Mitt Romney, the former Republican nominee, is poised to become the president's chief GOP foil if he's elected to the Senate, as many now expect.
Donald Trump had just returned from Utah last month when the president placed a call to his longtime nemesis Mitt Romney.
Trump was ostensibly trying to ease tensions between the two men, after a trip dominated by news reports that he was courting Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to run for reelection in order to keep Romney from seeking the seat. But the 10-minute chat only further raised suspicions within Romney’s inner circle that the president was out to stymie the former GOP presidential nominee’s political ambitions.
The president told Romney that he knew he was thinking about running. But according to one person familiar with the conversation, the details of which have not been reported before, Trump didn’t press the former Massachusetts governor about his thinking or ask why he might be interested in being a senator. Romney’s aides came away convinced the president was trying to suss out Romney’s intentions and position himself as an ally, when he’d been anything but.
The conversation highlighted the fraught relationship between the Republican heavyweights — one that will now take center stage as Romney prepares a Senate bid in the wake of Hatch’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t seek another term, contrary to Trump's wishes. Should Romney run and win, as many expect, he will be poised to be Trump’s most prominent GOP foil, representing the wing of traditional Republicanism that the president has purposefully cast aside.
While laying the groundwork for a prospective bid, Romney has made little secret that he will be unafraid of taking on the president. The 2012 GOP nominee has informed a series of Republican Party donors, senators and power brokers in recent weeks that, while he isn’t looking to pick a fight with Trump, he is more than willing to speak out against him. During the 2016 campaign, Romney derided Trump as a “phony” and “fraud” and implored the party to nominate someone else.
Hatch’s announcement ended a weekslong staredown between Trump and Romney. Over the course of the past year, the president repeatedly urged Hatch to run again, culminating in an executive-order signing ceremony in Salt Lake City last month in which he lavished praise on the 83-year-old senator.
Aboard Air Force One, the president amped up the charm offensive, telling Hatch that no one could do the job like him. Those who spoke with Hatch, already the longest-serving Republican senator in history, said he seemed open to the idea at the time.
And during private political briefings with advisers, Trump made clear that he wanted Hatch to seek reelection.
By last week, Romney had come to believe there would not be an open seat to run for, in no small part because of the president’s lobbying campaign. Increasingly resigned to Hatch seeking another term, Romney spent the holiday weekend skiing in Park City. Romney, who hasn’t spoken with Hatch for months and didn’t attend the Salt Lake City ceremony, gossiped with his friends over text message about what the senator might do.
With doubts rising, some of Romney’s allies had begun discussing the possibility of the former governor waging a primary against the longtime incumbent. But Romney, aides said, was never committed to the idea.
Dave Hansen, a top political aide to Hatch, said the senator — who has suffered from health problems of late and had long promised his family that he wouldn’t run again — decided over the holidays to call it quits.
“I think he went back and forth about it,” Hansen said.
Through it all, Romney, who waged unsuccessful presidential bids in 2008 and 2012, made it abundantly clear to his political advisers that he was interested in a return to political life. Several people who’d spoken to Romney said that his ambition was unquenched after failing to win the White House.
“I think Mitt feels he has a lot to contribute to the world and the Senate might be a great place for him to do it, and I suspect if he does run that will be the reason,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Romney friend who has spoken with him about a potential campaign.
But Romney is also guided by frustration with the president, which he has long spoken about openly. In June, during an appearance at his annual Park City donor retreat, the former governor grew emotional when he implicitly criticized Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, arguing that the U.S. had an important humanitarian role overseas. In June 2016, speaking at the same event, Romney choked up while describing then-candidate Trump as often hurtful.
“Seeing this just breaks your heart,” he said.
Friction between the two men diminished after Trump considered Romney to be his secretary of state. But the president and his top advisers remain suspicious of Romney, who criticized Trump over the course of his first year in office. The former governor slammed the president over his handling of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, and broke with Trump after the president endorsed accused child molester Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race.
Romney is wasting little time preparing for a Senate bid, though aides say an official announcement is likely several weeks away. Among his tight-knit circle, there is already talk about who will oversee his campaign, a job that will likely fall to longtime top aides Matt Waldrip, Spencer Zwick and Beth Myers. On Tuesday, he changed his Twitter biography to specify that he now lives in Holladay, Utah, not Massachusetts.
Several other Republicans, including state Auditor John Dougall and state Rep. Daniel McCay, have been mentioned as potential candidates. But many Republicans in the state believe Romney, who is well-liked in Utah and has a sprawling fundraising network, would enter the race as the heavy favorite.
“He would not have any difficulty turning the key on his finance committee and getting it operational. His needs would be minimal,” said former Utah Republican Party Chairman Bruce Hough, who has been in touch with Romney. “He would be as close to a consensus candidate as you can get.”
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