Sen. Mitt Romney and his 2012 presidential running mate, former Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, hosted several Republican presidential hopefuls, business leaders and deep-pocketed political donors in Park City this week for the annual E2 Summit.
Republican 2024 presidential candidates Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence and Doug Burgum were also in Utah to pitch to about 250 attendees during the two-day event focusing on policy and politics.
While most of those discussions were held behind closed doors, reporters were invited to hear a wide-ranging conversation between Ryan and Romney Tuesday evening.
The two touched on several topics, including why Romney is leaving Congress after one term, the current conflict in Israel, and the Utah Republican’s plan for preventing former President Donald Trump from returning to the White House.
Romney on why he’s leaving Congress
Romney, who announced he’s retiring from Congress after one term, said he initially ran for the Senate in 2018 following the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch because he felt a sense of duty.
“I really wondered whether I could make a difference as a United States Senator. Ann (Romney’s wife) and I knew this country was facing some real turbulence, particularly with Donald Trump being president. We thought that we needed to have more people of sobriety and stability in Washington. I didn’t quite know what would happen, but I thought it was important to be there,” Romney said.
As the junior Senator from Utah, Romney said he never thought he would be able to get anything significant accomplished during his tenure, but that all changed during the COVID-19 pandemic at a dinner hosted by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, with some of his Republican and Democratic colleagues. The conversation eventually turned to how the government should respond to the pandemic.
“There was a battle going on at the time. There was a long period when the country needed help and COVID funding, particularly for small businesses. President Trump said he was willing to spend $500 billion, and (then-House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi wanted $2 trillion. There was no movement, and each side had dug in,” Romney recounted.
That small group started talking and devised a proposal to get around the blockade.
“We took out a piece of paper, and someone said here’s how much we need for the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) program that helps small businesses. Here’s how much we need for the airlines. Here’s how much we need for the hospitals. We started writing it all out, and it added up to $908 billion. Within three months, we passed $908 billion.”
When Joe Biden took office in 2021, he proposed a multi-trillion dollar spending program that included some infrastructure funding. Romney said another small group of senators started talking and came up with the idea to split off the infrastructure piece. They eventually crafted a bill that included $550 billion in new infrastructure spending that they negotiated with the White House.
Romney rattled off several other legislative victories over two years that resulted from bipartisan cooperation among his fellow senators.
“At one point, Sen. Susan Collins from Maine said this is the most fun she’s ever had. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said the same thing. This was a hoot! We’re passing one bill after another,” an animated Romney said.
Romney said he realized those accomplishments were unusual and that the spirit of cooperation was unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. So he decided it was time to leave.
“If I go the Senate for six more years, it’s going to be six years of tearing my hair out,” he said. “Let me tell you, the idea of me sitting around for seven and a half more years doing nothing other than voting no on everything the Democrats put up is something I thought I could not possibly sustain.”
The 2024 presidential race
Romney reiterated his call for the GOP to rally around a single challenger to possibly prevent Donald Trump from winning the party’s presidential nomination next year. Candidates that have no chance to win the nomination typically won’t drop out of the race until they’re forced to, which is why he believes it’s up to the deep-pocketed donors, many of whom were in the room, to cut off the money spigot to dead-end candidates.
“If the people who are financing them go to them and say, ‘I love ya, I’ve given you $10 million of $100 million or whatever, but it’s time to step aside. I’m not giving you any more, I’m giving it to someone else,’” the senator said to a round of applause.
The lack of compromise in today’s politics
Romney said “bipartisan” has become an evil word among the most partisan supporters of both parties. He recounted a 2012 town hall in New Hampshire where one of the attendees asked him if he believed in compromise.
Romney answered, “Yes.”
“I’m not gonna vote for someone who believes in compromise,” the man replied, Romney recalled Tuesday.
“I said, ‘Sir, are you married?,’” Romney said as a punchline, prompting laughter from the packed room.
The situation in Israel
Ryan asked Romney, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which has killed thousands of people in Israel and Gaza and left even more injured.
“It’s very clear that in a setting like this, when our friend has been attacked, that we stand with our friend. We don’t waffle. We don’t weasel. We stand with Israel,” Romney said to applause.
“They’re looking for armament and guided munitions. They’re looking for intel,” the senator said. “There are a number of elements we can provide to them.”
Meanwhile, there are other things the U.S. can do to aid our Israeli allies.
“It’s important for us to make sure we communicate to others who might decide to join the fray, whether Hezbollah from Lebanon or the Palestinians in the West Bank or perhaps even Iran, that this is something we care about and we’re not going to shrink from it,” Romney said.
Romney praised President Joe Biden’s response to the crisis thus far, but worried about its long-term impact.
“What do they (Hamas) want out of this? I think that Palestinians, particularly Hamas, feel they’re sort of being forgotten. That world around Israel, with the Abraham Accords, is getting closer to Israel, and Saudi Arabia is about to get closer, and they don’t like that,” Romney told attendees. “There are some who believe that if they carry out horrific enough attacks and put them on the TV screens for us to look at, there will be a very strong response that will inflame passions throughout the Arabic world, the Muslim world and others that will cause a greater conflagration to occur.”
Romney has long warned about the rising influence of China across the globe and the lack of preparation by the U.S. to respond appropriately.
“We don’t have a national strategy to deal with China. We have some principles at play - invest in America and draw close to our friends. Those are wonderful principles and are clearly part of our objectives. But in terms of having a detailed piece-by-piece strategy, we don’t have a plan of how this fits together,” Romney said.
That’s not the case on the other side of the equation, the senator said.
“With regards to China, they have a strategy. Holy cow! They have an objective to dominate the world in 2049. They want to be the strongest military, the strongest economy and the geopolitical leader of the world. That’s their objective.”
Romney said the Chinese strategy starts with a robust economy, which in turn funds their military ambitions and helps recruit allies across the globe.
“It’s so complete,” Romney said. “These guys are brilliant!”
Romney says China is working overtime to secure access to raw materials they use to build up their economy.
“They’re going around the world buying mines, ports, railroads, and we’re sitting here on our thumb and wondering why it is we don’t have the raw materials we need,” he said.
Congress appears to be headed toward a showdown on whether to continue providing aid for Ukraine to fight back against invasion by Russia. While many of his Republican colleagues are against sending more funding, Romney says the benefits outweigh any cost.
“Supporting Ukraine is about 5% of our military budget, and for that 5%, Ukraine has decimated about 50% of Russia’s military. Russia is an enemy, in case anyone forgot. They’ve got 1,500 nuclear warheads pointed at us. Weakening an enemy and China’s only major ally is a good thing for American security. If we’re willing to spend a trillion a year on national defense, and if we spend $50 billion to weaken an enemy is a good reason.”
On climate change
Romney said he hopes humans, if they can, are able to correct climate change.
“I am very concerned about the changing climate,” he said. “I don’t know how much of it is caused by human activity. I hope all of it is caused by humanity because, if it’s not, there’s nothing we can do about it.”