Mitt Romney’s Humiliating Trump Reversal
It’s “like old times,” Mitt Romney said to a group of reporters on Tuesday night as he emerged from Trump International Hotel, which is in the old Gulf & Western building, at 1 Central Park West. Rubbing his hands together and flashing a smile that stretched all the way from his bottom teeth to his upper lip, he added, “I had a wonderful evening with President-elect Trump. We had another discussion about affairs throughout the world, and these discussions I’ve had with him have been enlightening and interesting and engaging. I’ve enjoyed them very, very much.”
If Romney weren’t so eager to be Secretary of State, and so pious an individual, it might have been assumed that his reference to “affairs throughout the world” was a none-too-subtle jab at his host. But no, we must put away such mischievous thoughts. Back in March, Romney may have called Donald Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” whose “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” But on this occasion, for the second time in two weeks, the former Massachusetts governor had come not to bury the President-elect but to kowtow before him, and to discuss their joint plans to further the white-working-class revolution.
O.K., that last bit isn’t quite accurate. Over dinner in a private room at Jean-Georges, a posh restaurant located in the Trump hotel, Romney and Trump, along with Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be White House chief of staff, ordered appetizers of garlic soup with thyme and sautéed frog legs, and diver scallops with caramelized cauliflower and caper-raisin emulsion. (These details emerged in a subsequent readout from Trump’s press team.) For their main courses, Priebus and Trump had sirloin steak with citrus-glazed carrots; Romney had lamb chops with a mushroom Bolognese sauce.
No vegetarians here, and no weight watchers, either. For dessert, they each had chocolate cake. Romney, though, managed to work off some calories by extending his post-meal grovelling encomium to Trump, which, in the light of the following day, only reflected worse on the man who, during the campaign, had distinguished himself as one of the few prominent Republicans willing to tell truths about the Party’s Presidential candidate. (After the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged, in early October, Romney tweeted, “Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.”)
To the accompaniment of whirring cameras, Romney explained that he was “very impressed by the remarks he made on his victory night.” He went on, “By the way, it’s not easy winning. I know that myself. He did something I tried to do and was unsuccessful in. He won the general election and he continues with a message of inclusion and bringing people together, and his vision is something which obviously connected with the American people in a very powerful way.”
No, you didn’t misread that quote. Romney credited Trump for having a message of inclusion. And he wasn’t done. He also praised Trump for conducting his transition effectively and picking “solid, effective, capable people.” (Perhaps you’ve heard that Sarah Palin is in the running for Secretary of Veterans Affairs?) Romney finished his remarks by saying that he had “increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.”
It is to be hoped that Romney’s wife, Ann, his five sons, and his former campaign strategist Stuart Stevens, who was even more critical of Trump during the campaign than his boss was, haven’t been forced to sit through this abject display of cant, falsehoods, and self-abnegation. Though Romney lost to President Obama in 2012, and lost pretty badly, he held his head high and emerged with his honor largely intact. But now this. And all for what?
The charitable interpretation is that Romney is taking one—a big, painful one—for Team U.S.A., or, indeed, Team World. With an inexperienced, thin-skinned narcissist and ranter heading for the Oval Office, it would obviously be reassuring to have someone with a calm demeanor and a reality-based view of things with him in the Situation Room when bad things happen, as they inevitably will. Just as, back in 1999, Romney volunteered to save the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the argument goes, he is now volunteering to save the rest of us from Trump, and even to save Trump from himself. As Frank Bruni wrote in Tuesday’s Times, “If Trump taps Romney, he’ll be sending a powerful message to an anxious world that he’s not hostage to the darkest parts of his character.”
But the cynical explanation is that Romney is in it for himself. He’s sixty-nine, and this is almost certainly his last chance to hold high government office. “Romney critics—and those are the people pushing this theory—point to his past flip-flops on such issues as abortion and gay marriage as evidence that when a deeply held belief comes up against Romney’s ambition, ambition always wins,” the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza noted on Wednesday. “So, Romney wants to be secretary of state more than he hates Trump. It’s that simple a calculation.”
Whatever the real explanation is, Romney is risking what is left of his reputation. As Secretary of State, he would have to work with, and act as a global emissary for, someone who, to use Romney’s own words from March, has “neither the temperament nor the judgment to be President,” someone whose “personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.” Maybe Romney genuinely believes he can put lipstick on a pig, or, at least, prevent Trump for doing something catastrophic. But surely the prospect cannot fill him with joy.
And that’s assuming he gets the job. According to reports on Wednesday afternoon, he’s one of four remaining contenders. Trump’s short list for Foggy Bottom still includes Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor; David Petraeus, the former general and C.I.A. director; and the Republican Senator Bob Corker, the reports said. What if Romney, after having gone back on his earlier statements and courted Trump so publicly, gets passed over anyway? Well, his humiliation will be complete.
Even now, it is pretty far advanced. During the dinner at Jean-Georges, Drew Angerer, a photographer with Getty Images News, was admitted to the restaurant, where he took a picture of the two erstwhile foes. Trump had a sly-looking grin on his face. Romney appeared to be grimacing. “Donald Trump looks like a cat that caught a mouse and is now batting it around with its paws until it dies,” Taegan Goddard, the publisher of Political Wire, wrote on Twitter. “Romney is the mouse.”