Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) public battles with President Trump are taking a toll on his relationship with fellow GOP senators, with many resenting the implication that they’re afraid of standing up to the president.
Romney has replaced retired Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) as the go-to senator for voicing dissension within the Senate GOP ranks when Trump finds himself in hot water.
That distinction has made Romney one of the most high-profile freshman Republican senators in recent years, but it has also fueled grumbling among his colleagues.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of Trump’s biggest defenders, told The Hill he’s frustrated with Romney’s regular critiques of Trump and suggested his colleague might have unresolved feelings about failing to defeat former President Obama in the 2012 presidential campaign.
“Because one election didn’t turn out the way that Mitt wanted it to turn out,” Inhofe said Wednesday, “he’s critical of the president.”
“So, I’m not pleased with it,” he added.
Romney’s allies, however, have argued he is more concerned about the future of the country and the Republican Party than how he is viewed by GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill.
“He’s more concerned about his legacy in terms of his family, his faith, his country and his party than about this place,” a Republican source familiar with Romney’s thinking said about his motivations.
Romney often likes to quip “my future is behind me,” and makes clear his chief concern is what kind of future his 24 grandchildren will inherit.
In other words, Romney’s not looking to set himself up for a future presidential run by clashing with party leadership, an approach that’s been taken by other GOP senators, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and the late Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
Republican senators praise Romney as “funny” and “gracious” and acknowledge he has one of the most impressive résumés in the Senate Republican conference.
He laughed with colleagues Tuesday after the unmasking of his secret Twitter account under the nom de plume Pierre Delecto, which he used occasionally to defend himself.
“He took a fair amount of ribbing about it,” said a Republican senator, who requested anonymity to talk about the banter within the Republican conference, noting that Romney took the teasing in stride.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Romney’s niece, even got into the act at Tuesday’s Republican luncheon by telling GOP senators to call her Ronna “Delecto,” according to a lawmaker at the meeting.
Republican colleagues laughed with Romney at lunch, but some have been frustrated by his repeated criticisms of Trump.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) likened Romney to a fan who boos a quarterback when the going gets tough.
“It’s awfully easy to sit in the stands and be critical of the people on the field,” Perdue told reporters Tuesday when asked about Romney’s critical statements and speeches about Trump and his policy decisions.
Perdue also bristled at the idea that Romney is giving voice to feelings that other GOP lawmakers share but are afraid to acknowledge because they don’t want to get smacked down by Trump on Twitter.
“We’re all quite capable of having a voice,” Perdue said, dismissing the idea that Romney’s critiques might embolden other GOP senators to speak out. “No, I don’t see that as encouraging or discouraging anybody.”
“That’s his own opinion. I disagree with it strongly,” Perdue said of Romney’s criticisms of Trump.
At the same time, Perdue, a former CEO, expressed admiration for Romney’s professional accomplishments from his time as a businessman and later governor of Massachusetts.
“He’s an ex-governor, he’s a United States senator, he’s a business guy. He can bring a lot to us in our effort to try to fix the budget,” Perdue said. “He can help us continue this effort to grow the economy.”
While it’s debatable whether Romney’s criticisms of Trump are changing opinion within the Senate Republican conference, what’s clear is that Trump finds them frustrating.
The president complained at a Cabinet meeting Monday that GOP lawmakers aren’t doing enough to defend him from the House Democratic impeachment push, and singled out Romney for undermining him.
Trump complained that Democrats are formidable because “they’re vicious and they stick together.”
“They don’t have Mitt Romney in their midst. They don’t have people like that,” he added.
Asked if Trump was right to say that Romney is undercutting him, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) responded bluntly: “He’s not helping him.”
Some Republicans say they wish Romney would focus more on policy and less on challenging Trump.
“He’s got the respect by virtue of the fact that he was the nominee back in 2012, but coming into the Senate and being very independent and being the one that everyone looks to as the voice to criticize Trump, I don’t think it’s very helpful to forwarding the Republican agenda,” said Brian Darling, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.
“I wish he would focus a little bit more on policy,” he said.
A Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment frankly on perceptions of Romney within the conference said colleagues weren’t happy that he said GOP lawmakers don’t want to stand up to Trump because they want to preserve their power.
“What people are annoyed by is when he speaks for other senators and says why they’re not standing up to Trump,” said the GOP senator. “He should stick to speaking for himself and not other people.”
Romney told “Axios on HBO” that Republican lawmakers refrain from criticizing Trump because “people want to hang onto their job.”
“There’s no upside in going on out and attacking the leader of your party, ’cause that’s just gonna let someone come in and primary you on the right,” he said.
He also said fellow Republican lawmakers “don’t want to do something which makes it more likely for [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.] to become president or for us to lose the Senate.”
The Republican senator said “that’s where there’s frustration” in the GOP conference over Romney’s comments.
“There’s also some talk that he’s bitter,” the lawmaker added, referring to Romney’s unsuccessful bids for president in 2008 and 2012.
A second Republican senator who requested anonymity also took issue with Romney’s comments.
“I’m surprised he makes the statements he makes,” said the lawmaker, who wondered whether Romney is happy in the Senate, where moving legislation can be a laborious process that tests one’s patience.
The senator said Romney seems to want to have a higher profile than is typical for a freshman senator who ranks near the bottom of the chamber in seniority.
Romney told The Hill on Tuesday that Republican colleagues don’t complain to him directly.
“Not to me personally,” he said when asked if he’s gotten any pushback from fellow Republicans.
When asked about Trump’s complaint that he was being undermined, Romney said, “He’s got his own perspective and expresses it openly.”
Romney’s defenders dispute there’s any lingering bitterness and note that he has praised Trump’s performance in the 2016 election.
After meeting with Trump for dinner shortly after winning the White House, Romney noted, “It’s not easy winning. I know that myself.”
“He did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful in,” Romney said.
“He won the general election and he continues with a message of inclusion and bringing people together and his vision is something which obviously connected with the American people in a very powerful way,” he said.
Romney was said at the time to be a contender to serve as Trump’s secretary of State, a reflection of his deep interest in foreign policy.
The dinner, however, was perceived by some in the media as merely an attempt by Trump to receive homage from a Republican elder statesman who adamantly opposed his candidacy during the 2016 primary.