In 2012, Mitt Romney happily accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement for president. Four years later, Romney emerged as the mouthpiece for the Never Trump movement, calling Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” and urging Republicans to nominate anyone else, by any means necessary. After Trump won, Romney auditioned to be Trump’s Secretary of State, then resumed criticizing him, before coming full circle in February—again accepting Trump’s endorsement, this time for his U.S. Senate campaign in Utah.
Now, on the eve of Utah’s Republican primary, Romney is trying to clarify.
In an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune ahead of his Tuesday primary, Romney pledged to “continue to speak out when the president says or does something which is divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.” At the same time, Romney also assured conservative voters in his adopted state that, by and large, he agrees with Trump, declaring, “the first year of his administration has exceeded my expectations.”
That is rather faint praise considering Romney’s past criticism, and it comes only days after a new poll found him up by more than 40 points against his primary challenger, state Rep. Mike Kennedy, who has billed himself as a more reliable Trump ally. That is a line of attack that has proven effective for other insurgents challenging establishment GOP candidates this year, and it seemed to have some traction in April, when Kennedy edged Romney at the state’s GOP convention.
But the public polls never swung in Kennedy’s favor. After all, Romney remains a favorite son in Utah, thanks to his role in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and his status as the first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination.
Like Romney, Utah has had its own on-gain, off-again relationship with the president. Trump finished third in the state’s Republican caucus in 2016, behind both Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Trump won the state in November, but with only a plurality of the vote, thanks to the protest campaign of Evan McMullin, a Mormon who ran as a conservative alternative to the GOP nominee and won about 20 percent of the state’s vote.
Romney’s op-ed suggests he’ll take up the anti-Trump mantel from retiring Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who have harshly criticized the president, but have done little to derail his agenda. See, for example, Romney’s promise to speak out when the president does something “anti-immigrant.” In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Romney condemned Trump’s decision to separate families who cross the border illegally, but refused to say whether he supports Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to those separations. (It was Romney who infamously said he was for “self-deportation” during the 2012 campaign, and who earlier this year declared that he is “more of a hawk on immigration than even the president.”)
Perhaps Romney is simply holding his tongue until his six-year term is secure, and once his six-term is secure, he’ll revert to the Trump-challenging Romney of 2016. But it’s not a great sign that Romney felt compelled to cite the very man he’s promising to hold accountable. “Last week, the president said that I’m a straight shooter,” Romney wrote. “I will endeavor to be just so.”