Romney asserts his independence

For weeks, incoming Utah Sen. Mitt Romney has been tight-lipped as he prepares to be sworn in on Thursday, disappointing his longtime friends who hoped he would emerge as a new power center for mainstream Republicans in President Donald Trump's Washington, particularly with the Senate now without the late John McCain.

Romney's tweets last month included a musing on church hymns and pictures of his grandchildren - and nothing about Trump. "Sorry, guys," he'd say as he rushed by and ignored reporters' questions in the Capitol's halls.

But on Tuesday night, Romney jolted his allies - and the White House - by publishing a scathing critique of Trump in The Washington Post that said the president "has not risen to the mantle of the office."

Romney's assertion of independence is a thunder clap in the GOP, thrusting him forward as Trump's highest-profile Republican foil in the new Congress and stoking talk of Trump's vulnerability to a challenger for the party's 2020 nomination, be it Romney or another Trump critic, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, R, who has been eyeing an insurgent bid.

"It begins," former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon wrote in an email to The Post, referring to the effort to block Trump from the 2020 Republican nomination.

"It's hard to believe, based on this op-ed, that Mitt Romney thinks Donald Trump deserves to be re-nominated in 2020," conservative commentator William Kristol wrote on Twitter, echoing other Trump critics on the right who cheered Romney's re-emergence.

Romney's salvo, however, was also greeted with a burst of skepticism among both Republicans and Democrats who cringe when they remember Romney's history of flip-flopping view of Trump, which has veered from uneasy embrace of his endorsement (2012) to stern rebuke (2016) to accepting his endorsement again for his Utah Senate race (2018) to this latest rebuke (2019).

To make the point, the image of a smiling Romney sitting with Trump over a dish of frog legs at a white-tablecloth dinner in late 2016 is being widely circulated by Romney critics as a reminder of his past ingratiation and the time he considered joining Trump's Cabinet as secretary of state. Trump aides say the president never came close to tapping him.

Many Trump-aligned Republicans have read Romney's essay and called him, with varying levels of derision, a relic of the party's past searching for relevance in a Republican Party upended and morphed by Trump since 2016.

Romney's niece, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, tweeted Wednesday that her uncle's words were "disappointing and unproductive" and feed "into what the Democrats and the media want."

Brad Parscale, Trump's 2020 campaign manager, was dismissive, tweeting late Tuesday that Romney "lacked the ability to save this nation" in 2012 when Romney was the Republican presidential nominee.

"Jealousy is a drink best served warm," Parscale wrote. "So sad."

"Here we go with Mitt Romney," Trump tweeted on Wednesday. "I won big, and he didn't. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!"

Those rebuttals are unlikely to quiet Romney or similarly-minded Republicans. Many of them are alarmed by Trump's behavior and increasingly willing to battle with him in ways that would have seemed strained two years ago, when Trump had the party in his grip after his surprise victory and the Republican establishment largely fell into lockstep behind him.

Two years later, Trump's presidency is under siege following Republican losses in the 2018 elections. An ongoing government shutdown, volatile markets, the special counsel probe, conservative discontent over Trump's failure to secure funding for a border wall, and empowered House Democrats all loom before the president, who has been isolated and lashing out at his critics for days.

In addition, mainstream Republicans have been rattled by the departure of Jim Mattis as secretary of defense in the wake of Trump's decision to end the U.S. military operation in Syria, along with the exit of former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Both generals were seen as steadying forces.

Enter Romney, who at age 71 is Utah's incoming junior senator, to lay down a marker underscoring those concerns with far more national political capital on hand than most Republicans who have spoken out but struggled to breakthrough and capture the party's attention during crisis moments during Trump's first two years in office.

Romney, as a former Massachusetts governor and business-friendly former presidential nominee, brings a new stature to the anti-Trump wing of the party that has been missing as congressional Republicans have operated in a bargaining fashion with Trump, enduring his slights and erratic actions to push through favored policy items.

"The Trump presidency made a deep descent in December," Romney wrote in his essay, calling Trump's character issues "glaring."

Romney's words are politically charged, but unsurprising. The notion of Trump's presidency being in "deep descent" has become a near daily discussion not only in Romney's circle, but throughout the broader Republican establishment in recent weeks, according to more than a dozen consultants and lawmakers involved in those conversations.

Once-fanciful suggestions about organizing a draft campaign for Romney or Nikki Haley, Trump's former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have suddenly turned more serious, the consultants and lawmakers said.

"Everyone is trying to figure out what the party looks like if Trump ends the year looking extremely weak or maybe (Vice President Mike) Pence is president," one veteran Republican financier said, requesting anonymity to discuss private exchanges.

"There is going to be a real race against Trump in 2020 if it keeps going like this," the Republican financier said, noting that some of Romney's biggest donors have signaled they are ready to throw their support behind him again if he ever moved toward a run.

Romney has not taken steps to mount another White House bid. He has refused to endorse Trump's 2020 re-election, telling CNN last year that he isn't a "cheap date" and would "make that decision down the road." In an April interview with The Washington Examiner, Romney said, "I'm not in this race because I have some political career I'm trying to foster. My political career is over."

But some Romney allies, such as his former adviser Mike Murphy, have been talking up Romney 2020 for months behind the scenes without Romney's involvement, hoping to stoke interest and lay the political groundwork for him, should Trump be impeached or resign.

"Trump seemed like a bumbling incompetent in many ways, so what's the opposite of that - who is a comfortable Republican, super-confident, safe, no drama choice? It's Mitt," Murphy said last year on a podcast hosted by conservative writer Jamie Weinstein.

Spencer Zwick, Romney's political adviser who built Romney's donor network for his presidential campaigns, remains a confidant and routinely takes calls from donors urging Romney to look hard at 2020, according to two people familiar with those discussions.

That clamor could grow this summer at the E2 Summit, Romney's annual gathering of top Republicans and business leaders, which is already being planned for this June in Park City, Utah, the people said.

Regardless of Romney's political future, there remains a void in the GOP for figures like Romney to have more of a say over the direction of the party as Trump continues to buck dogma on trade and national security, Democrats take control of the House and dozens of Democratic presidential hopefuls begin traveling to early voting states and tear into Trump's character and record.

The absence of McCain, coupled with the retirements of GOP senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has only intensified the angst among Republicans who see Trump as unbound and determined to exacerbate national divisions and take hard-line stances as he rallies his core supporters.

While Romney wrote in his essay that the Trump administration made progress with last year's tax cut and criminal-justice reform legislation that was brokered in a bipartisan way, he is averse to the combative nationalism that he argues is the lodestar of Trump's foreign policy and the acrimony that dominates much of Trump's agenda at home.

Romney's far from the lone major Republican who is raising sharper questions about the viability of the Trump presidency. Flake has repeatedly said he is considering a 2020 run. Corker said last month, "I haven't ruled it out," and suggested that Trump might not run for re-election.

"Somebody does need to challenge the president," Flake told CNN last week. "I'm a long way from there, but somebody needs to and I think that the country needs to be reminded of what it means to be conservative, certainly on the Republican side, and what it means to be decent as well."

But Trump has cultivated intense support among many Republican base voters, making any primary run against him extremely difficult, and making Romney's own path forward in both the Senate and potentially for 2020 perilous.

"Messrs. Romney, Flake, and Kasich will continue chasing their fantasy of being president, even if that means destroying our party and denying President Trump re-election," Jevon O.A. Williams, a Republican National Committee member, wrote in an email late Tuesday to fellow RNC members, urging them to not shrug off Romney's essay and to take step to make any primary challenge a steep climb.

Beyond Washington, there are flickers of data that are being passed around by Trump critics as manna for their cause, such as a poll last month of Iowa Republicans by the Des Moines Register and CNN. That poll showed about 63 percent of Iowa Republicans would welcome the chance to consider challengers to Trump in Iowa, home to the first contest of the 2020 nominating race.

In that same poll, Trump holds an 81 percent approval rating among Iowa Republicans, making clear that Iowa Republicans, for now, may listen to others but still caucus for Trump.

In New Hampshire, the first primary state and where challengers to sitting presidents get traction, there is a fierce debate about whether the state party should endorse Trump and curb the chances of a primary fight, but Gov. Chris Sununu, R, a Trump ally, has said he sides with the Republicans who want to protect the state's tradition of having the party stay away from endorsing.

Kasich, who spent months campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of the 2016 primary, where he placed second, has been frank about that political reality and the uphill climb any Trump challenger would face.

"I don't get into things that I don't think I can win," he said last month at an event in Ohio. "Right now, today, inside the Republican Party, I can't beat him (Trump) in a primary."

Yet on Twitter and in phone calls late Tuesday and early Wednesday across the Republican Party, Romney's op-ed article sparked new talk of an uprising.

Of course, it was an op-ed article and Romney, an imperfect messenger, was typically careful in his choice of words. But it was something - something for anti-Trump Republicans to seize on and hope their months of grousing and discussions could eventually yield a viable challenge to an incumbent they loathe.

"For now at least Mitt Romney has become the leader of the Republican Resistance to Trump," Kristol wrote.

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