It was a brazen, albeit not unexpected, move. And it signals how the president may enter campaign season, feeling that he is finally clear of the plots arrayed against him and ready to ditch any remaining veneer of restraint. “Unleashed” was how one White House official described the president. The politics of grievance have, once again, defeated the White House aides who wish Trump would stick to the economy.
First on Trump’s election-year hit list: Mitt Romney.
Trump felt particularly aggrieved by Romney’s sole GOP vote to boot him from the White House, according to a Republican familiar with the White House and a senior administration official.
Trump had shown uncharacteristic control toward the Utah senator during the impeachment process, heeding the advice of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to lay off individual senators ahead of the impeachment trial.
In the weeks leading up to the Senate trial, Trump gave Romney space to make a decision. He did not court or pressure him or phone him directly and frequently as he often does with Republican lawmakers. Both Romney allies on Capitol Hill and advisers close to the White House told the president they believed Romney would vote to acquit him. With less than 24 hours to go until the impeachment vote, Romney allies kept signaling to Republican lawmakers and the White House that Romney was leaning toward acquittal. All the while, Romney’s office avoided contact with the White House.
Then, on Tuesday afternoon, the chatter about Romney went silent, a fact White House aides reported to the president.
Trump and White House officials later learned that Romney had given embargoed interviews to the Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post on his decision to vote to convict Trump.
Trump felt hoodwinked. And it showed.
“The president’s frustration with Romney’s vote was because he did nothing wrong,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
Trump began needling Romney at the traditionally nonpartisan National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, chiding the senator’s declaration that his faith had helped guide him to vote to convict the president. Faith, Trump said, was merely a “crutch” for Romney.
Hours later, speaking from the East Room at the White House, Trump cut down Romney as bitter about his failed 2012 run for president.
“The only one that voted against us was a guy that can’t stand the fact that he ran one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency,” Trump said.
Hours after that, the White House blasted out talking points to its surrogates, titled “Romney (Once Again) Ditches Principles to Seek Far-Left’s Adulation.”
“Sadly, Romney’s decision was unsurprising as this display of self-serving political expedience has come to define his political career,” it read.
The Republican close to the White House predicted that this was the opening salvo in a campaign to ostracize Romney.
“There is a reason to believe Romney misled many people close to the White House, and now there’s a sense that all bets are off. I would expect there to be some fallout for him that is driven by the president and his allies,” the Republican said.
Yet there may not be much Trump can do to exact revenge on Romney, apart from dishing out mean girl insults and trying to socially isolate the lawmaker from the Republican Party. At 72, Romney is toward the end of his career, exorbitantly wealthy and does not face reelection until 2024. His hometown paper applauded his vote to convict Trump on one of the articles of impeachment.
“All Utahns, all Americans, regardless of politics, ideology or religion should be duly impressed with Romney’s decision to follow his heart and his conscience — and his God — in doing the right thing when doing the right thing was difficult,” The Salt Lake Tribune wrote in an editorial published after the vote.
Josh Holmes, president of the consulting firm Cavalry and a former McConnell chief of staff, said he has “no motivation to question Sen. Romney’s motives.”
“But as a Republican watching this entire process unfold, you can’t help but to remember the process he underwent in 2012 when, everyone who is now praising his moves as the second-coming, said he was a stiff, cancer-causing, tax cheat,” Holmes said, recalling attacks against Romney during his 2012 presidential run against Barack Obama. “The people defending him from those unjust claims were all of his Republican colleagues who he disappointed with this vote.”
McConnell told reporters on Wednesday that there would be no retribution against Romney in the Senate, nor would Romney be in the “dog house.”
“We don’t have any dog houses here,” McConnell said. “The most important vote is the next vote.”
Trump and his allies, however, do not have to corral Romney’s vote for anything of note in the coming months. And, as Romney noted in his floor speech announcing his decision, the Utah senator already votes with Trump’s position nearly 80 percent of the time.
Romney is not the only one in the Trump administration’s crosshairs.
Two Republican senators sent a letter to the Secret Service requesting information about Hunter Biden’s travel during Joe Biden’s tenure as vice president, part of an attempt to conduct the investigation that Trump couldn’t get Ukraine to launch.
“People should be held accountable,” Grisham said on Fox News Wednesday morning. “The Democrats should be held accountable for not only what they did to the president and to his family but the country.”
Another move at the Justice Department had Trump’s critics worried that the Trump administration was also taking steps to protect the president from further scrutiny. Attorney General William Barr issued a memo requiring his sign-off on any investigations into a 2020 presidential candidate. Barr has long expressed skepticism about the probe that was launched into Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Still, much of Trumpworld’s ire is trained on Romney for the moment.
Trump friend and Fox News host Sean Hannity told his viewers Wednesday that they “have every right to be” mad at Romney.
“Frankly, it is sad. Mitt Romney is now a diminished figure,” he said. “Clearly, losing a presidential election ruins people. You don’t believe me? Look at Al Gore, look at Hillary Clinton. And even to some extent, I would argue, John McCain.”
Romney said he expected to face “unimaginable” consequences.
“I don’t know what they’ll be,” Romney told The New York Times’ podcast “The Daily.” “I know there will be consequences, and I just need to recognize that and do what I think is right.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.