Business executives, wealthy donors and political leaders gathered in Park City on Friday for former Gov. Mitt Romney’s annual leadership and political summit, where speakers and attendees had a decidedly more upbeat take on President Trump’s first few months in office.
“We’re not as far apart as I feared early on,” said Romney during an afternoon Q&A at his E2 Summit.
Romney pointed to Trump's business-friendly policies and choice of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as examples of where he and Trump aligned. He also addressed the question of why, after previously criticizing Trump, he had considered taking the Secretary of State position in his administration.
Romney explained that he had received encouragement from President George W. Bush, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his wife, Ann Romney, to at least consider it — and believed Trump’s outreach might signal a willingness to listen to different points of view.
“I didn’t believe for a minute I could tell him what to do on any of those things, but I thought that that kind of openness was very encouraging,” said Romney. “And if he was willing to have me in that position, I would be anxious to serve because I love the country.”
Trump eventually chose Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who Romney called a good choice. Romney said he was probably not the right person for the job given how widely he differs with Trump on foreign policy.
Now in its sixth year, the E2 Summit brings together about 230 people from the world of business and politics for three days of speakers, networking and outdoor recreation, including a brisk early-morning hike with Romney and skeet shooting with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The proceedings, at a private lodge on the grounds of the Deer Valley Ski Resort, are mostly private, with no recording or photography allowed.
This year’s summit featured speakers such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former CIA Director Mike Morrell and CEOs of companies like FedEx and Dow Chemical.
Sen. Graham gave a more cautiously optimistic view on Trump, saying he could still be a consequential president if he changed some of his behavior. That would include taking a tougher stance on Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
“All the problems he has today are not Comey, they’re Putin,” said Sen. Graham of the controversy over Trump’s decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey.
“Putin threw our country into chaos by hacking into the Democratic National Committee emails... I don’t think the president really appreciates like Mitt Romney did — and Mitt you were right,” he said, referencing Romney's description of Russia as the U.S.’s greatest geo-political threat during his failed run for president in 2012.
“They continue to be a geo-political adversary,” Romney said later.
Sen. John McCain also called on Trump to take a harder line on Russia. He said both he and Graham would urge Trump to sign sanctions that they plan to introduce in the Senate next week.
Although politics looms large at E2, organizers say the discussions are largely oriented around business. This year’s theme included a focus on global security.
“There’s less focus on candidate X, Y and Z, and this year we’re able to focus on the two main purposes that this whole E2 summit was drawn up for — that is policy discussions and high-level business introductions,” said Matt Waldrip, E2's executive director.
Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical, was one of the speakers this year who straddles both the world of politics of and business, having recently been tapped to lead President Trump’s American Manufacturing Task Force.
He said the administration plans to make a workforce retraining program a centerpiece of a forthcoming jobs initiative.
The summit is mostly a who’s who of the Republican establishment — House Speaker Paul Ryan and Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz were both seen chatting over lunch — but former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden was slated to close out Friday night's list of speakers.