Mitt Romney ruffles Republicans, Donald Trump with Washington Post op-ed
Sen.-elect Mitt Romney succeeded in making a splashy entrance in Washington this week by publicly disparaging President Trump’s conduct and character, wowing the liberal news media but raising hackles of fellow Republicans.
Mr. Romney’s searing attack in a newspaper op-ed he said Mr. Trump lacked leadership, honesty and integrity signaled his intention to assume the role once played by anti-Trump Republicans such as the late Sen. John McCain and retiring Sen. Jeff Flake.
It immediately raised the already high profile of Mr. Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, and fueled speculation he would mount a primary challenge to Mr. Trump in 2020.
Mr. Trump refrained from his usual counterpunch, instead saying he wished Mr. Romney would be “more of a team player.”
The president expected a jab sooner or later because their relationship runs hot and cold, including Mr. Romney becoming a loud voice for the GOP’s Never Trump faction in 2016.
“I was expecting something, but I was surprised he did it this quickly,” Mr. Trump said at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.
Their roller-coaster relationship started with Mr. Romney courting Mr. Trump’s endorsement in 2012, then becoming a Never Trump champion in 2016 only to cozy up to Mr. Trump after he won the White House.
Mr. Romney auditioned for secretary of state during the transition and later sought and received Mr. Trump’s endorsement again, this time in the Senate race in Utah.
In Mr. Romney’s Washington Post op-ed, he said his job now would be to support Mr. Trump when he can and speak out when he’s “divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”
Mr. Romney weathered many of those same charges in 2012.
His odd comment about having “binders full of women” for job applicants was deemed sexist.
His criticism of President Obama’s welfare policies was called “racist” and a “dog whistle” for white supremacists.
Mr. Romney was accused of being a prep school bully and presumably a homophobe, as well as a heartless corporate raider who was responsible for a woman’s death from cancer.
In the op-ed, he slammed Mr. Trump for the recent departures of Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria and for saying the U.S. had been a “sucker” in world affairs.
He also was careful to note that he supports many of the president’s views, including on conservative judges, tax and regulatory cuts, China trade and changes to the criminal justice system.
But mostly he assailed Mr. Trump for lacking good character that he said was essential to uniting and leading the country.
“It is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring,” he wrote.
Later, Mr. Romney insisted he would not be a Trump-bashing showboat once he is sworn in Thursday as the junior senator from Utah.
“I don’t intend to be a daily commentator, to be someone who stops every evening in the hall of the Senate and looks for the nearest camera, says what I think about the president’s tweet or the fault of the day,” he said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.”
Mr. Romney pledged to limit criticism of the president to matters of “great significance,” though he acknowledged that would sometimes be a difficult call.
The Washington Post op-ed not only garnered Mr. Romney a featured spot on the CNN show but the network also hyped the interview throughout the day.
The welcome was much cooler from Mr. Romney’s fellow Republicans, including from his niece, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
“POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the MSM media and Democrats 24/7. For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive,” tweeted Mrs. McDaniel, who is the daughter of Mr. Romney’s older brother Scott.
Mr. Romney said he respected her viewpoint and the tone she used to express it.
“It is probably more civil than it would be across the Thanksgiving dinner table,” he said on CNN. “But she is a very loyal Republican [and] loyal to the president. She’s doing what she thinks is best for him and the party.”
Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, said he too was disappointed in Mr. Romney.
“His defining act as an incoming Senator is to criticize Pres. Trump. If Senator-elect Romney thinks Trump is a bigger problem than Nancy Pelosi or Sen. [Charles E.] Schumer then he has a lot to learn about how things get done in Washington,” he tweeted.
Sen. Rand Paul convened a conference call with reports to upbraid Mr. Romney for stooping to character attacks.
“It’s a big mistake and it is really getting off on the wrong foot for the senator from Utah,” he said.
The Kentucky Republican noted that he had opposed Mr. Trump on policy more than any of his fellow Republican senators but never attacked the president’s character.
He called the op-ed self-serving but predicted it would backfire on Mr. Romney.
“Frankly, most of his colleagues were elected to the Senate with the president’s help,” Mr. Paul said.
He also said there was “little appetite” for Mr. Romney to make another presidential run.
On CNN, Mr. Romney declined to endorse Mr. Trump for re-election, saying it was too early and an alternative could emerge.
However, Mr. Romney, who twice ran for and once won the Republican presidential nomination, said that alternative would not be him.
“You may have heard I ran before,” he said, acknowledging that he had lost to Mr. Obama one of the sticks with which Mr. Trump often beats him.
Mr. Romney also said that, despite his willingness to criticize the president, he would not do anything to cut him off at the knees or engage in symbolic rebukes.
“You don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” he said of moves by other dissident GOP senators, such as Mr. Flake blocking all judicial picks in a failed bid to force a vote on legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
“You don’t do things that are symbolic or punitive,” he said. “You don’t poke people in the eye just to make a point.”
Dave Boyer contributed to this report.