Washington • Sen. Mitt Romney voted to remove President Donald Trump from office. He marched with Black Lives Matter demonstrators. And he’s not shy in critiquing the White House occupant.
But Romney isn't leading the resistance.
“I’m just following my conscience,” Romney told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview.
The Utah Republican has become somewhat of a darling of the left for his historic vote to convict Trump of abuse of power in the impeachment trial. The Senate acquitted Trump, of course, but Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict the president of abuse of power.
And Romney’s appearance, with a mask, among throngs of people marching on Washington — to “make sure that people understand that Black lives matter,” as the senator put it — has even further cemented his place as a Republican willing to buck his party’s leader.
Romney, though, still votes with Trump’s position more than 80% of the time. He backs Trump’s nominees, including a federal circuit court pick last week who had little judicial experience and controversial positions.
And while Romney can be a vocal critic of Trump, he also picks his battles, declining comment often on a range of Trump's tweets, comments or actions.
Romney, who isn’t voting for Trump’s reelection, says he won’t be endorsing Democrat Joe Biden for president.
There are many on the left — and in the center — who want Romney to come to their way, emerging as a hero at a time when the country is divided and the president stokes more division.
Romney, though, doesn't see himself as leading the charge against Trump. He doesn't believe he has enough followers to change his party's path. And he's not bolting from the GOP for the Democratic Party.
“I’m a conservative. I believe in Republican principles,” Romney told The Tribune. “But if a member of our party, including the leader of our party, does something I think is wrong, I disagree with, why I’ll make that known.”
It’s a promise Romney made when he announced his run for the Senate seat in Utah and reaffirmed in a Washington Post op-ed days before he was sworn in. He vowed to speak out when he felt it necessary on a matter of “substantial significance” but was not simply going to poke Trump for every vexing tweet or comment.
Still, many people see Romney as a distinctive voice these days and one of the few — and in some cases the only — Republican willing to take on the president and face the backlash.
“There’s nobody in politics today who has as much political freedom as Mitt Romney,” says GOP consultant Ryan Williams, who worked for Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts and through his two presidential bids.
“He doesn’t care if he angers the president,” Williams added. “He’s secure in his own state. And he’s at a point in his career now where he’s really been there and done that in politics. He’s been a governor, a presidential nominee and now a senator. He doesn’t need to worry about the next election, so he can do what he wants. There really isn’t anybody else like that.”
Romney doesn't see himself as unshackled.
He says he’s just being who he is — even as he acknowledges that hasn’t always been the case in his political career.
No one really expects Romney, a lifelong Republican, to jump parties.
“There are obviously a lot of unaffiliated, independent and Democratic voters who are very happy with his votes on things like impeachment and his criticism of the president,” said Jeff Merchant, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party. “But by no means do I think that people should confuse that with, you know, any allegiance to Democratic ideals or principles.”
Merchant said Romney's moves are notable but only because for once, a Republican is standing up to Trump.
“The reality is that every Republican should be criticizing the way the president has handled his time in office,” Merchant said. “And every Republican ought to be marching with Black Lives Matter.”
On the latter issue, Romney still describes his joining the march in Washington as a spontaneous act but one that echoes a similar move by his father, George Romney, who, as governor of Michigan, marched with civil rights leaders.
“I know that everything gets politicized these days, but it’s a very simple principle, which is that in our country today African Americans receive disproportionately harsh treatment from time to time from certain members of the law enforcement community,” Romney said. “And that’s simply wrong.”
It’s not the majority of police officers, Romney added, “but there are a few bad apples and they have a big, big impact on the minority populations in our country.”
In George Romney’s shadow
Romney’s esteem for his father — who also ran for president — is well known. During the 2012 presidential debates with Obama, Romney would write “DAD” atop his notes at the podium to remind himself of his father’s advice. He speaks about him often.
“My father was an outspoken voice for recognizing the worth of every individual, regardless of their gender, their race, their religion, their sexual orientation,” the senator said. “And he made that very clear.”
George Romney wouldn’t back GOP nominee Barry Goldwater because of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. The younger Romney says that’s an important lesson for him.
“I’ve seen a man of real principle and character up close,” the senator said. “And I hope that I can measure up in some small way.”
Romney notes, though, that he's fallen short at times.
“I have tried to follow my conscience throughout my career,” he said. “But the truth is, looking back, I can think of a couple of circumstances where I wanted the outcome and [it] shaded my bias or my position and those things haunt me.”
Romney wouldn’t specify what positions he regrets, but says he’s learned from that experience.
“I do not want to be indicted by my conscience at night as I think about what I’ve done during the day,” Romney said. “Those one or two times when I have detoured from from my principles are things I don’t want to ever do again. … I’ve learned by that experience that it does not pay a dividend.”
The senator also stresses that he’s not willing to simply criticize the president at every turn. He deliberately doesn’t follow him on Twitter.
“I’m very careful not to criticize the president every day,” Romney said.
And at times, Romney falls in line with Trump.
Romney, for example, voted for Justin Walker to be a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, considered the second-highest court in America. Democrats assailed Walker’s nomination because he had served less than a year on the federal bench and at one point was rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association.
“I’m a conservative, and I’ll vote for the justices that will follow the Constitution, interpret the law as was written, and otherwise follow the principles that are the bedrock of our party,” Romney explained about his philosophy on nominees.
Two weeks prior, though, Romney had criticized the Trump administration’s decision to forcefully remove mostly peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could do a photo op at a nearby church.
Romney says he's not trying to set any sort of example.
“I don’t know that I’m in a position to try to tell others what to do,” Romney said. “I do think that people will find their life is a great deal more rewarding and satisfying if they just live by their principles.”
Jonathan Turley, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who testified during the Trump impeachment hearings, says America is now seeing a Mitt Romney who is “unburdened by the demands of immediate politics.”
Romney is near the end of his political career and has the ability to be more independent.
“There’s a sense of a liberated Mitt Romney,” Turley said. “You know, for someone who has been notoriously buttoned down as a political figure, he seems positively liberated.”
Turley, who argued against Trump’s impeachment, said Romney’s vote in the Senate trial was the “crossing of the Rubicon for Romney.”
While some conservatives may mock Romney as finding himself in some political midlife crisis, Turley doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think this is a case of Mitt Romney losing himself,” the professor said. “I think it’s a case of him finding himself.”
Tom Rath, a New Hampshire political consultant who supported Romney’s presidential runs, says he doesn’t see any resistance movement for Romney to lead.
“But there is a need to speak truth to power and Mitt, while picking his spots, is doing a good job of that,” Rath said. “He reminds folks that there are principles upon which the GOP was based that are not defined by” Trump.
“If, as I suspect may well be the case, the American voting public wants a change this November, the Republican Party will need to be rebuilt around a core set of principles,” Rath added. “Mitt is in a position to articulate those since more than any other prominent [Republican], he is still willing to stand up, or march, for them.”
For his part, Romney says his approach to his Senate office isn't about shaping his legacy. It isn't about pushing his party a certain way. And it isn't about being anti-Trump.
It’s about Mitt being Mitt.
“We’ve seen the party change over time and President Trump, this is his party now, but he won’t be the leader of the party forever, and even if he’s reelected, there’ll be a period post-President Trump,” Romney said. “You know, I hope that I could encourage my party to follow the principles that I happen to believe are the most effective and best for America.”
So, is it about putting country over party?
“It’s country over party,” he said. “But it’s also principles over a person.”