Romney Assails Trump, But Impact Is Unclear
With a set of scathing remarks warning against Donald Trump as his party’s nominee, Mitt Romney lent his voice Thursday to a growing chorus of Republicans out to stop the front-runner’s march before it is too late.
The image was one for the history books: The former standard-bearer for the GOP excoriating the man best positioned to take the mantle this year. Romney has largely stayed above the fray until recently, relishing his role as an elder statesman, but his self-insertion into the turmoil of the 2016 presidential campaign acknowledges a sense of urgency and near-panic among the party faithful about the course ahead.
A key question, however, is how influential Romney’s voice will prove to be.
Speaking at the University of Utah, the 2012 nominee ripped Trump on everything from policy proposals to business experience to personal exploits, calling him, with language borrowed from the current field of candidates, a "phony" and a "con man" who would diminish the future of the country. Romney invoked Presidents Adams, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan in a speech appealing to the nation's better angels in urging his fellow Republicans against the man leading in the primary delegate count.
"Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes," Romney said. "This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss."
And, in another history-making exercise, Romney all but endorsed something of a contested national convention this summer. He didn't throw his support behind anyone in particular, but instead asked voters to choose Marco Rubio in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio, and Ted Cruz in states where he is best positioned to win.
Notably missing from Romney's remarks, however, was any mention of the fact that he had asked for, received, and heralded Trump’s endorsement of his own candidacy in 2012. The image of a smiling Romney shaking hands with Trump at a podium seems a distant memory now—almost in another universe entirely. (A former senior adviser to the Romney campaign, Kevin Madden, said on Twitter that such an omission, particularly Romney’s failure to express regret, was a mistake. Romney himself took to Twitter Thursday afternoon to explain: “If Trump had said 4 years ago the things he says today about the KKK, Muslims, Mexicans, disabled, I would NOT have accepted his endorsement.”)
Still, the former Massachusetts governor was lauded by current and former presidential candidates, including John McCain and John Kasich. Others welcomed him to the Trump-bashing club. "Romney made a strong case for why Trump shouldn't be the nominee, as Ted has been doing for months, and we are glad more people are speaking the truth about the disaster that he would be as our candidate," said one aide to Cruz.
But there is also an acknowledgement within the party that the appeal, however welcomed in some quarters, may be too late. "I'm not sure there's anything that can be done at this point to change the direction of the race," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top aide to Romney in the 2012 race. "The mood of the Republican Party seems to favor Donald Trump and that has been borne out by Trump's success in all the voting through Super Tuesday."
Ben Carson, who indicated Wednesday he will suspend his campaign, expressed reservations about Romney’s speech. In an interview with Yahoo News' Katie Couric, Carson said Romney, as the former standard-bearer for the party, should not have weighed in as negatively as he did. "I don't think that's helpful," he said.
Supporters of the billionaire businessman saw irony in Romney's remarks. "Being called a phony by Mitt Romney is like being called ugly by a frog," ally Roger Stone told RCP. "I think he will probably enhance Trump’s abilities to get nominated."
Another Trump adviser, Dan Scavino, took to Twitter to call the speech an "incredible endorsement" of Trump.
In remarks at a campaign event Thursday afternoon in Maine – which holds its presidential caucuses Saturday – Trump laid into his latest critic, saying, “Mitt was a disaster of a candidate. … He doesn’t have what it takes to be president." He also asserted that Romney with planning to run again in 2016 before he “chickened out” because of “me.” And Trump hinted that the former GOP nominee “has a desire to get something at the convention” – presumably the nomination – but “Hillary Clinton would destroy him.”
Romney's attack on the front-runner will likely be featured during Thursday night's GOP debate in Detroit, a place of personal significance for the Romney family. Rubio and Cruz have been attacking Trump in markedly barbed ways, and are likely to continue as more key primary contests approach. Rubio's campaign future rests on the winner-take-all primary in his home state of Florida on March 15. And Kasich, who has largely stayed away from directly hitting Trump but who needs to win his home state of Ohio the same day, applauded Romney on Twitter.
Reaction within the party to Trump's continuing rise, enhanced by his Super Tuesday wins, has been wide-ranging—from doubling down on efforts to prevent him from winning the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination, to pledging never to support him if he attains it, to embracing him, if reluctantly, to prevent another presidential election loss for the GOP.
Paul Ryan, the House speaker and Romney's running mate in 2012, has largely stayed away from commenting on the presidential race. But he notably weighed in last week amid the David Duke controversy.
Still, Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, aren't likely to emulate the style and approach Romney displayed Thursday.
"Here’s what I can control: If I see episodes where conservatism is being disfigured, if I see ideas and comments that mislead the people as to who we are as Republicans, I’m going to speak out on those," Ryan told reporters at the Capitol, noting that his role is to lead the GOP agenda and “put substance in this campaign.”
James Arkin contributed to this report. It was last updated at 3:11 p.m.