Washington • There he sat, inches away: the subject of President Donald Trump’s recent rant calling him a “pompous ass” and suggesting he should be impeached.
Sen. Mitt Romney, though, looked calm.
Reporters in the Friday meeting shouted questions at Romney — a Utah Republican sitting to the right of the president he’s criticized multiple times — on whether he would vote to remove Trump from office.
“I didn't hear that,” Romney later told The Salt Lake Tribune. “A lot of questions were being shouted out. But obviously, I'm not going to discuss something of that nature.”
It was the second day in a row Romney and Trump had spent together, a new phase of a complicated relationship between the two who haven’t been the best of allies, and, at times, very publicly at odds.
Romney, simultaneously playing the role of diplomat and politician, was delicate in answering a question about his relationship with Trump.
“You know, I'm going to indicate that we are cordial and cooperative,” Romney said, “and I believe that that's the appropriate kind of relationship that exists between the different branches.”
Rewind a few years, and you’d see a different dynamic between Romney and Trump.
“Mitt is tough, he’s sharp, he’s smart,” Trump said in endorsing Romney in his unsuccessful 2012 bid for the presidency. “He’s not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country that we all love.”
Romney, at the time, returned the favor, noting he was “so honored and pleased” to accept Trump's nod of approval.
Now, with Trump facing impeachment by the House and a likely Senate trial to remove him from office, the president has attempted to curry favor with Republicans who could be the bulwark to protect him.
Key among them: Romney, who called the president’s phone call with the new leader of Ukraine “troubling in the extreme” as news emerged of Trump asking for an investigation into political rival Joe Biden at the same time the White House was withholding hundreds of millions in military aid to the country.
Trump lashed back with his name-calling tweet, the sort of blistering retort he is wont to use toward anyone daring to publicly criticize him.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time Romney had called him out. That occurred March 3, 2016, when Romney took the podium at the University of Utah’s Gardner Hall and denounced then-candidate Trump as a “phony, a fraud,” and warned that he fueled a brand of anger that “has led other nations into the abyss.”
Romney later met President-elect Trump for dinner as the incoming leader of the free world was considering him for secretary of state. Trump instead picked Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson, and Romney later decided to run for senator from Utah, his newfound home.
Trump offered Romney his endorsement again, and Romney accepted via Twitter.
But the day before Romney took the oath of office, he penned a Washington Post piece arguing that “the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”
The freshman senator from Utah has been effusive about Trump on occasion since, particularly when it comes to judicial nominees and some conservative legislation. But he has also stood out from the mostly lockstep Republicans who stick by Trump through every controversy, cringeworthy tweet and breaking revelation.
In the latest phase of their on-again, off-again prickly relationship, Trump, it appears, has been more open to discussions with Romney and other Republicans as the House’s impeachment inquiry churns toward what appears to be an inevitable Senate trial.
On Thursday, Trump invited key GOP senators to a White House lunch, one of several efforts to get time with the members of Congress who will control his future — part of what The Washington Post labeled a “charm offensive,” that includes outings to Camp David and sporting events. Romney joined last Thursday’s lunch group and was back at the White House by invitation Friday to join a freewheeling discussion of steps to combat juvenile vaping — one of the Utahn’s top priorities.
As he was returning to the Senate after his Thursday luncheon, Romney said that the president had made some initial comments about the impeachment but nothing he hadn’t heard before.
“So there was no, you know, inside story or some, some argument that he was providing for us,” Romney said.
The Utah senator said in an interview that he didn’t see the back-to-back invitations to the White House as a way to bond with the president — or as a bid to color his view of the expected Senate trial ahead.
“I don't think they're related in any way,” he said. “They are certainly not related in any way in my mind.”
Romney did say that he's been following the House investigation into the president and reads the news but that until it reaches the Senate, he has other focuses.
“As Alexander Hamilton made clear in ‘The Federalist Papers,’ an impeachment process is not a matter of public opinion or public parties. It’s a matter of deliberation for the Senate,” Romney said.
But what of the argument that the whole affair is tainted or unfair, as Romney’s fellow Republicans are suggesting?
“I’ve got to run,” Romney said in the phone interview. “I’ve got to leave ya.”