On Wednesday, all of Trumpworld united under the banner of a single cause: stuffing incoming Senator Mitt Romney into a locker.
Over the course of the day, virtually every entity in the national Republican Party apparatus turned its guns on the man who served as their official standard bearer in the 2012 election, with the president, GOP Senators and even Romney’s niece—RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel—faulting the Utah Republican for an oped he’d published the night before in The Washington Post.
As far as blistering denunciations go, Romney’s piece was relatively modest. He declared that the president’s “character falls short” but went on to explain that he wouldn’t comment on every Trump outrage but would “speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.”
For the presidents and his allies, it was a form of treachery nonetheless.
“The only place in America where you can find Mitt Romney Republicans is on MSNBC,” said Andrew Surabian, a GOP strategist and a former Trump White House official. “The easiest shot you can take right now as a Republican is a shot against Mitt Romney because his only constituency lies within the beltway and not with actual Republican voters across the country.”
Surabian was hardly the only MAGA loyalist or GOP figure to take such a shot. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted that jealousy is “a drink best served warm and Romney just proved it.” Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump surrogate and lobbyist whose wife Mercedes Schlapp is a senior White House official, posted several tweets mocking Romney on Wednesday. And Sen. Rand Paul convened a conference call with reporters entirely and explicitly dedicated to responding to Romney’s Post column.
“I don’t think the president deserves to have a new senator” coming in and “attacking his character,” Paul said on the call, adding that Romney is getting things off on the “wrong foot.”
It was a remarkable shepherding of resources by the party against one of its own. And it said as much about the mindset of the current president as it did about his target.
Trump is notoriously compelled to counterpunch anyone who criticizes him. Two sources close to the president say that increasingly the counter-attacks happen organically because associates and advisers know how much doing so will please the boss, who keeps mental tabs of those who defend him most ardently on TV. But occasionally it’s done with an eye on keeping others in line and stifling dissent within the ranks.
“Trump and his allies know they have the party as their mallet,” one former White House official observed. “And that usually dissuades others from getting out of line whenever they make an example out of someone.”
Not everyone in the Republican Party thinks the hyper-aggression is strategically wise. Dave Carney, a longtime GOP operative, said that the president and his team risked giving its GOP detractors the spotlight they craved by engaging them in the fights.
Better to often dismiss or ignore it altogether, Carney argued. “That’s what I would have done. But that would be 180 degree turnaround [from Trump]. They talk about it. They say it. ‘You punch us, we punch you back twice as hard.’ It doesn't matter who it is. They take these esoteric congressional candidates before they’re elected and beat up on them. It may make them feel better but I don’t think it is an effective strategy.”
In the case of Romney, Trump associates were partially driven to push back out of concern that the senator’s oped was meant to spark greater talk of a primary challenge in 2020. Trump aides, and virtually all seasoned GOP operatives, think the president would easily crush such a bid. But they’re worried enough that they’ve been monitoring the president’s standing among GOP voters. Trump’s 2016 pollster, John McLaughlin noted that he’d recently commissioned a study that had Trump at 72 percent and Romney at just 9 percent among likely Republican primary voters and independents who said they’d vote in the Republican primary.
“It seems to me ironic he was talking about unity but at the same time was divisive by going after a popular Republican president,” McLaughlin said of Romney. “I think he [Romney] has ambition. He never said he wouldn’t run for president again.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Romney did, indeed, rule out a run for president in 2020. But he notably declined to say if he would back Trump’s re-election. And within Trump’s orbit, the presumption is that Romney’s criticisms of Trump are driven by envy over the office he holds.
“Mitt Romney is nothing more than a failed version of Donald Trump,” said Surabian.
The parallels hold up, at least on a superficial level. Both men are scions of wealthy families heavily involved in American politics. Both are businessmen, who in decades passed espoused policies significantly to the left of where they are today. Both have been dinged by numerous political adversaries for flip-flopping on major issues over the years, including gun control, healthcare, and abortion rights. And both agree on a whole host of policy matters. This includes harsh immigration measures, with Romney even attempting in the last election year to get to Trump’s right on the issue.
But the similarities largely end there. And in the upper echelons of Trumpworld, Romney is regarded as a squish and backstabber who lacked the political gumption to succeed like Trump.
“It’s disappointing that Mitt Romney’s newfound valorous tone was absent while running against Democrats,” Katrina Pierson, senior adviser on Trump’s 2020 team, told The Daily Beast. “He used President Trump to give him a boost after his failed presidential run, his failed attempt to thwart Donald Trump‘s nomination, and his failed attempt to lead the Never Trump movement to a Clinton victory. This is one of several reasons why the only people who like establishment Republicans are establishment Republicans. Donald J. Trump’s candidacy saved the Republican Party—still, many are ungrateful.”
When asked if anyone on the Trump campaign senior staff sees Romney as a threat to Trump as they head into a presidential election year, Pierson simply replied, “That’s laughable. No.”