Mitt Romney Calls It Quits. And His Burn Book Is Something Else.
Washington D.C. felt political tremors yesterday over two related stories.
First, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the Republican Party’s presidential candidate 11 years ago, announced he would not run again for his Senate seat in 2024.
Second, excerpts from his biography, written by McKay Coppins after countless late night interviews with the Senator, have dropped in a shattering preview piece in The Atlantic.
By now you know I love referencing the movie Mean Girls, and wow, this is definitely a Burn Book. In my head I see his colleague running around the Senate halls and tackling a fist-raising Josh Hawley in a brawl, while Romney stands still, smiling with some satisfaction amidst the chaos.
But in all seriousness, Romney didn’t hold back. Now that he has nothing to lose, along with a conscience and record he apparently wants to clear, Romney’s accounts of the GOP behind the scenes, and of the party he once led but now literally fears, are a gripping read, and ultimately very unsettling. They confirm what many have long suspected but the Republican Party has kept secret behind closed doors, and for the first time they confirm a very dark threat to the rule of law in our Republic.
With this book, Romney has broken faith, and ranks, and the party’s deep pathologies and treachery to our constitution are being laid bare. The Atlantic piece teaser is worth a read, but it is lengthy. So as a civic service to those who don’t have the time, I’m covering some of the highlights. I’m sure there will be more to come.
On his fellow party members
“A very large portion of my party really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”
Those are chilling words, coming from within the highest ranks of the party and the former GOP presidential nominee. They, along with the rest of his accounts, will likely mean Romney sits alone in the cafeteria from now on, assuming no one else from his party is willing to speak the truth and join him. But he’ll be in good spiritual company, even while alone: MAGA has also rejected the legacies of former presidential candidate John McCain and of the two Bush presidents.
Here’s what Coppins wrote of Romney’s views on certain leaders of the GOP. It fairly drips with contempt.
Mike Pence: Romney had long been put off by Pence’s pious brand of Trump sycophancy. No one, he told me, has been “more loyal, more willing to smile when he saw absurdities, more willing to ascribe God’s will to things that were ungodly than Mike Pence.”
Paul Ryan: [H]ere was Ryan on the phone, making the same arguments Romney had heard from some of his more calculating colleagues. Ryan told him that voting to convict Trump would make Romney an outcast in the party, that many of the people who’d tried to get him elected president would never speak to him again, and that he’d struggle to pass any meaningful legislation.
Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley: What bothered Romney most about Hawley and his cohort was the oily disingenuousness. “They know better!” he told me. “Josh Hawley is one of the smartest people in the Senate, if not the smartest, and Ted Cruz could give him a run for his money.” They were too smart, Romney believed, to actually think that Trump had won the 2020 election. Hawley and Cruz “were making a calculation,” Romney told me, “that put politics above the interests of liberal democracy and the Constitution.”
Ron Johnson: Romney drew a distinction between the Republican colleagues he viewed as sincerely crazy and those who were faking it for votes. He was open, for instance, to partnering with Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the conspiracy-spouting, climate-change-denying, anti-vax Trump disciple, because while he could be exasperating—once, Romney told me, after listening to an extended lecture on Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian business dealings, he blurted “Ron, is there any conspiracy you don’t believe?”—you could at least count on his good faith. What Romney couldn’t stomach any longer was associating himself with people who cynically stoked distrust in democracy for selfish political reasons.
J.D. Vance: “I don’t know that I can disrespect someone more than J. D. Vance,” Romney told me…. Vance, who grew up in a poor, dysfunctional family in Appalachia and went on to graduate from Yale Law School, had seemed bright and thoughtful, with interesting ideas about how Republicans could court the white working class without indulging in toxic Trumpism. Then, in 2021, Vance decided he wanted to run for Senate, and reinvented his entire persona overnight. Suddenly, he was railing against the “childless left” and denouncing Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a “fake holiday” and accusing Joe Biden of manufacturing the opioid crisis “to punish people who didn’t vote for him.” The speed of the MAGA makeover was jarring…. Romney wished he could grab Vance by the shoulders and scream: This is not worth it! “It’s not like you’re going to be famous and powerful because you became a United States senator. It’s like, really? You sell yourself so cheap?” The prospect of having Vance in the caucus made Romney uncomfortable. “How do you sit next to him at lunch?”
On Mitch McConnell
Coppins recounts a fascinating relationship between Romney, who is something of a principled conservative idealist, and McConnell, who is known as a wily political strategist bent on winning at all costs.
McConnell was brutally candid in private about his views on Trump, even while publicly backing him. One example was when news broke of Trump’s “perfect call” to President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, in which he threatened to withhold military aid unless he did him a “favor” and dug up dirt on Joe Biden. That call set off the first of the Trump impeachments. Writes Coppins,
Romney called the scheme “wrong and appalling,” and Trump responded with a wrathful series of tweets that culminated with a call to #IMPEACHMITTROMNEY. A few weeks later, Romney read in the press that McConnell had privately urged Trump to stop attacking members of the Senate. Romney thanked McConnell for sticking up for him against Trump.
“It wasn’t for you so much as for him,” McConnell replied. “He’s an idiot. He doesn’t think when he says things. How stupid do you have to be to not realize that you shouldn’t attack your jurors?
“You’re lucky,” McConnell continued. “You can say the things that we all think. You’re in a position to say things about him that we all agree with but can’t say.” (A spokesperson said that McConnell does not recall this conversation and that he was “fully aligned” with Trump during the impeachment trial.)
At one point, after the Democratic House impeachment managers had completed their presentation, McConnell spoke candidly once again to Romney. “They nailed him,” confessed McConnell.
Romney was surprised and responded carefully: “Well, the defense will say that Trump was just investigating corruption by the Bidens.”
“If you believe that,” McConnell replied, “I’ve got a bridge I can sell you.” (Coppin notes that “McConnell said he does not recall this conversation and it does not match his thinking at the time.”)
At the end of the first impeachment trial, McConnell put pressure upon Romney to vote to acquit. He didn’t bother to defend Trump’s actions, arguing instead that protecting the GOP’s majority was a matter of national importance. McConnell believed Trump would lose the election, and it would be apocalyptic for the party if the Democrats took control of the Senate: Medicare for All, Green New Deal, statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico. Romney was unpersuaded and ultimately became the only GOP senator to vote to convict Trump after the first impeachment.
On Donald Trump and what MAGA has wrought
Romney’s disdain for Trump has long been a matter of public record. What he didn’t know was that his disgust was shared by his Republican colleagues. Coppins writes,
“Almost without exception,” he told me, “they shared my view of the president.” In public, of course, they played their parts as Trump loyalists, often contorting themselves rhetorically to defend the president’s most indefensible behavior. But in private, they ridiculed his ignorance, rolled their eyes at his antics, and made incisive observations about his warped, toddler-like psyche.
One episode that Trump probably would hate to hear about, because he always fears, correctly, that others are laughing at him behind his back, involved an afternoon in 2019 when Trump came to the GOP weekly lunch. Trump was high off the news that the Mueller report had failed to establish criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump Campaign in 2016. Recalls Romney,
[T]he president was met with a standing ovation fit for a conquering hero, and then launched into some rambling remarks. He talked about the so-called Russia hoax and relitigated the recent midterm elections and swung wildly from one tangent to another. He declared, somewhat implausibly, that the GOP would soon become “the party of health care.” The senators were respectful and attentive.
As soon as Trump left, Romney recalled, the Republican caucus burst into laughter.
Apart from the secret ridicule, there was a dark force growing within the party. It’s best exemplified by contrasting two moments for Romney before home audiences in Utah.
In 2016, Romney delivered a memorable and rousing speech against Trump’s candidacy:
Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers. . . . He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.
The speech was warmly received, with much applause. But fast forward just five years, after Romney had voted twice to convict Trump, and the home crowd reception had devolved into something unrecognizable.
In spring 2021, Romney spoke at the Utah Republican Party convention in West Valley City. Coppins writes, “The heckling and booing were so loud and sustained that he could barely get a word out.” Romney reflected on the unsettling change. Writes Coppin,
As a former presidential candidate, he was well acquainted with heckling. Scruffy Occupy Wall Streeters had shouted down his stump speeches; gay-rights activists had “glitter bombed” him at rallies. But these were Utah Republicans—they were supposed to be his people. Model citizens, well-behaved Mormons, respectable patriots and pillars of the community, with kids and church callings and responsibilities at work. Many of them had probably been among his most enthusiastic supporters in 2012. Now they were acting like wild children. And if he was being honest with himself, there were moments up on that stage when he was afraid of them.
“There are deranged people among us,” he told me. And in Utah, “people carry guns.”
“It only takes one really disturbed person.”
He let the words hang in the air for a moment, declining to answer the question his confession begged: How long can a democracy last when its elected leaders live in fear of physical violence from their constituents?
On January 6th and the ensuing second impeachment
Romney’s outrage and public assignment of blame over the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 were well documented. “You’re the reason this is happening! You did this!” he had exclaimed directly to Sen. Josh Hawley as the crowds entered the chamber and the senators fled.
Romney had expressed serious concerns about the safety of officials as rumors of possible violence swirled. On January 2, 2021, four days before the attack, he texted Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.
In case you have not heard this, I just got a call from Angus King, who said that he had spoken with a senior official at the Pentagon who reports that they are seeing very disturbing social media traffic regarding the protests planned on the 6th. There are calls to burn down your home, Mitch; to smuggle guns into DC, and to storm the Capitol. I hope that sufficient security plans are in place, but I am concerned that the instigator—the President—is the one who commands the reinforcements the DC and Capitol police might require.
McConnell did not respond.
The idea that law enforcement and Republican leadership, including Trump, did not have advance notice of the attack is belied by this text. It isn’t clear yet whether the January 6 Committee was aware of the text before this week. That Romney refers to Trump directly as “the instigator” of the plan and of the possible assault is also quite noteworthy. I’d personally love to hear how he came to that conclusion.
At the second impeachment, Romney learned that his colleagues in Congress were afraid to vote to impeach or convict because it could endanger lives. Writes Coppin,
One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety. The congressman reasoned that Trump would be impeached by House Democrats with or without him—why put his wife and children at risk if it wouldn’t change the outcome? Later, during the Senate trial, Romney heard the same calculation while talking with a small group of Republican colleagues. When one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children. The senator eventually decided they were right.
As dismayed as Romney was by this line of thinking, he understood it. Most members of Congress don’t have security details. Their addresses are publicly available online. Romney himself had been shelling out $5,000 a day since the riot to cover private security for his family—an expense he knew most of his colleagues couldn’t afford.
Think about that. Our constitutional processes were being undermined, not only by political cowardice, but by actual fear elected officials had for their own safety and the safety of their families. How many more senators might have voted to convict, were it not for the possibility of violence?
I don’t want to give Romney a pass because he is speaking up now. His account arrives far too late and would have been far more helpful and welcome in the moment. That is a big failing on his part, and history will need to judge his actions and, importantly, his inaction.
But the truth is a welcome disinfectant today, even if the rot has been allowed to fester for years. We need to better understand the depth of Republican hypocrisy, cowardice, and fear in order to safeguard against its effects and call it out clearly. This openness by Romney to speak of it is refreshing and useful.
Romney may be the last GOP senator with a spine, or at least one sturdy enough to withstand the blowback his biography will trigger. With his departure, there will be few moderating voices willing to speak the truth about the party. As Tim Miller writes in The Bulwark,
In 2016, when the GOP entered a character-revealing crucible of its own, Mitt Romney was the rare man who was not dishonored. Who didn’t cower or cringe. Who fought for what was right. Who saw the devil for what he was and refused to submit.
He will be missed.