Aaron Blake: Romney fails his own test on Trump’s racist tweets

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney answers questions at a town hall meeting in the Provo City Hall Council Chambers, Friday, June 21, 2019.

After tracking Republican responses to President Donald Trump’s racist tweets over the last couple of days, we can say this: Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, offered one of the strongest condemnations of anyone in his party.

But that's mostly a function of the tepidness of the party's broader response. And it's hardly the standard Romney has set for himself.

Romney offered a couple responses Monday to Trump's tweets urging nonwhite congresswomen to "go back" to their countries, both impromptu and in a prepared statement. He said Trump's sentiment was "destructive, was demeaning, was disunifying and frankly was very wrong." He added that, "People can disagree over politics and policy, but telling American citizens to go back to where they came from is over the line."

But in each response, Romney stopped short of calling Trump's tweets racist. Asked by a reporter whether it was racist, Romney said, "That's all I've got," and walked away.

Romney seems to indicate that he thinks Trump's tweets were racist, but for some reason wasn't willing to say that word. The issue is that he's previously invoked the r-word in denouncing Trump, and he's promised on multiple occasions not to mince words when the president says something racist.

During the 2016 campaign, Romney expressed concern about Trump causing “trickle-down racism” — a statement which implied that there was racism and bigotry to be found at the top. “Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny — all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America,” he said.

In 2017, after the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, Romney said Trump comparing white supremacists to counterprotesters "caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn."

"His apologists strain to explain that he didn't mean what we heard," Romney said. "But what we heard is now the reality, and unless it is addressed by the president as such, with unprecedented candor and strength, there may commence an unraveling of our national fabric."

During his 2018 campaign for Senate in Utah, Romney assured that he would call a spade a spade when it came to racist behavior by the president. "If the president were to say something which is highly divisive or racist or misogynistic, why, I'll call him out on it," Romney said, "because I think it's important to let people know exactly where one stands."

And in a New Year’s Day commentary in The Washington Post this year, Romney reiterated his pledge: “I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”

To Romney's allies, this will come off as pedantic word-policing. He clearly rebuked Trump and said his tweets were "over the line" and "destructive." That's more than almost every Republican had to say. Most top Republicans in Utah couldn't even be bothered to comment.

But Romney, more than any top elected Republican, has set himself up as a fair arbiter of Trump’s conduct who will call them like he sees them. He said if Trump says something racist, “I’ll call him out on it.” He knew people were describing the tweets as racist — this newspaper is now using that word objectively to refer to Trump’s tweets — and he apparently made a conscious decision not to use it.

That’s his call. But if you say you’re going to call out racism, you should probably make clear whether you think that word applies here. If you say that “it’s important to let people know exactly where one stands,” do that. The impression left is that he doesn’t think this is racist — that a man who once warned of “trickle-down racism” doesn’t necessarily think this poses such a threat. And now we can’t be sure what Romney really believes.

Aaron Blake

Aaron Blake is senior political reporter, writing for The Fix. A Minnesota native, he has also written about politics for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Hill newspaper.