Romney, however, refused to return the favor of an endorsement in 2016, calling Trump a "phony," and the two were widely seen as detesting each other. Romney, just before taking his seat as a Republican senator from Utah in January, wrote in an op-ed that Trump "has not drawn to the mantle of his office."
Two months later, little known to the public, Trump and Romney for lunch at the White House. The subject was alleged to be their shared belief that the United States needed to take tough action against China's trade policies. The effort at rapprochement described in interviews by Romney and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.), who facilitated it, went further and deeper than expected or publicly known.
As having happened time and again in one of the most bizarre relationships in Republican politics, it fell apart in a blizzard of bitter words. Romney became one of the most outspoken Republican critics in Trump's Senate phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the president's decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
The senator was praised by Democrats for showing spin, and, on cue, he was attacked by Trump on Twitter for being a "pompous ass."
Now, the relationship could be nearing its climactic scene. If the House votes to impeach Trump, as expected, Romney could soon take on a defining role in his career: a juror in the Senate trial of Trump. The potential that could take a leadership role in a Senate trial has made him a central target of Trump's ire, prompting the president to say that the Utah senator is the only leading member of the party who has failed to fall in line to support him.
“I think [Democrats are] lousy politicians,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting on Monday. “But two things they have: They are vicious and they stick together. They have Mitt Romney in their midst. They have people like that. They stick together. ”
Romney, in an interview with The Washington Post, insisted he had not made up his mind about whether to vote for conviction, but neither had he followed other Republicans in criticizing the efforts by Democrats to impeach the president .
"I'm going to wait to see if the impeachment articles come," Romney said. “If they come, I will review all the facts as they are presented at that point and make the decision that I believe is right.”
Trump declined to comment.
Merely by insisting he has the traditional mind-set of a juror ̵
1; an open mind – Romney has drawn attention, including his use of a pseudonymous Twitter handle under the name of Pierre Delecto, an account Romney used to praise his actions and
Romney, as a symbol of the establishment that Trump often rails against, may have difficulty gaining the support of other senators for his standing, and said he has no need to personally lobby anyone. If he decided to vote for the president, he could be the first Republican to declare his intention, breaking a barrier that others might be emboldened to follow.
Romney is "growing into the role of being the principal voice" against Trump, said former Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who has written two anti-Trump books. It's an "intimidating and terrifying process" because Trump wields so much power, Wilson said. But he said Romney has little to lose: He has wealth, the love of his family, the sustenance of his Mormon faith – and five years until he faces reelection.
A football friendship
Whatever path Romney chooses, it is the most unlikely denouement of a relationship between Trump and Romney that began almost a quarter-century ago over their shared love of football.
In the 1990s, Romney began cultivating influential people who might become key supporters of a political campaign. Two months after his failed 1994 Senate seat campaign held by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Romney accepted an invitation to fly on Trump's plane to Palm Beach to attend the Super Bowl, which was held in Miami in January 1995.
Romney called meeting Trump's then-wife, Marla Maples, and their young child, Tiffany, and being slightly star-struck.
"He was a very entertaining person," Romney told The Post. "I had known him as a highly visible media personality." Romney said his reaction was like that of many people: "Oh, there's Donald Trump, famous, colorful and entertaining."
At one point, Romney recalled in an interview , Trump showed him a cache of "gold silverware" that was left behind by a prior owner. Trump “took us into a big walk-in safe and. . . commented he paid less for [Mar-a-Lago] than he thought silverware was worth. ”
The two hours together at the Super Bowl and later went to the National Football League games in New Jersey and Massachusetts. By the time they saw the New England Patriots play in the early 2000s, Trump had divorced the Maples and brought along Melania Knauss, whom he would later marry.
On the surface, Trump and Romney had much in common. They were both beneficiaries of family heritages – with Trump following his father into real estate development and Romney, who served one term as Massachusetts governor, carrying on the political legacy of his father, who was governor of Michigan. Trump told associates he had long been impressed with Romney's work at Bain Capital's leveraged buyout, and Romney in turn complimented Trump's building projects.
In 2007, Trump delivered what appeared to be his first public praise of Romney. He said in an interview on CNN that Romney was one of the top three presidential candidates – after Rudolph W. Giuliani, for whom he hosted a fundraiser and is now Trump's personal lawyer, and then-Sen. John McCain.
"I know him, I like him," Trump told CNN's Wolf Blitzer when asked about Romney. “Very attractive guy. . . certainly an attractive candidate. He is a very smart guy. ”
McCain won the nomination and surprised many Republicans when he bypassed Romney as a vice-presidential pick. After McCain lost to Barack Obama and Republicans focused on whom to nominate in 2012, Romney and Trump were mentioned frequently. Trump wound up endorsing Romney, saying, "It's my honor, real honor, to endorse Mitt Romney." Trump singled out Romney's stance on China, saying he was "one of the few who stood up to say China is cheating" on trade deals.
On Election Day 2012, Trump flew to Boston, expecting to attend a victory celebration. But as he watched the returns on his plane and realized Romney would lose, he ordered that his plane would be turned around and began plotting his own run for the presidency.
Venting his frustration on Twitter, and foreshadowing how he would run a campaign, Trump tweeted: “We wanted to let this happen. The world is laughing at us. ”Then he filed a trademark application for the phrase“ Make America Great Again. ”
Four years later, when Trump ran for presidency, Romney refused to return the favor of an endorsement. He called Trump a phony and predicted that Trump's '' foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. ''
Trump responded that Romney was a "choker" who walked like a penguin. The split seemed irrevocable.
After Trump won, Romney accepted an invitation to dine with the president-elect in New York for what was billed as an audition to be secretary of state. Romney insisted to reporters that he was "very impressed" by Trump's "enlightening" victory speech, giving him "increasing hope" that Trump was "the very man" who could lead the country to a "better future."
Still , it seemed a mismatch. Romney had declared that Russia was the greatest political enemy of the United States, and Trump spoke glowingly of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. In the end, Trump picked Exxon Chief Executive Rex Tillerson, and Romney's vetting was viewed as a purposeful and public humiliation.
Two years later, Romney easily won an election as a senator from Utah, where many voters share his Mormon faith and conservatism . While Utah is one of the most Republican-leaning states, many voters echoed Romney's disdain for Trump, who won the state but received only 45 percent of the vote. An independent candidate received 27 percent.
The stage was set for either a genuine partnership or a complete break of the relationship. Romney lashed out even before taking office by writing an op-ed in The Post that was critical of Trump. While Romney supported Trump's corporate tax cuts and other measures, he blamed the president for his "glaring" lack of comity and absent leadership in foreign affairs.
The op-ed drew immediate notice from Trump, who tweeted : “Here we go with Mitt Romney. . . . He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN. ”
Trump's words were retweeted by Romney's niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, whom Trump had placed as chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. She condemned her uncle, tweeting : “For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what Democrats and the media want and is disappointing and unproductive.”
McDaniel declined to comment . In a statement to The Post, she said, “While Mitt and I have our disagreements, my family is certainly not the only one that has differing opinions.”
Two months after the op-ed was published , Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) Planned an intervention, persuading the president to meet with Romney.
"Here's what I said to him about Mitt Romney," Graham said. “He is one of the smartest guys I know. Trump agrees to meet with Romney for lunch at the White House, with Graham serving as a sort of mediator.
“There are a lot of things the president does that I like,” Graham said in an interview. “I'm trying to channel that. . . . I'm trying to find a way to make him successful. He is a handful. I know where Mitt Romney and Donald Trump wind up landing. But in Trump's world, anything is possible, and I know that Mitt Romney is driven by the love of the country. ”
It was agreed that a discussion at the meeting would be about China's policy, an area where Romney and Trump have agreed. Romney had said during his 2012 campaign that he would declare China to be a currency manipulator, and Trump declared in his campaign that he would take that action on his first day in office – a vow that he did not keep.
"I expressed my view that it was right to push back on China, that we had let them get away with unfair trade practices for far too long," Romney said in the interview. “At the same time, I told him I disagreed with the tariffs on aluminum and steel.
After the meeting, Trump had a surprise: He invited Romney and Graham to attend a meeting at the Oval Office with a U.S. citizen, Danny Burch, who was recently released as a hostage in Yemen. The release was arranged with the help of a former Romney campaign advocate, Robert O'Brien, who served as Trump's special envoy for hostage affairs.
Romney left the White House thinking he had a restored positive relationship with Trump. But Romney's concern about the president's foreign policy was growing.
The next month, Romney traveled with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) To the Middle East, including stops in Israel, Jordan and Iraq. They heard from Israelis and Palestinians that a two-state solution – which Romney has endorsed – seemed almost impossible during the Trump administration.
"We both came away very concerned that the two-state solution was completely slipping away from all of our grasps," Murphy said in an interview. “It was certainly frightening to sort of see and feel in person when you are on the ground there. . . .
The two also received briefings from CIA officials who said the Islamic State was seeking to make a comeback. Officials' warning reverberated as Trump considered withdrawing U.S. military forces in northeastern Syria that provided protection to the Kurds, who had been allied with the U.S. military to capture and contain Islamic State fighters.
Romney had reason to hope that Trump would maintain the U.S.S. military presence in Syria, due in part to a presidential decision in mid-September to select O'Brien, the former Romney attorney, as his national security adviser.
When Trump a month later abruptly ordered the U.S. troops out of area – enabling Turkey to take control of Kurdish-held land in Northeast Syria – Romney was livid.
Taking to Senate floor, Romney delivered harshest attack on president by any Republican senator on Syria policy, describing the withdrawal of the US forces as "a bloodstain in the annals of American history."
"America has abandoned an ally, adding insult to dishonor," he said.
Within days, other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.). ), echoed Romney's words.
O'Brien declined to comment. A White House official said Romney was not involved in the decision to give the national security adviser a job at O'Brien. National Security Council spokesman Michael Martin said O'Brien “fully supports the President's Syria strategy.”
Romney's deepest criticism of the president has been over the subject of an impeachment inquiry: Trump's telephone call with Zelensky.
Referring to the rough transcript in which Trump urged Zelensky to investigate former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, Romney said on Twitter that “if the President asked or pressured Ukraine's president to
When Trump publicly said Ukraine and China should investigate Bidens, Romney said such a "brazen" request was "wrong and appalling." ”And“ politically motivated. ”
Trump punched back. He tweeted that Romney “never knew how to win.”
“He is a pompous 'ass' who has been fighting me from the beginning, except when he begged me for my endorsement for his Senate run (I gave it to him) and when he begged me to be the Secretary of State (I didn't give it to him), "the tweet said.
In another tweet Trump called Romney a “Fool,” ending with the social media hashtag #IMPEACHMITTROMNEY.
That is not possible. Senators, unlike the President of the United States, are not subject to impeachment.
Sen. Murphy is mystified by the way Romney is ostracized by some in his party, noting that the senator is a classical conservative.
“I think it is such a tragic statement about the moment we are in that Romney's colleagues are openly critical of him simply because he doesn't follow the president blindly like the rest of them, ”Murphy said. “In any other era, the way in which Mitt Romney approaches his job would be the middle of the pack. He looks like an outlier simply because he is not willing to follow the president on every issue and on every behavior without a question. ”
Graham, meanwhile, still hopes the two can find a way to get along, but he said that the President realizes “the damage has been done.” As for his own role, Graham said, “I don't think I'll go into marriage counseling.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.