Recognizing, perhaps, that he might just need Mitt Romney after all, President Donald Trump invited him to the White House yesterday as the chances that the Senate will ultimately decide Trump’s fate grow by the hour.
A natural ally in Trump’s apparent efforts to woo Romney amid the impeachment drama would seem to be the woman who calls him “Uncle Mitt”: Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. But judging by recent comments, it sounds like McDaniel would just as soon stay out of it.
Hours before the White House meeting, McDaniel met with reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast devoted mostly to the 2020 election. There, I had a question for her. The president she’s working to reelect has called her uncle a “pompous ass” who has failed his Utah constituents; her uncle has said Trump’s effort to get dirt on Joe Biden from foreign powers is “appalling.”
“Who’s right here?” I asked.
“Thanks for that really great, fun question,” McDaniel said.
There’s no great answer. McDaniel is in an untenable spot, but it’s one she’s enthusiastically accepted. Taking a plum position from the 45th president involves certain trade-offs. Trump demands loyalty and expects people in his camp to defend behavior that is tough to excuse, setting up moral and ethical dilemmas that on occasion play out in public. I once spoke with a top White House official who confided that he was embarrassed to tell friends he worked for Trump. Other officials have worried that if they gave dubious public justifications for the president’s conduct, they’d forever stain their reputations. When serving Trump splits families, it can be excruciating to watch, as people make the most fundamental of choices: politics or blood.
McDaniel has already shown that her political loyalties lie with Trump. But she may face a more severe test as impeachment barrels forward. If Romney, who’s long been critical of the president, opts for his removal, an aggrieved Trump might call for reprisals. As the head of the Republican Party, would he repudiate Romney, and would he demand that his RNC chair—the senator’s niece—go along?
McDaniel downplayed any tension. At the breakfast, she said she loves her uncle and sees him at Senate Republican lunches. But she voiced no appetite for brokering a truce. “I’ve said, these are two grown men, very capable; they can work out their differences,” she said.
Growing up, she said, she would see Romney “a fair amount” when he was living in Massachusetts, and when her father was ill earlier this year, she spoke often with her uncle. They won’t be getting together next week, however; she said their families typically don’t meet for Thanksgiving dinners.
“A lot of families have disagreements right now about politics,” she said. “I think people can relate to that. So we just choose not to talk about it when we see each other.”
Perhaps one family that can relate is the Conways, whom McDaniel mentioned. In an interview this morning on Fox & Friends, Trump waded into their marriage. He called George Conway, one of the president’s most persistent public critics and the husband of the White House counselor Kellyanne, a “whack job” and said “she must have done some baad things to him, because that guy is crazy.”
Last week, George Conway and Donald Trump Jr. traded insults over Twitter, with the president’s eldest son calling him a “guy who routinely & publicly embarrasses his wife by attacking her boss.”
Kellyanne Conway has bristled when the press has drawn attention to an awkward marital dynamic that is impossible not to notice. Last month, she berated a Washington Examiner reporter who had mentioned her husband’s criticisms of Trump in an article about her possibly becoming White House chief of staff. “I’m just wondering if you routinely talk about people’s spouses,” Conway asked the reporter.
At the breakfast, McDaniel said, “I feel for Kellyanne sometimes. The family stuff is tough.”
McDaniel is a former Republican Party chairwoman of Michigan, a crucial battleground state that Trump carried in the 2016 election. A grateful Trump worked to elevate her to the RNC chairmanship in April 2017 and is relying on her to help raise money and build a ground game to win reelection.
Before she took over the RNC, Trump asked her if she’d stop publicly using “Romney” as her middle name, The Washington Post reported. In the fall of 2016, the Michigan Republican Party website listed her as Ronna Romney McDaniel. Today, the RNC website omits her maiden name.
At least once, McDaniel very publicly took a side in the on-again, off-again feud between her uncle and the president—Trump’s side. When Senator Romney wrote an op-ed for the Post in January criticizing the president for not rising “to the mantle of the office,” McDaniel addressed it on Twitter. Referring to Uncle Mitt only as an “incoming Republican freshman senator,” she said his attack was “unproductive.”
McDaniel mentioned the dustup in her appearance. The president had called her later to make sure she wasn’t upset. “He doesn’t like to see that have to be pulled into the public arena,” she said. The next morning, he tweeted that she was “a great Chairwoman.” So far, Trump doesn’t seem to have penalized either Kellyanne Conway or McDaniel over anything said by their family members. A delicate entente has held together. Will it last?