Sen. Mitt Romney reflects on his first year in office

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mitt Romney meets with Weber County Commissioners in Ogden to discuss the the government shutdown that was then ongoing, Jan. 18, 2019. In summing up his first year in office, Romney called it interesting and enjoyable.

Washington • He was called a “pompous ass” by President Donald Trump but later sat beside him to debate concerns about teenager vaping.

He started working in a temporary basement office with barely a window to the outside world but ended up chairing a Senate subcommittee with broad oversight of the Middle East, northern Africa and parts of Asia.

He pushed through money to deal with wild horses and funding for rural schools and counties while at the same time pitching legislation to help reform federal trust funds expected to go bankrupt in about a decade.

Nearly a year in office, Sen. Mitt Romney describes his tenure so far as being “instructive, interesting and enjoyable.”

It certainly hasn't been boring.

The lifelong Republican, who had served as governor of Massachusetts and ran unsuccessfully for president twice, has so far played an outsized role for a freshman senator from a relatively sparsely populated state. The Utah lawmaker could, possibly, be the most widely known senator in the country and one sought out by journalists frequently seeking comments on the politics du jour.

At times, he’s been the sole GOP voice in the Senate criticizing Trump but also one ready to cheer on the president when he agrees with him, a promise he made in an op-ed in The Washington Post days before he was sworn in.

“The White House would like me never to be critical and the mainstream media would like me to be much more critical,” Romney said in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “But I don’t worry about how other people respond to it; I respond to my own sense of what I believe is right and wrong and let the chips fall where they may.”

Along the way — Trump spats aside — Romney has racked up a list of accomplishments he’s proud to tout.

Vaping to fighter jets

Romney began his tenure pushing for legislation crafted in part by his predecessor, Orrin Hatch: A massive public lands bill that created 240,000 acres of new wilderness and 248,000 acres of recreation areas and consolidated state public school trust lands around federal acreage.

He worked with the Utah delegation to get $300 million into the latest budget bill for wildfire management and increased funding for managing wild horses and burros as well as full funding of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program that ships money to counties with large tracts of untaxed federal land.

The 2020 budget bill also includes funding to buy nearly 100 new F-35 fighter jets housed at Hill Air Force Base and money to modernize a missile defense program based there.

Romney joined with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to push legislation to restrict the use of the Antiquities Act by presidents to name national monuments, though the bill hasn’t moved yet. Romney also notes another bill, one to settle a decades-long disagreement over water rights for Utah Navajos is “inches” from passing.

One issue that wasn't on Romney's radar at the beginning of his term was vaping.

As health issues arose nationwide related to e-cigarettes, Romney made calls for the Food and Drug Administration to consider recalling vaping devices and pressed the agency to ban flavored oils used in them that appeal to children.

While the flavor ban he strongly pushed has been stymied, he and other members of Congress were successful in pushing through language in the budget bill to bar sales of vaping devices to people under 21 years of age and to enact regulations that make vaping cartridges tamper-proof to stop those who were were adding other elements, like THC, an active component of cannabis.

Romney also took a victory lap for securing a permanent repeal of a medical device tax that was part of the Affordable Care Act and a target of several Utah companies that manufacture those devices.

The Utah senator also took on what is often called the third rail of politics: America's entitlement programs.

His Time to Rescue United States' Trusts Act, or the TRUST Act, that would require Congress to set up new committees to write legislation to deal with a host of entitlement funds that are set to run out of money in the near future.

The bill would tackle potential funding problems of trust funds for highway maintenance, Medicare hospital insurance, Social Security disability insurance and two other Social Security programs expected to go bankrupt in about 13 years.

The bill introduction was a start, Romney said, but he noted it could take years to get passed.

“If we get the TRUST Act through, it’s earthshaking,” Romney said. “I’m getting a lot of support from both sides of the aisle to finally take this on. This will take years, not weeks. But it’s an approach which has a great deal of promise, and I think it’s very important.”

Of course, legislation wasn't the main reason Romney made the news in his first year. For that, he can thank the president.

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) talks to reporters in the Capitol before a Senate Republican policy luncheon in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019.

Trump critic. Trump fan.

On Jan. 1, just a couple of days from taking office, Romney penned an op-ed in The Post saying that he had hoped Trump would “rise to the occasion” after winning the election and taking office but that he had not.

“The president has not risen to the mantle of the office,” Romney wrote, signaling, as he said, that he felt free to chastise the president's conduct when he sees fit.

And Romney did.

The Utah senator spoke up when news broke that Trump had leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine while at the same time asking the country’s new president for “a favor” that included announcing investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential contender, and his son Hunter Biden.

Trump doubled down on that by asking China to open probes as well.

“By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling,” Romney tweeted.

After the White House released a memo summarizing Trump’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Romney called it “troubling in the extreme.”

That prompted Trump to tweet that Romney was a “pompous ass,” and a hashtag suggesting he be impeached. (Senators cannot be impeached.)

But the two are still amicable, Romney says. He added the relationship was “cordial and cooperative,” and that he supports several things the president has done, including the tax cut package Congress pushed through last year and the trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

The coming year, though, will be trying for that Romney-Trump relationship.

The Senate is expected to launch a trial on the two articles of impeachment passed by the House, one for abuse of power and one for obstruction of Congress, with senators sitting in judgment of the president.

While some Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have already said they are going into the trial to defend and protect the president, Romney says he’s keeping an open mind.

I am going to remain unbiased and a true juror, which means I will study the documents that come from the House, I will listen to the presentation of the prosecution, I will listen to the presentation of the defense and I will make a decision based upon the evidence and the law,” says Romney, who has a law degree from Harvard.

It certainly promises to be instructive and interesting. But enjoyable? That remains to be seen.