Mitt Romney already knew he couldn’t trust Donald Trump, but to him and his staff, the events of late spring 2012 seemed like the final blow, when Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, found himself caught up in a wave of controversy over Trump’s renewed birtherism.
Trump’s questioning of Barack Obama’s birthplace was an annoyance to Romney, who had repeatedly reaffirmed his view that Obama was a citizen. But though he considered the conspiracy talk gutter politics, the former Massachusetts governor trod carefully around Trump, worried that a public challenge to the unpredictable real estate tycoon turned reality television star would damage his White House prospects.
Just months earlier, Romney had finally reached an understanding with Trump, who had publicly mused about mounting his own bid for the presidency. Along the way, Trump had raised what many perceived as the ex-governor’s chief liabilities, describing Romney as a stiff who wasn’t telling the truth about his record of creating jobs while he was head of Bain Capital. And in true Trumpian fashion, he attacked Romney for not being as rich as he was.
But after months of overtures, Trump had finally thrown his support to Romney that February, endorsing the ex-governor in a bizarre, freewheeling news conference at his Las Vegas hotel, where Trump did most of the talking as Romney and the candidate’s wife, Ann, stood awkwardly at his side. The event, in which Trump strolled by reporters repeatedly to talk up his “tremendous” hotel, would foreshadow the mogul’s unusual campaign for the presidency four years later. But at the time, it was criticized as a circus by some of Romney’s closest allies, who told the ex-governor it was beneath him to align himself with the publicity-hungry mogul.
Returning to Las Vegas that May for a fundraiser with Trump, Romney was determined not to make that mistake again, pointedly refusing to appear publicly with the businessman, who had revived his birther talk just days before the event. But Trump still got the publicity he wanted. As Romney stepped off his campaign plane on the tarmac in Vegas, he noticed that Trump’s corporate jet was parked nearby, jutting out in an unusual way from its usual spot next to a private hangar. What Romney and his staff didn’t realize until a few minutes later was that the mogul’s plane had been positioned so that the word “TRUMP” appeared prominently in the candidate’s arrival shot.
Romney and his team never figured out whether the move had been deliberate, but the incident forever cemented their view that Trump’s hunger for attention made it necessary to treat his motives with suspicion. And four years later, that feeling hasn’t changed — although the circumstances have.
Trump, now the president-elect, is looking to sit down with Romney as early as this weekend to discuss a possible role in his administration. Though the meeting hasn’t been confirmed — Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told reporters Thursday they are “working on it” — Team Trump has described the move as a conciliatory gesture toward an establishment Republican who was one of Trump’s most vocal critics during the 2016 campaign and one that proves the president-elect is more pragmatic than his critics believe.
While Romney hasn’t commented on the invitation, people close to him say he still regards Trump with deep suspicion, even after congratulating him on his election and wishing him success. Amid reports from NBC and CNN that Romney is on the long list of names Trump is considering for secretary of state — something Team Trump would not confirm to Yahoo News — allies of the former Massachusetts governor said they would be surprised if Trump really made the offer and even more surprised if Romney took it, or any job in the administration at all.
“Mitt is a statesman who loves his country,” said a longtime Romney adviser who asked not to be named as discussing the ex-governor. “[But] he knows Trump. He knows how Trump is. Who knows if this [outreach] is genuine or just another publicity stunt?”
Trump’s overtures to Romney would mark a surprising turn in what has been become a bitter relationship. Back in 2015, in the early days of Trump’s candidacy, Romney was one of the few Republicans willing to take him on, publicly lambasting him for his suggestion that Sen. John McCain, a former rival who had become Romney’s close friend, was not a war hero.
While Romney returned to the sidelines later in the campaign, as Trump soared to the top of the polls, the former Massachusetts governor emerged again to challenge Trump. Speaking in Salt Lake City in March, just before Super Tuesday, Romney blasted Trump in unsparing terms, calling him a “con man” and a “fake” who had played on anger among voters and was leading the country into “an abyss.”
“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University,” Romney declared. “He’s playing the members of the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”
In response, Trump trashed Romney as a “loser” and a “failure” who had “begged” for his endorsement four years ago. “I don’t know what happened to him,” Trump said during a rally in Portland, Maine. “You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees.’ He would have dropped to his knees.”
After Romney said he would never vote for him as the GOP nominee — he said he planned to write in his wife, Ann, on the ballot — Trump raged against Romney as a failed candidate who should have won the race against Obama four years ago.
But the tide began to change last week, when Romney sent a public Twitter message congratulating Trump on his victory. The former governor also called Trump, offering his congratulations as well as any assistance he might need in the future. Trump, on Twitter, described the call as “very nice!”
The overture led to Trump’s overtures to Romney this week — an uncharacteristic shift for a man who has been known to reward loyalty above all and to be slow to forgive slights. But Trump has been breaking with that reputation in recent days, meeting with a string of former rivals and enemies as he puts together an administration. Among them: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who refused to endorse him for months, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American who has criticized Trump for his rhetoric toward immigrants.