Washington • “I don’t feel that there’s a need to be careful at this stage of my life,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, who seems intent on proving as much these days.
Romney, the freshman Republican from Utah — as opposed to the former governor of Massachusetts who ran twice for president — has discovered that hyper self-restraint might be overrated. Credit to Donald Trump for this lesson, a rare instance of something Romney might emulate about a president he otherwise has little use for.
“I would have been far less disciplined when I was running,” Romney said, meaning for president, in 2008 and 2012. If only he had the example of Trump’s campaign in 2016 to follow, an imprudent ramble that somehow landed this most unruly of characters in the White House.
If it’s possible to be both deeply troubled and having a blast at the same time, that is Romney in this strange iteration of his public life. In a sense, he has been gifted by Trump with a kind of late-career relevance that he might not have otherwise enjoyed.
It’s not a benefit he expected, or even asked for. Romney had to content himself at first with critiquing from the gallery of Republican elders: In a 2016 speech he said, “Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” as Trump was in the process of rolling to the Republican nomination.
Since then, events have conspired to return Romney back into the dirty coliseum of politics. He reflected on this return while folded into an armchair of his Washington office during another screwy week in the capital. In the past few days the president had, among other things, declared the emoluments clause of the Constitution to be “phony,” compared the impeachment inquiry to a “lynching” and dismissed his Republican critics as “human scum.”
In the midst of all this, weighty decisions and debates were playing out all through the marbled chambers of Capitol Hill. “I do believe it’s an inflection point in history when a president is impeached,” Romney said. He has been a persistent critic of the president’s conduct, and therefore perhaps the highest-profile specimen of “human scum” in Trump, D.C. — a designation that seems not to trouble him at all.
Now 72, Romney looks every bit the well-barbered character who was the last presidential nominee of the pre-Trump Republican Party. He has now settled into a hybrid role of sober statesman and maverick in a party struggling to reconcile the oft-irreconcilable impulses of its leader.
This “Free Mitt” phase has been accompanied by goofy episodes. In an interview with the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins published last weekend, Romney introduced the concept of “Pierre Delecto” into our Crazytown lexicon by oversharing that he maintained a pseudonymous Twitter account — and thus moving another reporter (Ashley Feinberg of Slate) to discover that the Twitter user going by the name Pierre Delecto was in fact Romney.
Outside of Twitter, Romney has been consuming history, reading the Federalist Papers and boning up on how the founders imagined curbing the abuses of presidential power. “The history of civilizations is, some strong man — and typically it’s a man — getting a few people around them to oppress other people,” Romney said. He mentioned feudal lords and Aztec emperors and czars. Then the United States came along. “And instead of everything being circled around one person, the power will be with the people.”
On a top shelf across from Romney’s desk hangs a blown-up photo of an old Look magazine article about his late father, George Romney, a three-term governor of Michigan who also pursued the Republican presidential nomination. “Why the Republican Pros Distrust Him,” read the headline of the Look article. George Romney was an old-style moderate back when that species still existed in the Republican Party.
Romney idolized his father, to a point where he would write “dad” on a piece of paper and place it on his podium when he took to the debate stage. After George retired from public life, he spent years in the political wilderness, struggling to get meetings and platforms.
“I remember my dad becoming quite frustrated,” Romney recalled after he lost to Barack Obama in 2012. He expected a similar fate to what had befallen other presidential runners-up. In “Mitt,” the Netflix documentary about Romney’s presidential campaigns, he anticipated that his destiny would be to become a “loser for life.”
But Mitt Romney has operated in a seismically different media environment than his father ever did; chances for second and third and 12th acts spring ever-abundant.
At the urging of his wife, Ann, he decided to run in 2018 to replace the retiring Republican senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch. He had become a bit stir crazy. “I didn’t really go back into business very much,” he said. “Frankly the investment world had passed me by.” It could be frustrating to follow politics on TV. “Listening to some of the things being said, I would pull my hair out figuratively,” he said. “Though looking at it,” he added, patting his temples, “the line is going back, so literally as well.” (This was not convincing.)
Romney was a stand-alone political brand in his own right, but his willingness to discharge antipathy for Trump made him more than just a political comeback story. On the eve of being sworn into the Senate, Romney published an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he concluded that Trump had “not risen to the mantle of the office.” This was two years after then-President-elect Trump had engaged Romney about possibly serving as his secretary of state. Romney said he most likely would have taken the job if offered, but it was not — and just as well.
“The best personnel decision he made was not choosing me,” Romney said. “I would not have lasted as long as Rex Tillerson,” he added of the eventual choice “and maybe a little longer than Anthony Scaramucci did,” referring to the White House communications director who lasted less than two weeks in the job.
Romney’s criticisms of Trump have elicited predictable counterattacks, which of course amplifies the noise. The president has deemed Romney “a pompous ass,” a “fool” “so bad for R’s!” and — because what the heck — called for his impeachment.
“I think that Donald Trump thinks a lot more about Mitt Romney than Mitt Romney thinks about Donald Trump,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican media consultant and chief strategist of Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Donald Trump is fundamentally an unhappy, angry person. Mitt Romney is fundamentally a happy not angry person.”
Romney says he’s not running for the big job again, despite periodic attempts urging him to re-re-re-consider the idea and to launch a Hail Mary primary challenge to Trump. He also sounds unbothered by Republicans who question his loyalty. “People say to me, ‘If you’re critical of the president you’re hurting the party,’” Romney said. “No I’m not — I’m laying out a path for the party post the president.”
He knows full well that one colossal decision might loom for him above all others. Impeachment votes tend to weigh heavily in legacy discussions. Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, recalls the example of his late father, Lawrence Hogan, who served three terms in Congress from 1969 to 1975. He was a Republican in good standing and a supporter of President Richard Nixon. But he would always be remembered as the only Republican representative who, in a surprise, voted to recommend all three articles of impeachment against Nixon. He paid a big price, his son recalled.
“He lost friends in Congress, he lost the support of his constituents and he angered the White House,” Hogan said. People did not forgive him for decades. “But history was kind to him,” Hogan added. “He was known as a courageous guy. I think it’s the thing he is most remembered for, and the thing I’m most proud of him for.”
Romney said he finds himself asking what his father would do. “That was one of the cards Ann played,” he said, when she was trying to convince him to run for the Senate. Romney worried that after being the Republican nominee, the Senate would be a step down.
“But Ann said, ‘What would your dad do?’” Romney said. “You know, just because you weren’t made general doesn’t mean you stop fighting.”