Never Trump conservatives, meanwhile, rejoiced at the incoming senator’s gauntlet-throwing, with Bill Kristol declaring him “the leader of the Republican resistance to Trump.” And skeptics on the left rolled their eyes at the whole spectacle, predicting that Romney would end up voting for the president’s agenda when it really mattered.
This is not how Romney envisioned his arrival in Washington going when he launched his Senate bid back in February. In conversations over the past year with allies and advisers close to the then-candidate—many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly—I heard repeatedly that Romney was determined not to define himself by his roller-coasterlike relationship with Trump. He had his own ideas, his own agenda, and he wanted to devote his energies toward advancing a Republican alternative to Trumpism without wading into endless Twitter fights and feuds with Trump himself.
Romney didn’t necessarily shy away from criticizing the president on the campaign trail. In a Salt Lake Tribune op-ed published in June, he made essentially the same pledge he made Tuesday in the Post: that he would support Trump’s policies when he agreed with them, oppose them when he didn’t, and continue to speak out against the president’s behavior when he deemed it significantly “divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions” (as he put it in both op-eds).
Still, Romney had hoped to enter the Senate on at least relatively good terms with Trump, in the interest of working with the White House on areas of common ground. (In the Post, he expressed support for the president’s corporate tax cuts, his confrontational approach to China’s trade policies, and his support for criminal-justice reform.) But Romney was apparently alarmed enough by recent events in the White House to sacrifice that conciliatory approach in favor of speaking out.
“The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December,” Romney wrote in his op-ed. “The departures of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, the appointment of senior persons of lesser experience, the abandonment of allies who fight beside us, and the president’s thoughtless claim that America has long been a ‘sucker’ in world affairs all defined his presidency down.”
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Romney, of course, must have known that Trump—obsessed as he is with loyalty—would interpret this op-ed as an assault. That he chose to write it anyway suggests, at the very least, that the incoming senator is not prioritizing his relationship with the president. Nor is he laboring under the delusion that he can simply ignore Trump as he goes about his business in the Senate. To some extent, everyone in Washington eventually gets sucked in to the Trump vortex. Romney, it seems, is preparing for that inevitability.