SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney hasn’t familiarized himself with President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to slow the spread of COVID-19 as it continues to rage across the country.
But the Utah Republican pointed to a difference he hopes to see from the Trump administration’s response, which he has repeatedly criticized from the onset of the pandemic.
“Look, there’s no question but that we’re best off if the president levels with us and tells us exactly what he knows. That maintains credibility, and people trust things which they believe are credible,” Romney said in a video conference call with Utah reporters Tuesday.
Romney also reiterated his comments over the weekend that President Donald Trump has a right to pursue legal options to challenge the election results, but that he has seen no evidence of voter fraud. He said he also expects Trump to loom large in the Republican Party whether he is president or not.
Trump told journalist Bob Woodward in a recorded interview weeks before the first COVID-19 death in the U.S. that despite knowing how “deadly” the coronavirus pandemic would be, he wanted to “play it down.” Trump also has flouted wearing masks and social distancing.
Romney said in August that from the outset there was a tendency on the part of the administration to dismiss the coronavirus as a threat and not consider how serious it could become.
“The health impact of COVID-19 on our country and our response to it was really very, very disappointing,” he said in an interview with the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City.
Romney noted that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s deaths due to COVID-19.
“And there’s no way to spin that in a positive light,” he said
Although he said he’s not a student of Biden’s response plan, Romney believes the president-elect will make a major effort to have people wear masks, and “I think that makes a lot of sense.”
Biden has said his plan includes working with governors and mayors to mandate masks in public.
Romney applauded GOP Gov. Gary Herbert’s new mask mandate in Utah to deal with the crush of COVID-19 patients in the state’s hospitals as cases continue to surge at an unprecedented rate.
“I think President-elect Biden will probably follow suit if he were to find the kind of outbreak nationally that we’re seeing at the state level,” he said.
Romney said some of the confusion about wearing masks came from medical professionals early on, but it also came from the Trump administration. Unfortunately, he said, that politicized the issue.
“And when it comes to protecting the lives of our citizens, that should not be a political issue,” he said. “Even to this day, I think there’s some people that think wearing a mask is somehow not demonstrating your commitment to conservatism, and I disagree.”
“I want to live longer,” he said, “and I think my chances of living longer are better if people are wearing masks.”
Romney, who did not vote for Trump, said the pandemic had an impact on the outcome of the presidential election.
“Had we not had COVID-19 at all, I think it would have been likely that the president would have been reelected. Had he responded to COVID-19 in a different way? I can’t tell you. I think he responded the way he thought was right. It certainly fired up his base,” he said.
Romney said he’s encouraged that drug companies say they are close to developing a vaccine and that the president deserves a good deal of credit for that.
With the presidential race as narrow as it was, any number of things breaking different could have resulted in a win for Trump, Romney said.
“I’m sure he’d like a chance to try it again. Who knows? Maybe he will try it again in 2024,” he said.
Romney said Trump continues to have substantial influence in the Republican Party even if he’s not inaugurated in January. If he doesn’t run again, he could get behind another candidate, he said.
“I think President Trump is a singularly capable individual in terms of turning out a base that got him elected and that nearly got him reelected. If he wants to continue to have a role in the party, he certainly will,” Romney said.
Regarding COVID-19 relief, Romney said there are a number of areas where Republicans and Democrats agree, including additional unemployment benefits, extending the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses and more funding for schools, hospitals and airlines.
“Where we sort of come apart is $400 or $500 billion of additional borrowing going to states and localities,” he said, adding that doesn’t make sense.
The federal government doesn’t need to send tens of billions of dollars to New York, California and Illinois that have massive pension obligations, Romney said. He said Utah government leaders don’t see the need for billions of more dollars coming to the state.
Romney said he and most Republicans also don’t support sending another stimulus check to individuals. He said he would favor sending checks to single parents or parents with part-time jobs for each child to cover day care costs or buying a laptop computer for remote learning.