On Friday, Sen. Mitt Romney criticized President Trump’s appeals to Ukraine and China to investigate Joe Biden. The Utah Republican didn’t go so far as to support the impeachment inquiry — but over the weekend, Trump blasted back on Twitter. To better understand where Romney fits in among Republicans during talk of impeachment, KUER’s Caroline Ballard turned to McKay Coppins, a Washington-based staff writer for The Atlantic who has been following Romney and the Republican party for years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: As someone who’s followed Mitt Romney and the Republican party very closely, what was your reaction seeing Romney’s tweets Friday?
McKay Coppins: Romney has been one of the very few Republicans of his stature to voice criticism of President Trump in the past. He famously refused to endorse him for the presidency in 2016 and has continued to be a relatively outspoken critic of Trump. I think what made this time different is that the stakes do seem higher. This is an impeachment inquiry.
The peril that Donald Trump's presidency faces is more dramatic than it has been in the past. And for the most part we've seen other Republicans here in Washington either rally to the president's defense or stay silent in the face of mounting evidence in this scandal. Mitt Romney's voice was a welcome one to many Democrats, and kind of an irritation to Republicans who are hoping that the president will be able to ride out this controversy.
When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) October 4, 2019
CB: President Trump responded forcefully on Twitter over the weekend calling Romney a “pompous ass” and saying that there are people in Utah who regret voting for the freshman senator. Is Romney risking anything with his Utah constituents with this criticism of Trump?
MC: Shortly after Romney was elected in 2018, there was some data that was released by The Associated Press that showed that the majority of Utah voters wanted to see him stand up to President Trump. Utah is a different kind of red state. The politics are idiosyncratic. Trump won that state in 2016 but with a plurality of the vote — he didn't even win 50% of the vote.
So this is a state that I think a lot of Mitt Romney's constituents would like to see him hold the president accountable. They don't feel as loyal to this president, and I think that Mitt Romney in particular, having been the first Latter-day Saints major party nominee for the presidency, has a certain standing in his community that makes him somewhat protected from the president's attacks.
That said, I spoke to Mitt Romney a couple of weeks ago, and he did make a point of saying that some of the Republican voters in his state are irritated that he is not being more loyal to this president.
But Romney basically said – Look, I've had my career in business. I've run for president. I've been a governor. I'm at the stage where I'm hoping I can do some good with this. But my life isn't going to be defined by whether I win re-election next time.
Mitt Romney never knew how to win. He is a pompous “ass” who has been fighting me from the beginning, except when he begged me for my endorsement for his Senate run (I gave it to him), and when he begged me to be Secretary of State (I didn’t give it to him). He is so bad for R’s!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 5, 2019
CB: All things aside he is incurring the president's wrath. Does that come with a risk?
MC: It does, though I think that actually the president's strategy here is more directed at other Republicans. He's trying to make an example of Mitt Romney. I've spoken to a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill in the last couple weeks, and they say Mitt Romney doesn't seem especially susceptible to being bullied or intimidated by the president.
But a lot of other Republicans are seeing him incur this wrath from the White House, and they're saying “I don't want to be the next guy that Trump takes on, on Twitter.” And so to a certain extent this is less about Mitt Romney as it is about the rest of the Republicans in Washington.
CB: Is Romney emerging as a voice or a leader for moderate Republicans who are against the president’s actions? Do you see him taking up that standard?
MC: I think Mitt Romney is more ready to speak his mind and to be critical than most other Republicans in Congress. That said, as more evidence comes out and as the investigation progresses and the inquiry progresses, if we do see a cascade effect where more Republicans come out against the president or break with the president, it will be because Mitt Romney was the first one to take that stand.
CB: Romney said Trump's actions were brazen, unprecedented, wrong and appalling. But are other people seeing it that way?
MC: You know, behind closed doors there's a wide diversity of opinions on this. A lot of Republicans are expressing frustration with the president. They're probably closer to Mitt Romney's take on events than Trump's but they're not willing to say it out loud.
Other Republicans genuinely do think that this is being blown out of proportion; that this isn't the major scandal the Democrats are trying to make it into. And they think that Trump is being railroaded, which has sort of been the line on Trump from the beginning of his presidency.
But one of the reasons I think Mitt Romney feels kind of compelled or empowered to speak out is because he's voicing the frustrations that he knows a lot of his colleagues privately feel.
The problem is that a lot of them are worried about the political fallout or the blowback that they'll receive if they say it, and so Mitt Romney — being in a relatively safe seat, being near the end of his career — feels more liberated to make this point than a lot of his Republican colleagues.