Mitt Romney heads to the Middle East in his first official trip as senator

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney meets state lawmakers at the Utah Capitol as he speaks with members of the Republican House Caucus during a series of meetings, Feb. 21, 2019.

Washington • Mitt Romney is making his first official foray abroad as a U.S. senator to visit the Middle East this week, his office announced.

The Utah Republican, who took office in January, will visit Israel and Jordan, though it was unclear whether the Utah senator would also stop in Iraq or Afghanistan. For safety reasons, trips to war zones often are not announced until after official visits.

Romney is chairman of the Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Romney is joining Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, the top Democrat on that subcommittee, for the trip, pitched as an on-the-ground fact-finding mission. Romney’s office didn’t say when he would be in the Middle East other than in the “coming days.”

“The U.S. faces complex challenges around the world, particularly in the Middle East,” Romney and Murphy said in a joint statement. “It is critical that we maintain and strengthen our alliances with key partners in the region. Over the next several days, we look forward to discussing shared priorities and strategies to meet those challenges.”

Romney has extolled the importance of the Israeli-U.S. relationship and touted his support previously.

In the 2012 campaign, Romney flew to Israel to shore up his support among the Jewish people and lay out foreign policy plans.

"Our relationship with Israel, a nation which shares our values and is our best friend in the Middle East, should be [one] of support and confidence rather than criticism and blame,” Romney said during his failed presidential run in 2012.

And he supported moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — an action that President Donald Trump did last year. That move has sparked controversy because Palestinians and other Arab countries view part of Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital.

But Romney was also highly critical of Trump’s choice to offer the opening prayer at the dedication ceremony for the new embassy: Robert Jeffress, a Texas Baptist pastor who once said that a vote for Romney was a vote for Satan because of the Utah senator’s Mormonism.

Romney tweeted his disgust with the pastor who had also criticized Muslims and Jews.

“Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem,” Romney said at the time.