Read: Mitt Romney’s noisy arrival in Trump’s Washington
After having softened his criticism of the president and even tacitly accepting his endorsement during his Senate campaign in Utah, Romney wrote:
To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.
Democrats and some pundits sniffed that Romney was just another Jeff Flake, all bark and no bite. Republicans derided the decision to call Trump out, with many of them attacking Romney in response—including his own niece, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who called his criticism “disappointing and unproductive.”
The backlash to the op-ed was a crash course in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” But if you look closely, you can see that Romney was laying the groundwork for an eventual challenge to Trump. He was getting into position to get into position.
That said, he didn’t mobilize over the Mueller report, saying only that he was “sickened” by what the special counsel uncovered. Romney’s relatively low profile and mere brow furrowing exasperated Democrats and worried apostate Republicans (like me) who held out hope that Romney might become a Goldwater-like figure in the Senate: a former presidential nominee with the clout to exact some accountability from his party’s president.
Read: Mitt Romney is not joining the resistance
Now it looks like Romney was playing the long game, waiting for a moment when there might be leverage for him not simply to annoy Trump, but to be in the jury box rendering a verdict on his presidency. Which is exactly where the whistle-blower report about Trump and his dealings with Ukraine may put him. Suddenly we’ve gone from an environment where impeachment couldn’t even clear the House Democratic caucus to one where polling support for impeachment and removal is above 50 percent, and rising.
Romney has not rushed to get ahead of the process. Instead, he’s engaged with characteristic caution. At first, he called the allegations “troubling in the extreme.” When the readout of Trump’s call with President Volodymyr Zelensky and the whistle-blower complaint became public, providing clearer evidence that the president had courted foreign interference in the coming election, and seemingly pressured a vulnerable ally to do the interfering, Romney stepped up his criticism, calling it “wrong and appalling.”