Mitt Romney will replace Orrin Hatch in the Senate this year, and he has kicked 2019 off with a bang, writing a “how dare you sir”-esque column about President Trump in The Washington Post. Per the incoming Junior Senator from Utah (emphasis mine):
It is well known that Donald Trump was not my choice for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the nominee, I hoped his campaign would refrain from resentment and name-calling. It did not. When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion. His early appointments of Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, Nikki Haley, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, Kelly and Mattis were encouraging. But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.
It is not that all of the president’s policies have been misguided. He was right to align U.S. corporate taxes with those of global competitors, to strip out excessive regulations, to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices, to reform criminal justice and to appoint conservative judges. These are policies mainstream Republicans have promoted for years. But policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency.
To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.
Now, this isn’t nothing. Mitt Romney said that the leader of his party lacks the character to lead the country. That’s about as strong of a condemnation of Trump as we have heard from rank-and-file Republicans (which says more about the Republicans than Romney, but I digress…), and doing it just before he is about to join the new congress sends a message.
The question is: what kind of message does it send?
There is no mention of the children who have died on the border on Trump’s watch, despite Romney’s insistence that we should favor politicians who “respect the dignity of every child of God.” He doesn’t speak of immigration policies like Trump’s child concentration camps, and only asserts that “I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant.”
Even by Mitt’s own admission, all he will do in the face of Trump’s injustices is “speak out.”
And that’s the message that this sends. That when confronted with a historically unpopular president surrounded by a sprawling federal investigation that gets worse by the day, Mitt will sprint to the op-ed page of The Washington Post to “speak out” about how concerned he is. There are no specifics on what he will actually do with his power, outside of this boilerplate statement that could have come from any politician from either party in congress:
I will act as I would with any president, in or out of my party: I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not.
In 2018, Mitt Romney said that he’s “more of a hawk on immigration” than Trump, and cited his opposition to an Obama-initiative that offered protections for young undocumented immigrants. In 2012, Mitt Romney sought out Donald Trump’s endorsement after Trump had already said things like:
”Why doesn’t [Obama] show his birth certificate? There’s something on that birth certificate that he doesn’t like.”
“He doesn’t have a birth certificate, or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me — and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be — that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim.’ And if you’re a Muslim, you don’t change your religion, by the way.”
“His grandmother in Kenya said, ‘Oh, no, he was born in Kenya and I was there and I witnessed the birth.’ She’s on tape. I think that tape’s going to be produced fairly soon. Somebody is coming out with a book in two weeks, it will be very interesting.”
So why should we believe anything that Mitt Romney has to say when he tweeted this in 2016?
Especially when the cycle replayed itself all over again, as Trump said this in 2017 after a group of Neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville and one of them murdered Heather Heyer:
”You also had some very fine people on both sides.”
And yet, here is Mitt again in 2018:
Now in 2019, he's supposedly worried again. There is absolutely, positively no reason to think that Mitt Romney will back these words up with any coherent action that aims to enforce his concerns. There is every reason to expect him to be just another version of Jeff Flake—an empty suit only interested in scoring points with the public and major media by expressing his concern over the president he continually votes to empower.
That said, the immediate response from everyone online of “oh, this is just another Flake” is a bad comparison right now. Until Mitt Romney gains the power we claim he won't use, we cannot say that this is feckless. There's always a nonzero chance that a person can truly change for the better. Right now, all we can do is rely on Mitt Romney's history to inform us of what his future actions may be, and his history gives us every indication that the op-ed will be nothing more than vacuous words that disappear the moment that Romney gets a chance to vote yea on a 32 year-old Federalist Society-backed judge who wrote that unborn babies should have more constitutionally protected rights than living women.
There's also another possible angle to the “what kind of message does it send?” that doubles as the elephant in the room.
Mitt may be thinking about primarying Trump in 2020.
Given the cultishness of the GOP, and Trump's near 90% approval rating within it, that seems incredibly unlikely, but it's certainly spooked some in the Republican Party. Romney's own niece, who is the GOP Chair, denounced Romney's op-ed in defense of Dear Leader. The Washington Examiner got their hands on an e-mail from RNC committeeman Jevon O.A. Williams, saying:
Look, the political history is clear. No Republican president opposed for re-nomination has ever won re-election. Unfortunately, loopholes in the rules governing the 2020 re-nomination campaign are enabling these so-called Republicans to flirt with the possibility of contested primaries and caucuses.
Mitt Romney's presidential ambitious are obvious, as his history of courting Trump's endorsement and denouncing him when convenient prove. This could be him positioning himself for a 2020 primary or a 2024 run against the Democratic nominee, or it could be him trying to brandish his Very Serious Person bona fides to guarantee him bookings on major TV outlets for the rest of his life. Whatever Mitt Romney is trying to do with this op-ed, his history indicates that it's likely about serving the interests of one person and one person only: Mitt Romney.
UPDATE: Shortly after this column posted, Mitt Romney went on CNN and shed light on the 2020 speculation.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.