SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney carried more cachet than most freshman into the exclusive club known as the U.S. Senate.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee has used his stature to do exactly what he said he would do regarding President Donald Trump when the people of Utah elected him: He has called out the president when he believes criticism is warranted and stood with him when he agrees with his policies.
And Romney has a big decision coming up on Trump’s future in the White House.
At the same time, he has had to find his footing the past year in a political environment where he is just one of 100, not the man in charge like he was as governor of Massachusetts or as the head of a billion-dollar company. He has immersed himself in legislation impacting both Utah and the nation.
“It’s a high wire act,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Shortly after Romney won the November 2018 election, Sabato tweeted, “But which Romney will show up in Jan.? The Romney who passionately critiqued Trump in spring ’16, or the one who crawled to Trump after the election to try to become Secretary of State? Probably both, depending on the day and issue.”
So after a year in office, do we know who Mitt Romney is?
“It’s a good question. I’m not sure he’s figured it out. He keeps going back and forth,” Sabato said.
Maintaining a careful balance
Romney arrived in Washington with a bang. Actually, he fired his first shot at Trump on the day before he took the oath of office, questioning the president’s leadership in a Washington Post op-ed. And Trump belittled Romney then and continues to each time the senator takes him on.
As Utahns are clearly divided on the Trump administration and many of the issues facing the country, the only safe place for Romney has been to stick to policy, which he has tried to do and not put himself in the position of purely being a foil to the president, said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“I think Mitt Romney has created a very careful balance as an elected official,” Perry said.
Romney has sharply criticized Trump on occasion, while also aligning himself with the president on policy more often than even Utah’s senior GOP Sen. Mike Lee, who is among the leaders of the president’s reelection campaign in the state.
According to FiveThirtyEight, which tracks how often members of Congress vote with or against Trump’s position, Romney fell in line 80% of the time, compared to 74% for Lee.
That didn’t stop Trump from calling Romney a “pompous ass” after the senator condemned the president’s push for other nations to also investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
Romney also ripped Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, saying it amounts to abandonment of Kurdish allies that “will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”
“He is not in a position where he needs to pull the punches, necessarily, and so far I haven’t seen him do that,” Perry said.
Sabato said Romney has to avoid getting tarred with Trump scandals, while also not becoming a Trump target. But both he and Perry say Romney has some leeway to criticize the president.
Romney said he respects the office of the president and gets along with Trump.
“We are cordial. I am cordial with the president. I’ve known him for a long time and we’re friendly,” he said.
In November, Romney met with Trump at the White House on consecutive days — a political matter one day (impeachment), a policy issue the next (vaping).
Romney one day had lunch with Trump, who was reportedly courting his Republican critics in the Senate who had rebuked him over his phone call with the president of Ukraine. The next day he sought the president’s support for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes.
One of few Republican voices to question the phone call , Romney has said he would withhold judgment on whether it’s an impeachable offense before the Senate trial scheduled to start in earnest next week.
Sabato doesn’t think Romney will vote to oust Trump. Romney, he said, will tiptoe up the line and tiptoe back, saying what Trump did was inappropriate but does not rise to impeachment.
“It’s so predictable,” Sabato said.
Romney said he would offer “impartial judgment” and he looks forward to the opening arguments and where the trial goes from there. He’s not opposed to hearing from more witnesses, such as former national security adviser John Bolton.
Romney said his impeachment vote would be his most significant “political” vote to date — “there’s certainly nothing else quite like that” — but there are other votes that have major impact on the country and people’s lives.
“I can’t stack them up for you, first, second and third,” he said.
On the policy front during his first year, Romney helped pass a public lands bill his predecessor, GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, and others in the Utah delegation had worked on for years. He has secured money to address wild horse and burro populations. He supported funding for nuclear deterrent modernization efforts and an additional 98 F-35s, which are maintained at Hill Air Force Base.
Congress folded his proposal to raise the legal tobacco age to 21 into a health care package and he’s still pushing the White House and the Food and Drug Administration to ban flavored vaping products.
Romney continues to be deficit hawk and said his legislation to preserve Social Security, Medicare and the highway trust fund is gaining support inside and outside Congress. He also wants to make e-verify, the system employers use to check potential workers’ legal status, mandatory and permanent. He also has become a prominent advocate for paying college athletes.
A governor and a CEO is in a better position to make things happen on their own schedule and according to their own agenda, but a legislator doesn’t have the same degree of flexibility, he said. But he said he worked as a management consultant for a decade so he’s used to trying to get others to carry out his recommendations.
“I’d rather be president but I tried that. I didn’t get that job. This is a different job. It’s an important job and I’m enjoying what I’m doing, which I’m sure surprises some people,” Romney said.
Romney also is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism. He met with government leaders in Iraq, a nation he wants to become independent, strong and willing to push back against Iran.
“While I’m not in the White House, I am able to help shape policy that I think is helpful for our country,” he said.
China also remains at the top of his agenda and is front and center in many of the speeches he gives.
How to deal with its emergence as a great power is the most significant issue facing the United States, he said. He has proposed legislation to work with allies in the region to develop a plan to dissuade China from becoming an “imposing” power on its neighbors and the world.
“I don’t think there has been, at least on a national level, a sufficient appreciation of China’s activity and the extent to which they threaten freedom abroad and potentially even here,” Romney said.
The Senate this week passed his bipartisan bill requiring the U.S. to work with allies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere to confront the rise of China.
Romney also consulted experts on climate change and is working with other senators on solutions involving technology and innovation.
A different way of doing business
One of the things Romney said he found surprising in the Senate is how little communication there is between senators, whose offices are separated by hallways and buildings. Senators, he said, are “more like an island” than executives in a corporate setting.
Romney said he’s trying to change that with emails, phone calls and just dropping in on his colleagues, adding that he has sat down with about 80 senators so far to talk about priorities and how they might work together.
“I doubt I’ll get to all hundred. Bernie’s kind of busy these days as is Elizabeth Warren,” he said.
Romney said he has breakfast with Lee every couple of weeks. While they’re aligned on Utah issues, they don’t always see eye to eye on national issues. He said he respects Lee’s expertise and welcomes his counsel.
In the media spotlight
Though Romney is Utah’s junior senator, he hasn’t had to spend time building up his name or gaining access to a microphone. Reporters constantly seek his take on news of the day, especially when it involves something Trump says or does.
“People want to know what he thinks. They care about his positions. They expect him to say something,” Perry said.
Romney’s voice matters in policy discussions, which is significant for a first-year senator, Perry said. “His influence surpasses his seniority.”
Few people across the country have not heard of Romney, though Utahns, according to polls, have found his performance lacking. In a national survey, only 18% of Americans had a favorable view of him. Although he ranks as the 10th most popular senator in Morning Consult’s quarterly survey of registered voters across the county, Romney slipped nine points among Republicans in the last three months of 2019.
“He’s at the level of Ted Kennedy,” Sabato said, “for good or bad.”