When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spoke out against Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, we listened. And we realized we had more than a few questions for the 2012 presidential nominee. Romney joined guest host Jane Clayson for a conversation about timing, politics and what he sees as the appeal of a contested Republican Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, this summer.
Jane Clayson: Why did you wait so long to come out against Donald Trump?
Mitt Romney: Well, you know, it’s about the campaign process. I had hoped to remain as a neutral arbiter if you will, calling balls and strikes and maybe a foul here and there. And try to keep people within some bounds. But I came to the recognition that we just couldn’t go on with a candidate who equivocated about the Ku Klux Klan, who disparaged Mexican-Americans as rapists, who categorized all Muslims in the world, what, one and a half billion of them, as not being right to come to the country – I just felt that at some point I had to make it very clear where I stood.
JC: So these comments about Mexicans and Muslims and women and John McCain and mocking a reporter based on their physical disability – you’ve said that it’s been one outrage after another. But what is the appeal of Donald Trump to the Americans who are voting for him?
MR: I fully understand the anger that people feel, and I think that it in part accounts for the rise of Bernie Sanders who is saying it’s all the fault of the big banks and Donald Trump who said it’s all the fault of the foreigners and foreign goods. This is sort of the normal demagogue desire to find a scapegoat and to convince people they have an easy answer to make everything better. And so Donald Trump has convinced people that he’s just such a huge winner that he’ll be able to push back against the big money people who give money to campaigns and the truth is, he’s not such a big winner. And secondly, you know, he’s planning on having these money people pay him back for the loans he’s made to his campaign. He hasn’t contributed, he’s just loaned. And he’s planning on having these big money people pay for his general election campaign, the billion dollars or so it takes. So I think it was important to point out that Donald Trump is kind of a fraud, kind of a phony here. And he’s made a lot of money, he’s been successful for himself, but he’s crushed a lot of people along the way.
JC: And so if that’s the case, what took the Republican Party generally so long to wake up to the fact that Donald Trump, in Chris Christie’s words, has a movement behind him?
MR: Well, I think there was a belief that people would understand who Donald Trump was, that they would see that he really wasn’t a Republican or a conservative. People just couldn’t believe the groundswell would go in favor of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But I think that’s now very much on people’s minds, and they recognize that someone’s got to go out and talk about what it is that is real about Donald Trump and how dangerous he would be for the country.
JC: Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is pushing back on a rough plan for a contested convention in July. Priebus spoke in Maryland at CPAC, as you know, the Conservative Political Action Conference. He said the odds of a contested convention are “very small.” So if the leader of the Republican Party is waving off efforts to undermine Donald Trump, do you really think that there’s a chance that that will actually happen?
MR: Well, I think that there is a chance of an open convention, a contested convention, I think it’s a very realistic possibility, particularly with the most recent contests where Ted Cruz got more delegates than Donald Trump. They split the states, but Ted Cruz came out ahead. And so the “No to Donald Trump” effort is getting larger and larger. Donald Trump won a couple of states by a very small margin, Ted Cruz won by very large margins. So I think you’re seeing a recognition that there may be a second candidate here that could stand up to Donald Trump and maybe go to the convention with all the votes necessary to become the nominee. But if we go to the convention and no one has the majority, the simple majority, why then you’re going to have the process that’s been outlined in the rules. And that is that the delegates, some 2500 or so, are going to have to listen to the different candidates, vote back and forth, and decide who the nominee is. You know, we’ve done this before. You know, Abraham Lincoln didn’t win on the first ballot. It took a few ballots before we got to that guy.
JC: Would a contested convention be the best thing for the Republican Party at this point?
MR: Well, I happen to think that Donald Trump would be a very bad thing for the party and for the country. So I would rather have a contested convention than Donald Trump.
JC: In your speech last week in Utah you said that either Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich should be the Republican Party nominee. Why haven’t you endorsed one of those men?
MR: Well at this stage I’d like to see how well they do in their respective states. Obviously Ted Cruz was successful in Texas, his home state, but John Kasich and Marco Rubio, where they are best known, are going to be taking their campaigns home. And we’ll see how they do. I anticipate that after the 15th of March that I will endorse someone. I can’t guarantee I’ll do that but I think I probably will end up endorsing certainly before the convention.
JC: Trump and Cruz each won two states over the weekend. After Michigan this week the next big vote is a week from Tuesday when Florida and Ohio go to the polls. Right now polls show Trump leading in those winner-take-all states, and I’m curious realistically, just by numbers, could Trump have a lock on the nomination by then?
MR: Well all things are possible I guess in the world of politics, but polls have been not entirely effective in identifying the last minute swings. And so even where Donald Trump won in Louisiana, in the most recent contest, what was interesting is that he won particularly with people who voted a week or two ago, but with the people who voted on Election Day, he didn’t do so well. And I think that’s in part because Ted Cruz was so effective in the last debate, as was Marco Rubio, in pointing out the realities of Donald Trump’s background. I find from time to time people are shocked to hear that Donald Trump has given thousands upon thousands of dollars to Democrats, time and time again. And you know, he says this is because it’s required in business. I know better than that. I’ve been in business most of my career, and businesses I know don’t give money to people who they disagree with, and who they think are going to take the country in the wrong direction. And when I say businesses I’m talking about business leaders, business people. So Donald Trump’s excuse for giving money to Jimmy Carter, and to Hillary Clinton time and time again, to John Kerry, Harry Reid…it just doesn’t wash.
JC: Governor Romney, what do you make of the anti-establishment sentiment in the country right now? And do you worry that the speech you gave in Utah last week actually could have added fuel on the fire, that it actually ignited more anti-establishment fervor among those very strong Trump supporters?
MR: Well Jane, I have a pet peeve, and it’s not aimed at you, it’s aimed at the Republicans and the media, a lot of people, which is this whole term establishment, right? Which is…to be establishment, I’m not quite sure what that means. We say that Donald Trump is anti-establishment and yet he’s made, according to him, 10 billion dollars, as a crony capitalist, you know, paying political folks for political favors apparently. That’s how he describes it. So if he isn’t establishment, I’m not quite sure what is. Ted Cruz is very vehemently opposed to the leaders in the party in Washington. Marco Rubio ran against a sitting Republican governor for Senate. So I prefer to call it mainstream Republicans, or Republicans who have ever been elected. I’m sure that my speech and my comments will only make the most fervent Donald Trump fans even more fervent. At the same time, I hope that my speech and the debate and other communication over the last several days is going to get a lot of people who are not sure about Donald Trump to take a closer look and recognize, he’s not what he pretends to be.
JC: You predicted that Donald Trump would respond to your speech last week with vulgarity, and he did, and I don’t need to repeat what he said – we’ve all heard it. But he’s not the only candidate using that kind of language, that kind of rhetoric. Marco Rubio has jumped into the gutter lately as well. And what’s your response to that, Governor Romney? What has your party come to – this anger, this disrespect?
MR: You know, I think people have been shocked by Donald Trump’s language, by the vulgarity that he has brought to the campaign, and by the attacks on people’s personal attributes – I don’t know that that’s ever happened before. I’m not enough of a political historian to know, but I think we’ve been surprised even to hear the term “liar.” During the debate he kept saying, “Liar Cruz, liar Cruz…or Liar Ted…and then he turned to Marco, “Little Marco, little Marco.” I mean, this is something really unprecedented, and I think really disappointing. And I’m offended by it. This is a race for President of the United States. There is some dignity associated with that office. And I think it’s a mistake to get into that gutter. I know Marco decided to poke some fun back at him. And I think part of that is because he’s saying, gosh, people out there are enjoying this and are applauding this, and find it entertainment. And you know, I hope people stop and say, wait a second, it just doesn’t make sense for us to take the leadership of our country, this great land, this shining city on a hill, and take it down into the gutter.
JC: I think I know your answer to this, Governor Romney, but I’m going to ask it anyway. In the case of a convention fight, would you step in as a potential nominee?
MR: No, no. We have four people running for President. One of will become our nominee. I’m told that even the rules of the convention say you have to have eight states endorse you as the nominee, and I’m not running, I’m not going to have any states endorsing me. So this is about the four people on the stage, and I’m convinced one of them will be our nominee.
JC: Fair enough, but looking back at all this, do you wish you had run this time?
MR: You know, I don’t know that I would have wanted to be on the stage with Donald Trump hurling the vulgarity, the insults that he has. You know, I just – I think at some point, someone like him needs to look in the mirror and say, do I really want to get into a fight about physical attributes? Is this the kind of person I am, that that’s where I’d take this country? I find it really troubling and hope the American people do. I look at this and say, we have presidential debates where our kids and our grandkids are going to say, “What was that about, dad?” I find that something that he seems to be unable to control himself even in a presidential debate. Can you imagine the President of the United States engaging in that kind of low-road talk in the White House?
JC: Governor Mitt Romney, thank you so much.
MR: Thanks Jane, good to be with you.
This segment aired on March 7, 2016.