Robert Gehrke: Mitt Romney is doing exactly what he told Utahns he’d do, whether you like it or not

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to reporters after a classified members-only briefing on Iran, Tuesday, May 21, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“That’s all I’ve got.”

That was Sen. Mitt Romney’s response when a reporter asked him point-blank whether it was racist for Donald Trump to tweet that a group of four House members — all women of color — should “go back where they came from” since they don’t like his policies.

Make no mistake: It absolutely was racist.

And it fits a pattern of race-baiting and quasi-nationalist rhetoric that this president has trotted out time and again going back decades.

Romney’s dodge, to his credit, came at the end of criticism of Trump, noting that the president has a “noble calling to unite all Americans … and I think in that case, the president fell far short with his comments yesterday."

Later in the day, he issued an even stronger rebuke: “The president’s comments were destructive, demeaning, and disunifying,” the senator said. “People can disagree over politics and policy, but tellin

g American citizens to go back to where they came from is over the line.”

Robert Gehrke

Rational people will have a hard time finding anything in those statements with which to disagree. But Romney still held off addressing the big issues — race, culture and gender. There is a power in labeling racist rhetoric for what it is, and Mitt kept it in his back pocket.

Then on Wednesday, Romney told reporters he would not sign on to a resolution proposed by Democrats to condemn Trump’s racist tweet.

In many ways it encapsulates Romney’s first six months in office.

This is the same guy who gutted Trump during the campaign — “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University” — only to get force-fed crow at history’s most humiliating dinner after Trump was elected.

After special counsel Robert Mueller completed his investigation into Russian meddling and White House obstruction, Romney said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the president.”

But he also declared the issue closed and said “the business of government can move on.”

Days before his inauguration, Romney wrote in an opinion column that Trump’s actions were “evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”

But then he votes with Trump 82 percent of the time.

Here’s the thing: Utah knew what it was buying. Romney told us exactly what he was going to do and he has done it.

Five months before his election, he wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune that he would endorse the president’s policies when he believed it advanced the nation’s interests and criticize him when “compelled by conscience.”

“I have and will continue to speak out when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions,” the future senator wrote.

(Evan Vucci | AP file phot) President-elect Donald Trump, center, eats dinner with Mitt Romney, right, and Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at Jean-Georges restaurant, in New York on Nov. 29, 2016. Trump briefly considered Romney for secretary of state.

He has done that — up to a point — and likely will continue the pattern.

Romney has bucked the White House more than all but five of his fellow Republicans (Sen. Mike Lee, by the way, is one of those ahead of him). He is far more likely to vote against Trump than former Sen. Jeff Flake was.

But he’ll still fall in line with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the mainstream Republican agenda. No surprise there.

As one of the most junior senators, he doesn’t have the muscle that past critics like Sens. John McCain or Bob Corker once did. Romney, it seems, is trying to figure out how to play a relatively weak hand. The only tool he really has is the profile and platform afforded to him by his presidential bid, and he has used it with some regularity.

Of course it drives progressives crazy when he pulls punches or bites his tongue in the face of Trump’s latest outrage. But consider the alternatives available in our among-the-reddest of states?

Romney’s Republican opponent, Mike Kennedy, ran to Romney’s right and cozied up to Trump during the campaign. Lee, the senior senator, didn’t even acknowledge Trump’s racist twitter tirade, nor, for that matter did any of the Republicans in the congressional delegation until after the House voted to condemn the remarks. They basically said both sides are to blame. Gov. Gary Herbert dodged the issue.

Do you think Sen. Orrin Hatch would have spoken out more forcefully or voted any differently? Or former Sen. Bob Bennett for that matter? Or anyone else who has held the office?

Not a chance.

No, Romney will never be Elizabeth Warren, but Utah would never elect Elizabeth Warren. What he has been is exactly what he promised he would be, and frankly he’s been more outspoken and critical of a renegade president than I had expected.

In that respect, the Romneytron 3000 is functioning exactly as it was programmed and Utahns are getting what they voted for.