cann, a Utah State University political science professor. “We’ve had so many things like this that it’s kind of predictable.”
Often, Romney speaks out against Trump while others in the delegation either come to the president’s defense or “try to avoid the subject and try to talk as little about Trump as possible,” Cann said. “At some point, you have to wonder if the Republicans will feel like they can continue to back and support the president.”
Whether that point has been reached yet remains to be seen, he said.
“Because Utah is not as politically competitive as many other states, as long as members of the Utah congressional delegation don’t go too far astray from voting on traditional Republican policies, it probably doesn’t create a lot of political vulnerability for them,” Cann said.
Instead, he said, it becomes “just another Trump storm to ride out until after the election.”
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said while Romney is “a bit of a lone voice among Republicans ... it’s possible he could pave the way for others to speak up. In the end, having a president invite foreign powers, especially powers like China, to investigate political rivals is dangerous.”
Karpowitz said this is the time for the other members of Utah’s congressional delegation to speak out, too.
“If they do think it’s OK, I think it’s important to say that and defend that position. If they don’t think that it’s OK, it’s equally important to say that as well, and to explain to the voters why this is problematic,” the political science professor said.
“This is beyond bad language and disparaging remarks about different racial groups. We’re now at the point of violating some principles that at least in the past have been seen as core elements of our democracy,” Karpowitz said. “It demands something other than silence.”
Contributing: Matthew Brown