Sen.-elect Mitt Romney’s new challenge: Being a lawmaker after a career as a chief executive

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney gives his victory speech at the Romney headquarters in Orem, on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018.

Washington • Mitt Romney has been a corporate CEO, head of the 2002 Winter Olympics, a governor and a two-time presidential candidate.

In each of those roles, Romney was in charge. The decider. The top dog.

As Utah’s incoming senator, replacing longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch, he’ll face a new challenge: legislating.

Romney soon will be one of 100 senators, meaning he’ll have to convince more than a majority of his colleagues to get something done. He can’t do it by executive authority. And with the Senate so split, this Republican will have to win over some Democrats.

“Never been a legislator before. A new experience,” Romney, dispensing with pronouns, told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview. He noted that this will be “obviously a more collaborative experience with a lot of people who have different points of view. Frankly, it’s a healthy thing.”

As a Senate newbie, Romney won’t have much seniority, though his outsized political pedigree may give him clout a freshman might not usually have in passing legislation.

The new job will find Romney as just one of many deciding on legislation, nominees, treaties and more. He’ll be relegated to the end of the line in asking questions at hearings, yielding to more senior senators at news conferences and abiding by decisions of GOP leaders.

The senator-elect says he understands the task and in some ways relishes it.

“In some respects, the Senate is as different from executive authority as any branch of government might possibly be because the Senate requires 60 votes in order to get something done,” he says, referring to a rule that requires more than a majority to end debate on a bill.

“That means pieces of legislation require collaborative effort across the aisle,” he says. “It’s not just words, it’s reality. And I frankly look forward to a setting where people with different points of view but all love the country come together and see if we can’t find common ground.”

He often points to his time as Republican governor of Massachusetts, with a Legislature controlled by Democrats, to show his track record of bipartisan governing.

Not that Romney is sure yet what legislation he’s going to push in the Senate. Days into orientation for his new role, he says he’d had some initial discussions but nothing formal.

“I’m a little early to be drafting legislation. I’m learning,” he says. “My head’s going to be down.”

But he says he sees a chance to work with Democrats on public lands issues; he’s already talked with one Western Democrat, whom he didn’t name, about public lands policy.

“She’s on the other side of the aisle, so the chance to work on that across the aisle is something I’d like to do, but," Romney says, “I’m not looking for legislation on Day One.”

Besides, the senator-elect added, he is still learning about legislation already proposed.

Mueller investigation

One of the more contentious issues Congress faces is legislation to protect the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether President Donald Trump’s team was involved.

Already, Mueller’s probe has netted indictments or convictions of three companies and 32 people, including the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and national security adviser Michael Flynn.

After Election Day, Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself from overseeing the special counsel’s probe and installed Sessions' chief of staff, Matt Whitaker, who has been highly critical of the investigation and suggested cutting off funds to throttle the effort.

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is leaving office, has said he would vote against all of Trump’s judicial nominees unless the Senate votes on legislation to ensure Mueller is protected.

Romney, who won’t take office until January, isn’t sure what the best solution is on this topic.

“There’s no question in my mind the investigation must continue unimpeded,” he says, repeating a comment he tweeted in the immediate aftermath of Sessions' firing.

But there's a caveat.

“The best way to do that and make sure that happens is not something I’m sufficiently aware of the process to be able to opine on whether it requires special legislation or a resolution of some kind or whether it relies on commitments from the president to the leadership,” Romney says. “So those are things I need to understand before I can describe a particular course of action. But there’s no question in my mind the investigation must continue to its conclusion unimpeded. And I believe that every effort should be made to assure that’s the case.”

Romney has been called one of the original never-Trumpers — Republicans who opposed the president on grounds of morals and principles. The 2012 GOP nominee for president had, during the 2016 Republican primaries, called Trump a “a phony, a fraud,” and voted for his wife, Ann, instead of picking Trump on his ballot.

Trump, in response, derided Romney as a “choke artist.”

The two have something of a detente these days.

They dined together after Trump’s election as Romney was mentioned as a possible secretary of state prospect and the president later endorsed Romney’s Senate bid, an endorsement Romney accepted.

The two talked during Romney’s run, the senator-elect says, but the president hasn’t called to congratulate him. Romney doesn’t expect to be close with Trump.

“I don’t know that we’ll be getting together a lot just because the Senate is a place unto itself,” Romney says. “Now and then we’ll share perspectives on issues but I, of course, would be happy to speak to the president when he’d like to get my perspective on something. And if I have a concern or something I’d like him to look at, I’m happy to pick up the phone and call the White House. We’ll work together on things that are good for Utah and for the country, and hopefully there will be a lot of that.”

Still, Romney doesn’t expect to fill some hyped role as the Republican counterpoint to Trump, a point he made clear in his campaign. He wasn’t a one-issue, anti-Trump candidate, though he says he’ll speak out when necessary.

“I’m not going to be a day-to-day commentator on every tweet or every statement,” he says. “I’ll leave that for the pundits and others.”

And if Trump lies, how would he deal with that?

“Truth and making a great effort to hew to the truth as one learns it is important,” Romney responds. “I know that during my term as a governor, I made sure — I shouldn’t say I made sure, my chief of staff made sure,” he instantly corrects, “everything I said or was going to say was fact-checked so that we could be accurate to the extent that is humanly possible because people rely on those things that are said by an executive in charge of a state or a nation.

Of Trump, he says, “I’m going to let him make his own judgment as to how he proceeds.”

Mr. Senator

Romney has attempted to be a bit low-key since the election. For the most part he dodged reporters camped out to ask him questions. The Tribune’s interview was conducted in Hatch’s office to avoid the scrum of journalists near Romney’s temporary space.

So what kind of senator will Romney be?

“I’ll be the same person I’ve been all my life,” he says. “I express my views pretty openly. I listen to people with different points of view, and try to understand their points of view. I’m willing to compromise on policy but not on principle.”

He wants to get the country back on solid financial footing — despite his support for Republican tax cuts that added to the deficit — and backs a reform of immigration policy to help legal immigration and thwart undocumented people coming to the country. And public lands, which make up such a large part of his adopted state, will be a big issue for him.

But the 71-year-old successor to Hatch, who is retiring after 42 years in the Senate, is not ready to lay out a comprehensive agenda or set of goals just yet.

“I can’t imagine," Romney says, “describing a legacy at this stage.”