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Mitt Romney, running for Senate, appears to warm up to Trump

Updated June 10, 2018 - 5:39 pm

PARK CITY, Utah — On the edge of a mountaintop in Utah, it’s getting complicated for Mitt Romney.

With the sun setting over his shoulder, the former Republican presidential nominee and would-be senator tells his audience, gathered on the patio of a resort, that President Donald Trump will win a second term. Romney also says that annual $1 trillion deficits under Trump are “highly stimulative.” And ignoring Trump’s new trade tariffs, Romney says there’s nothing already on the horizon that will push the U.S. into a recession.

Once the face of the “Never Trump” movement, Romney appears to be embracing Trump’s presidency as he re-enters national politics, this time as a 71-year-old candidate for the Senate from Utah.

Perhaps no Republican leader demonstrates the transformation of the modern-day party better than Romney.

Two years ago, Romney attacked Trump’s very same policies on trade, spending and national security. Today, like other candidates across the country this election season, Romney is taking an approach that suggests there’s no room for an outspoken Trump critic in Republican Party.

“Whatever the disagreements have been, I think they’ve put them behind each other,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a former Romney fundraiser who briefly served as Trump’s communications director.

Park City summit

Scaramucci was among dozens of high-profile business and political leaders at Romney’s annual summit in Park City this weekend. Outspoken Trump supporters were scarce.

The president has forgiven Romney, Scaramucci said, and Romney “can be an ally.”

It may not be that simple.

Many Romney loyalists, in comments in the hallways of the Stein Eriksen Lodge, said Romney remains deeply concerned about Trump’s policies and leadership style. For many among the Trump faithful, Romney will never be forgiven for his speech two years ago when he laid out in stark terms his case for why a Trump presidency would be a disaster.

2016 aftermath

Publicly, the two men have been respectful to each other, at a distance, since the 2016 election.

Trump endorsed Romney’s Senate bid on Twitter earlier this year. And on Friday, the president had this to say after learning Romney predicted a 2020 Trump victory: “Mitt’s a straight shooter — whether people love him or don’t love him.”

The backhanded compliment is evidence of the lingering tension between Republican heavyweights who represent different wings of the GOP.

Romney is the face of the establishment. He spent much of the past decade working to strengthen the conservative movement and elect Republicans. Trump has taken over the GOP by attacking its own leaders at times with a brand of populism that defies long-cherished conservative positions on trade, fiscal discipline and foreign policy.

Romney must make it through the June 26 primary and the general election in November, but most see it as a foregone conclusion that he will succeed retiring GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch in this Republican stronghold.

The focus, therefore, has already begun to shift toward Romney’s fit in Trump’s GOP once he gets to Washington.

“There are issues he wants to dive deep on — and I don’t think he’ll be bashful in taking on Donald Trump or (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell for that matter,” said Jason Chaffetz, a close Romney ally and a recently retired congressman from Utah. “He’s no rookie freshman senator. He’s going to come with a little more clout and gravitas than that.”

Those closer to Romney suggest a murkier path ahead.

“It’s really complicated,” said Lanhee Chen, a senior aide on Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign who remains close to Romney’s inner circle. “I don’t think he’s going there to be an agitator.”

But Chen said Romney sees a void in Congress he’s eager to fill, particularly on foreign policy and federal spending, as more independent-minded Republican senators such as Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Tennessee’s Bob Corker prepare to step down, and Arizona’s John McCain battles brain cancer.

‘Sucked into the Trump vortex’

In the time since Trump won the presidency, however, there are signs that Romney is inclined to defer to the undisputed Republican leader.

Romney disappointed some admirers with his prediction on Thursday about Trump’s re-election. A spokeswoman later declined to say whether Romney was formally endorsing Trump’s 2020 campaign. But Romney’s words echoed across the political world, discouraging what remains of the GOP’s Never Trump movement.

“Everybody gets sucked into the Trump vortex. I really thought Romney would somewhat stay above it,” said Kendal Unruh, a Colorado-based conservative activist who tried to block Trump’s nomination at the 2016 national convention.

Unruh said Romney’s latest remarks prompted her to re-read his March 2016 speech in which he called Trump “a phony” and “a “fake.”

In that scathing attack, Romney warned that Trump’s proposed tariffs would trigger recession, his spending plans would explode the national debt and his foreign policy would endanger America’s security.

“All those things are happening,” Unruh said. “Isn’t it amazing what an endorsement can do? I’ve lost respect for Mitt Romney.”

Romney has walked a fine line on Trump in his Senate campaign, aligning himself with many of the president’s policies while subtly raising concerns about Trump’s leadership style.

‘He can be an ally’

In his weekend remarks, Romney initially described the increase in deficit-spending under Trump as one of the “extraordinary stimulus actions” in Trump’s first year in office. Romney later raised concerns about the cost of such red ink.

“We don’t seem to be making much progress on that,” Romney said.

With the primary approaching, Romney doesn’t appear to be paying a political price for the balancing act in Utah, where Romney remains a beloved adopted son and many conservatives share mixed views of the president.

There are Romney critics, however.

Former Republican state lawmaker Curt Oda said he doesn’t trust Romney. “I think he’ll do things to stall the president, whether it’s good or not … just because he hates the president so badly,” he said.

Scaramucci, however, insists there’s no bad blood from Trump’s perspective.

Romney “said the guy’s going to win re-election,” Scaramucci said. ‘I think he can be an ally.”

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