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Mitt Romney, the politically fickle former Massachusetts governor turned U.S. senator from Utah, is mounting an increasingly vocal opposition campaign against President Trump. In recent speeches and press interviews, Romney has staked himself out as an intraparty detractor of the Republican president, taking aim at both his policies and his character. And he’s even left the door open to supporting impeachment.
But open questions remain, among them: Will Romney keep up his steady stream of criticism and put action behind it? And if so, could he convince many other GOP members on Capitol Hill to join him, or would he remain a lone wolf?
So far, the jury is out.
“I promise you, out of 50-some Republican senators, there are 19 or 20 of them that Mitt can pull away for a removal" vote in a potential Senate impeachment trial, said Sophia Nelson, a Republican political strategist. A two-thirds vote in the Senate is required to convict on articles of impeachment.
Shermichael Singleton, a Republican strategist who worked on Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, said lawmakers and others in his party have become increasingly frustrated with Trump on a number of fronts. But he believes Trump’s wall of GOP support in the Senate would hold in the event of an impeachment trial.
“Once you get to the Senate, I think you might see some Republicans voting to convict him," Singleton said. "I don't think it will be enough, but maybe two or three."
But, he said, Romney's impact is still being felt.
Syria A Turning Point For Romney
Romney’s tougher posture came just as Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria — and the resulting Turkish incursion that threatened U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters there — divided Republicans.
Two-thirds of House Republicans voted on a resolution against Trump's withdrawal. Many GOP members said the move threatened not only the lives of Kurds and would allow Turkey to gain a stronghold in the Middle East, but would also inhibit Kurdish forces' ability to keep ISIS in check in the region.
In a floor speech last week, Romney was far more blunt.
“What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a blood stain in the annals of American history,” Romney said.
Romney is also speaking more assertively in the press. Speaking to Axios for HBO, he blasted Trump on issues ranging from foreign policy to his alleged payment of hush money to a porn star. In an Atlantic interview, Romney said: “I don’t look at myself as being a historical figure, but I do think these are critical times. And I hope that what I’m doing will open the way for people to take a different path.”
And he made clear that he is still open to voting in favor of impeachment if there is a Senate trial.
“At this stage, I am strenuously avoiding trying to make any judgment,” Romney told the Atlantic.
Romney's office replied to questions for this article by referring to his past comments in the press and on Twitter, including one saying he hasn’t discussed impeachment with his Senate colleagues.
“What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a blood stain in the annals of American history."Sen. Mitt Romney, in a Senate floor speech last week
Trump has counter-punched, tweeting that Romney is a “Pompous Senator” and “a fool who is playing into the hands of the Do Nothing Democrats!”
On Monday, he also invoked Romney’s name in complaining that Republicans have not done enough to defend him against impeachment.
“They're vicious and they stick together,” Trump said of Democrats leading the impeachment probe. “They don’t have Mitt Romney in their midst. They don’t have people like that.”
Liz Mair, a GOP consultant who formerly worked for the Republican National Committee, said Romney’s popularity among Utahns and his Republican colleagues on the Hill, and the fact that he will never appear down-ballot from Trump in any election, put him a unique position.
“Romney has already been the Republican presidential nominee; he doesn’t have to worry about Trump’s reaction,” Mair said. “He’s had a career as a governor and a successful business career. He’s liberated. He can do what he wants.”
History Of Vacillating Between Praise And Condemnation
But Romney also has an uneven history when it comes to Trump.
Since 2016, Romney’s statements about Trump have varied from blistering criticism — like his March 2016 speech calling Trump “a phony, a fraud” — to effusive praise.
When Trump mulled naming Romney as secretary of state after the election, Romney left a Trump Tower meeting saying Trump’s transition efforts gave him "increasing hope President Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.”
The oscillation continued with Romney condemning Trump’s remarks about the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, but thanking Trump for his endorsement last year when Romney was a U.S. Senate hopeful.
Romney’s arrival on Capitol Hill this year was punctuated with a Washington Post op-ed in which he said Trump “has not risen to the mantle of the office,” but also said he’d support the president on issues that “are in the best interest of the country.”
Mair, who has been a frequent critic of Romney, said she did not see his fluctuations as flip flops, but rather Romney seeking to serve his country and perhaps help steer Trump’s foreign policies.
“I don’t think it was sucking up Trump,” Mair said of Romney’s past praise of the president. "I think of it as an exercise in patriotism."
Controversies Make Room For Dissent
Mair said that aside from Syria, there are a host of issues on which Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated with Trump, including trade and the economy.
Strategist Singleton said discomfort with Trump's efforts to influence Ukrainian officials, his call for China to investigate Democratic presidential rival and former Vice President Joe Biden, and his close association with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have also given Republicans heartburn — and making them more receptive to what Romney has to say. Giuliani is reportedly under criminal investigation for potential violation of federal lobbying laws for his work on behalf of Ukrainian nationals.
“I think when you think about Syria, you think about the likelihood that Giuliani will be indicted, I think you will have other senators who will come around and sort of start echoing” Romney, Singleton said. “Maybe not to the extent that Romney has and likely will continue, but you’ll see others come around, particularly those who are in trouble.”
While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has limited the impeachment probe to allegations that Trump attempted to withhold military funding to Ukraine in exchange for political dirt on Biden and his son, political strategist Nelson believes GOP lawmakers will also consider the Syria situation — as well as Trump's since-aborted attempt to host next year's G7 summit of international leaders at the Trump Organization's Florida resort — as the decide whether to join Romney's revolt.
Though Mair does not believe enough Republicans are likely to back impeachment to oust Trump, she believes what Romney has to say is still important.
“Maybe his role is just for him to be him, and maybe that’s good enough,” Mair said.
This segment aired on October 24, 2019.
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