The roots of Mitt Romney's anti-Trump fervor

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·Chief National Correspondent
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Mitt Romney criticizes Donald Trump during a speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah on March 3. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
Mitt Romney criticizes Donald Trump during a speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah on March 3. (Photo: Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Mitt Romney has ruled out an independent bid for president and is not actively recruiting any more potential candidates to do so at the moment, though he remains hopeful someone will emerge, allies told Yahoo News Tuesday.

Romney “feels like America hangs in the balance. He’s very distraught about [Trump],” said one Romney adviser. “He thinks Trump is this vulgar, dangerous, principle-less, value-less opportunist — putting it mildly.”

The 2012 Republican nominee for president has been the most outspoken GOP figure to consistently, steadfastly oppose Trump. Romney has been asked to consider running for president himself but did not seriously consider it, those who know him said. He remains alarmed at the prospect of a Trump candidacy, though, even as hope appears to be fading that an alternative will be found.

“It’s not just Trump,” said the Romney adviser. “It’s the lack of [concerned] reaction to Trump.” As an example, the adviser cited Trump’s comments about Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos last week, the latest in a series of remarks by Trump intimating that he would use the power of the federal government to hurt the business interests of Bezos, because of articles written by a newspaper Bezos owns, the Washington Post.

The general lack of concern over Trump’s pattern of threatening rhetoric toward political opponents and critics is one of the main things that “freaks [Romney] out a little bit.”

“Where is the outrage?” said the Romney adviser. “This isn’t Venezuela. A politician can’t say I don’t like the press coverage of this paper so I’m going to threaten the business of the person who owns it. That is [former Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez.”

This past weekend, the Post reported that Romney had spoken to Ohio Gov. John Kasich and to freshman Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and encouraged them to mount an independent bid for the presidency.

“Romney sent [Kasich] an email first urging him to run as an independent and saying he would do anything he needed to help,” a Kasich adviser told Yahoo News Tuesday.

“They spoke on the phone after that and [Kasich] demurred,” the adviser said, adding, “Under no circumstances would [Kasich] be Donald Trump’s running mate.”

There are signs of concern with Romney’s inner circle that his role in the “stop Trump” effort is being exaggerated or overplayed. Several key Romney confidantes did not respond to requests for comment for this article, funneling requests to one source close to Romney who said in an email that Romney “is not now engaged in an effort to recruit a third-party candidate.”

And while Romney remains “motivated to help the ‘stop Trump’ cause,” a person involved in the stop-Trump discussions said that Romney is not calling or emailing any of the people who are still considering a run. A few potential candidates remain, the source said, although none at the moment are “live prospects.”

“He thinks someone should run. That’s his role. That’s the beginning and end of it,” the Romney adviser said. “Is he organizing it? No. But he has talked to people who have thought about it.”

Additionally, some figures close to Romney — most notably Stuart Stevens, a close political adviser — are also publicly casting about for an alternative to both Trump and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

And just two months ago, Romney gave a high-profile formal speech at the University of Utah that he devoted to publicly condemning Trump as “a phony” and “a fraud” who was “playing the American public for suckers.”

In that speech, Romney talked about a Trump presidency in apocalyptic language. He quoted founding father John Adams as saying, “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide,” and said that Trump was promoting “the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.”

While there were many factors that led up to Romney’s decision to give that speech, it was Trump’s interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Feb. 28 — in which he pretended not to know who white supremacist David Duke was and declined to reject political support from Duke and the Ku Klux Klan — that prompted Romney to go forward with his speech, said those familiar with Romney’s thinking.

Lanhee Chen, who was Romney’s policy adviser on the 2012 campaign and remains in contact with the former Massachusetts governor, said that he did not perceive Romney’s anti-Trump sentiment to be driven by revenge or anger over the way Trump behaved in 2012 toward Romney. On the day that Trump endorsed Romney for president four years ago, Romney’s senior advisers felt Trump showed up their candidate by having his plane — emblazoned with the Trump name in large white letters — parked on the tarmac directly behind where Romney disembarked from his chartered jet, so that it was in every news photograph.

“I don’t think it’s personal. I really don’t. I’ve never really known him to hold personal grudges against anybody. I think it’s really an observation about how Trump comports himself. I think he finds that troubling,” Chen said.

Of course, Romney could feel some sense of responsibility for having encouraged Trump’s gradual entry into the realm of political legitimacy. Even as Trump declared in 2012 that the question of President Obama’s birthplace was “the most important thing” in the presidential election, Romney flew to Las Vegas to accept his endorsement and declared himself “honored and pleased” with Trump’s support.

“I spent my life in the private sector. Not quite as successful as this guy. But successful nonetheless,” Romney said of Trump at the time. In return, Trump hosted a fundraiser later that year for Romney’s candidacy that a Trump spokesman claimed had raised $600,000.

This last March, however, Romney sniffed with disdain that Trump “inherited his business, he didn’t create it.”

“A business genius he is not,” Romney said of Trump.

Ultimately, it appears a Romney candidacy never went anywhere seriously this year for the same reasons others do not want to run: Any independent candidate would almost certainly be blamed for electing Clinton. Those close to Romney did not want to be responsible for laying that burden on his shoulders.

Yet Romney and others continue to struggle forward looking for some alternative candidate or scenario in which multiple candidates might run in different states.

The Kasich adviser, summing up the conventional wisdom on the matter, compared the anti-Trump effort to Captain Ahab’s doomed quest to kill the white whale, Moby Dick.

“It’s almost like [Romney] never read Melville,” the Kasich adviser said.

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