Park City • If Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, had been the CEO of China, he said Friday, he would have made many of the same decisions the nation did, like building up a steel manufacturing sector while engaging in predatory pricing and theft of intellectual property.
“If we were running China, that’s how we would have done it,” Romney, a former venture capitalist, said. “We also would have stolen as much intellectual property as we could.”
Those actions would land an American CEO in hot water with the Justice Department, he said, but were tolerated in China for years by the international community in the name of free market economics.
“You don’t have a free market if one of the players is allowed to cheat,” Romney said. “And for decades, we’ve allowed China to cheat.”
Romney delivered those remarks to the roughly 250 attendees at this year’s E2 Summit, an annual big-ticket policy conference he created to host a mostly — but not exclusively — Republican group of donors and political influencers.
Among the attendees, and seated in the front row during Romney’s remarks, was Gary Cohn, the former chief economic adviser to President Donald Trump who has vocally criticized the administration since his departure.
Friday’s discussion on China — one of only two segments of the three-day conference open to reporters — came days after Romney offered similar remarks during his first Senate address since winning election last year.
But unlike his Senate address, Romney did engage in some criticism of Trump on Friday.
While he agrees with Trump’s objectives in pushing back against China’s economic and human rights actions, Romney said the president’s approach of imposing tariffs without the coordination of international allies “has reduced the chances of it being successful.”
“[Trump] has his own negotiating strategy and it’s a confrontational I-win-you-lose kind of strategy,” Romney said. “I hope it’s successful. It’s not the negotiating strategy I’ve employed in my career.”
‘Teddy Roosevelt on speed’
Romney shared the E2 stage with Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, who drew laughs from the audience by describing Trump as “unique," and other colorful characterizations of the United States commander in chief.
“He’s kind of Teddy Roosevelt on speed,” Rudd said of Trump.
Trump’s unpredictability, Rudd said, has seized China’s attention and “shaken the cage.” But there is a need for Republicans and Democrats to reach a new political consensus on China, Rudd said, and maintain the United States’ standing as an economic and military superpower.
“Your friends want you to be the continuing leader of the free world — we genuinely do,” Rudd said. “It’s partly a question of American values. It’s partly the nature of the global-based system which you constructed after the second World War. And it’s partly because — from a pure national interest point of view — of all the history of superpowers, you’ve been the most benign.”
Speaking with the press after his remarks, Romney reiterated his opposition to new threats by Trump of imposing tariffs on Mexico.
If the issue were to come up for a vote in the Senate, Romney said he couldn’t predict the outcome but that he would oppose the president’s plans to implement a 5% tariff on Monday unless Mexico takes steps to crack down on Central American immigrants headed to the U.S. border.
“You don’t put tariffs on our friends,” Romney said. “And Mexico is a friend and a neighbor."
Romney participated in the E2 Summit in a diminished capacity this year, due to his work in the Senate. The 2019 conference was led by former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan — who was Romney’s presidential running mate in 2012 — with Romney taking on an emeritus role.
Romney said this year’s summit includes a “smorgasbord” of topics and perspective, citing scheduled remarks by CNN political commentator Ana Navarro and former short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci as an example of the event’s range.
Previous summits have included presidential candidates and other politicians, but Romney said the 2019 event is less overtly political, falling outside an election year and with the presumption that Trump will again be the party nominee next year.
‘Thimble of spit’
Asked if he was prepared to endorse Trump’s reelection, Romney responded that he doesn’t think “endorsements are worth a thimble of spit” and that he would like to stay out of the endorsement business to the extent possible.
“Last time, I voted for Ann [Romney],” he said, referring to a write-in vote for his wife in 2016. “I still think she’s doing a fine job.”
On the Democratic side, Romney said it’s too early to say who is in the best position to take on Trump, adding that he wouldn’t give front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden “more than a 50-50 shot” of claiming the nomination.
“I think he would be a stronger contender against the president than [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders,” Romney said. “But beyond those I wouldn’t characterize the chances.”
Spencer Zwick, co-founder of the E2-sponsoring private equity firm Solamere Capital and Romney’s 2012 chief fundraiser, said the conference provides a venue for rising stars and political leaders to make connections and build support.
“People in this room are looking for that next generation,” he said.
The event was held at the upscale Stein Eriksen Lodge at Deer Valley, and Zwick said that even with Romney’s diminished role there is no intention to relocate from the Beehive State.
“We like doing it in Utah,” Zwick said. “E2 is never going to be held anywhere else.”