Provo • During a town hall meeting Friday night, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, applauded President Donald Trump’s decision to abort a planned strike on Iran, but said some type of retaliation will likely be necessary.
Romney said he believed the president took the right action not to attack Iran as he had “originally contemplated.” It was the first time the Utah senator publicly commented on reports that Trump called off the strike just minutes before it was to take place after being told 150 people might be killed in the attack.
The aborted strike was planned in retaliation for Iran shooting down a $100 million-plus U.S. surveillance drone. Although Iran claims the drone had penetrated its airspace, the Trump administration insists the strike was over international waters. The drone incident is not the only point of recent contention. The U.S. says Iran was also implicated in attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
Last month Romney said he found it “inconceivable” that the president would want to start a war with Iran — though that was in response to a report that the administration was considering ordering as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East.
Speaking to the Tribune after Friday’s town hall, Romney said the next step forward is to make certain that the drone was indeed in international airspace. The U.S. must then work with its friends in the region and its allies around the world to determine the best means of retaliation against Iranian aggression without falling into any potential traps that Iran might be setting for the U.S.
“It’s clear that Iran is deliberately trying to provoke us with one attack after another … they are trying to get us to respond,” Romney said.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also said Friday that the president “made the right call” in canceling a military strike on Iran. “President Trump is changing the rules of the game, and is winning,” he said in a prepared statement.
Dressed in jeans and black cowboy boots, Romney struck a congenial tone with the crowd of about 50 who came to see him in at Provo’s City Hall chambers. He opened the town hall with a story about the Provo apartment that he shared with his wife while attending Brigham Young University. He told the crowd that the aspect of Congress that has surprised him most is how well senators across the aisle get along when the “cameras are off.”
Romney, a harsh critic of Trump in the 2016 campaign, has since toned down his rhetoric, although he remains an occasional critic.
Friday he told Provo town hall attendees that he’s glad the president has mostly followed the Republican playbook.
Recently, Romney has blasted Trump for saying that he would be open to accepting foreign opposition research on rival candidates in the 2020 election. But he voted with most Republicans — although contrary to Sen. Lee — this week against resolutions to block the president’s planned sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
And while he said he was “sickened” by Trump’s behavior as chronicled in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Romney in an interview with The Tribune this week indicated he does not support impeachment proceedings.
Romney praised Trump for his stance on China at the town hall.
“You can’t get too tough on China for me,” he said.
The Utah senator is reportedly working to prevent Trump from going easy on Huawei, a Chinese technology company under fire for intellectual property theft and violating United States sanctions.
Romney also spoke about the need to pursue sustainable technology in the United States, both as a means to combat climate change and in order to stay competitive with Chinese development.
Romney also criticized U.S. asylum laws when discussing immigration issues.
When asked whether he plans to take action about reports of poor conditions in migrant detention facilities along the border, Romney said the facilities are underprepared for the number of people entering the country. He blamed this in part on asylum laws being used as a loophole for people to arrive in the U.S. and then wait in the country for a court date to have asylum cases heard.
“Well, of course, they never show up to the court hearing” he said. The crowd responded with laughter.
Romney said more money must be sent to the border both to improve facilities at shelters and to increase security. At that, a woman wearing a Make American Great Again hat shouted “build a wall.”
When asked by the Tribune what aspects of the laws he would change, Romney said he supported a push by Republicans to have the initial adjudication for asylum occur as soon as someone enters the country for asylum. He also said there is a proposal to change the law so that asylum seekers would be required to go to their closest American consulate to apply for asylum rather than to come directly to the United States.
The crowd applauded when Romney said he wants to secure the U.S.-Mexican border, in part by making the E-Verify employee screening system permanent.
During the town hall, Romney said that children are being used by human traffickers who go back and forth across the border to accompany migrants in order to bolster their asylum claims.
The Tribune asked Romney where his evidence for the statement came from, and he said he had received a government report on the subject. Romney said that a “minority” of children were being trafficked for that purpose, but maintained that it was a substantial number. When asked to supply the report, he left with his entourage, saying he would follow up.
Saturday, a spokesman forwarded to The Tribune a link to a story from The Hill newspaper quoting Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan earlier this month telling Congress that 15 percent of migrant families screened at the border were found to be misrepresenting minors as their own children to support asylum applications.
Romney has made an effort to hold frequent town halls. Prior to Friday’s event in Provo, he has held them in Lehi, St. George, Carbon County and Emery County, West Jordan, Farmington and Heber City.
Clarification: This has been updated from the original version of the story to reflect that a Romney aide on Saturday provided a newspaper report of the Homeland Security's acting director comments to support allegations that some families misrepresent minors as their own children.