On Wednesday, President Donald Trump spent his first press conference after a midterm rebuke ranting about the media. He said CNN should be “ashamed of itself” for its coverage of his administration and that reporter Jim Acosta was “a rude, terrible person.” He shouted at reporter April Ryan and told her to “sit down.” He blamed losses in the House of Representatives on Republicans who didn’t “embrace” him, like Utah’s Mia Love, but refused to accept any responsibility for the dozens of House seats that were lost. Then, a few hours later, he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile, was singing. Literally.
Driving down the highway, singing a Johnny Cash song, seemingly without a care in the world: Romney was having a pretty good day. He had just easily won election to the U.S. Senate, replacing Orrin Hatch. After spending much of 2016 sparring with Trump—including a blistering speech in which Romney declared him unfit for office—the two had seemingly come to a truce. During the campaign, Romney largely steered clear of Trump, and Trump largely steered clear of Romney.
No doubt, the newly minted junior senator from Utah would like to continue this dynamic. But that is unlikely to happen. As a representative of a red state that is more skeptical of Trump than most, and the biggest political star to enter the Senate since Hillary Clinton in 2000, Romney will be pressed repeatedly to comment on the Trump tweets, rants, and policy improvisations of the day.
The question facing Romney as he heads to Washington isn’t just how he’ll get along with Trump, but what his relationship with the president will say about who he is as a politician. With the exception of his 2016 speech against Trump, Romney has hardly been a model of political courage. But with the Senate losing its leading Republican critics of Trump—Bob Corker and Jeff Flake—there will be enormous pressure for him to take up their mantle.
Speaking on March 3, 2016, shortly after Donald Trump had become the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Romney held a press conference. “Let me put it very plainly,” Romney said. “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”
Romney’s speech carried two distinct attacks. The first was that Trump was incapable of governing the country. Trump “has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president,” Romney said, describing Trump as a bully, liar, cheater, and philanderer. These failures of character, as Romney told it, were connected to the campaign’s policy failures and showed his unseriousness as a presidential candidate. Trump’s bankrupt character, Romney argued, would cause crises in American foreign and domestic policy alike.
The second line of attack was that Trump was not a real Republican. “I believe with all my heart and soul that we face another time for choosing, one that will have profound consequences for the Republican Party, and more importantly, for our country,” he said near the beginning of the speech. He said Trump’s economic plans would create a “prolonged recession,” and his proposed tariffs “would instigate a trade war and that would raise prices for consumers, kill our export jobs and lead entrepreneurs and businesses of all stripes to flee America. His tax plan, in combination with his refusal to reform entitlements and honestly address spending, would balloon the deficit and the national debt.”
This was always an underappreciated element of Romney’s critique of Trump: that he was not sufficiently conservative. Note that one of Romney’s principle concerns was Trump’s pledge to honor Medicare and Social Security—a pledge that almost certainly helped propel him to victory—which he believes would “balloon the deficit.” Romney was undoubtedly worried about Trump’s character, but he was also concerned about the damage his candidacy was doing to the kind of doctrinaire conservatism that Romney espoused.
These are remarkably similar, if more pointed, arguments to the ones that Jeff Flake has made again and again over the past two years, particularly in Conscience of a Conservative. In that book, Flake argued that Republicans struck a “Faustian bargain” with Trump that would come to haunt them by undoing everything that the conservative movement, from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan, stood for. Flake sees Trump as an Orwellian figure, a pathologically untruthful authoritarian who is undoing everything that America, and especially conservative America, stands for.
After Trump won the presidency, he appeared to dangle the job of secretary of state before Romney. Perhaps eager to join “The Committee to Save America,” Romney changed his tune. The charade resulted in a private dinner at the end of November and one humiliating photograph, which has since become a meme.
Trump never offered him the job, and likely just wanted him to grovel. Later, Trump confidante Roger Stone bragged that the president-elect was interviewing Romney “in order to torture him.”
If there was bad blood, Romney let it slide. During his run for Senate, he largely stayed out of national politics, coasting to victory on the back of endorsements from Hatch, the senator he was replacing, and Trump himself. Romney won the Republican primary with 71 percent of the vote, and cruised to victory on Tuesday with 59 percent.
But now that Romney is finally headed to Washington, after hoping to arrive there six years ago as president-elect, his days of flying under the radar are over. His every tweet and utterance will be scrutinized like never before, and he seems to recognize this already. He was among a handful of Republicans who spoke out about the future of the Mueller probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to resign on Wednesday.
Fittingly, so did Jeff Flake:
They were joined by senators Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander. A week earlier, Flake and Romney also both made headlines by condemning Trump’s labeling of the media as the “enemy of the people.”
Romney will find himself in a similar position as Flake, who announced his retirement from the Senate last year. Like Flake, he will be made uncomfortable by the president’s demagoguery, and will likely feel the need to speak out against it. Facing little competition, he may become—or at least be seen as—the moral compass and conscience of Republicans in Congress.
Romney will also likely cast himself as the protector of an older strain of conservatism, and that will ultimately limit his efficacy, just as it did to Flake. As president, Trump has calmed conservatives’ fears by embracing policies that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have advocated for years—tax cuts, de-regulation, far-right judges, and, yes, entitlement reform. Flake voted with Trump regularly, and Romney surely will, too.
The objections to Trump, then, will be largely aesthetic—with a few exceptions. Like Flake, Romney is a free-trader who loathes tariffs. Flake threatened to stop confirming judges if Trump didn’t back down from his trade war. That would be an interesting threat from Romney, but he has much less leverage, given Republican gains in the Senate, expanding a slim 51-49 majority by several seats. On immigration, however, Romney is to the right of Flake—and even claims to be to the right of Trump on the issue, saying he will likely fall in line behind Trump’s militaristic immigration policy.
It’s possible that Romney will be Flake 2.0—not only criticizing Trump, but backing up his talk with action. It’s also possible he’ll become the next Lindsey Graham, a Never Trump senator who has become one of the presidents biggest boosters. That both paths are imaginable says a lot about Romney. He has always been a shapeshifter, proudly veering between New England Republicanism and extreme conservatism, depending on the political winds of the time. Most likely, he will try to thread the needle, calling out Trump when his GOP colleagues won’t, but supporting Trump’s most consequential policies. He may even become the face of Trumpism without Trump.