WASHINGTON — After more than six years of less-than-heartfelt endorsements, a bitter parting of ways and a momentary rapprochement, the relationship between Mitt Romney and President Trump returned Wednesday to where it began: awkward, transactional and lingering uneasily between friend and foe.
One day after publishing a biting critique in The Washington Post that Mr. Trump “has not risen to the mantle of the office,” Mr. Romney declined to endorse the president’s re-election, saying he wanted to consider “alternatives” in 2020.
But Mr. Romney also made clear that, while he is willing to confront the president like few other Republican lawmakers, he had little appetite to spend his first months as Utah’s junior senator acting the part of Mr. Trump’s critic in chief.
“I don’t intend to be a daily commentator,” he said in an interview on CNN, repeatedly declining to escalate his attacks on the president and explaining that he would speak out against Mr. Trump only on issues of “great significance.”
Mr. Romney’s restraint in the interview was notably different from the tone he struck in his essay in The Post, in which he wrote that Mr. Trump’s presidency “made a deep descent in December” after his abrupt announcement that he would withdraw American troops from Syria, and the departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Mr. Romney got a taste of how lonely it can be in Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to speak out against the president, as few lawmakers sided with their new colleague Wednesday and one senator even set up a conference call with reporters to criticize him. It was a revealing illustration of the loyalty Mr. Trump still commands even as he enters a perilous stretch of his presidency.
But if Mr. Romney later seemed as if he wanted to ease away from his essay’s condemnation, Mr. Trump was, at least by his standards, somewhat muted in his counterattack against the man he once belittled for walking “like a penguin.”
Early on Wednesday, Mr. Trump noted that the former Massachusetts governor lost his 2012 presidential bid. “I won big, and he didn’t,” the president tweeted. “He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!”
And when addressing reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon, the president said that if Mr. Romney had been as harsh on former President Barack Obama in their campaign, “he would have won the election.”
Mr. Trump’s loyalists responded more ferociously, and out in front was Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who is also Mr. Romney’s niece.
“For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realdonaldtrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive,” Ms. McDaniel wrote about her uncle on Twitter.
Her attack stunned other members of Mr. Romney’s family, with one suggesting she would regret putting her political loyalties over her family.
But Mr. Romney declined to respond in kind to her, and the matter only illustrated how awkward this moment is for all parties.
This week’s contretemps were just the latest turn in an on-and-off political relationship dating back to Mr. Trump’s 2012 endorsement of Mr. Romney at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.
Mr. Romney, then a candidate for the presidency, and his wife, Ann, were not thrilled about having to submit to Mr. Trump, who relished the attention but plainly did not have a natural connection with Mr. Romney.
Four years later it was Mr. Trump on the ballot, and Mr. Romney unleashed a blistering attack on his character, calling him “a fraud,” prompting Mr. Trump to call him “a choker.”
But after Mr. Trump won, the two appeared to reach a détente and even discussed Mr. Romney’s taking the secretary of state job over a dinner of frog legs at the Jean-Georges restaurant in Manhattan.
Since then, the two have maintained a relative peace, with Mr. Trump endorsing Mr. Romney’s campaign for the Senate last year and Mr. Romney only intermittently confronting the president.
But at a moment when a series of investigations have engulfed the White House and Democrats are about to take control of the House, Mr. Romney’s broadside this week was a reminder to Mr. Trump that one of his earliest and loudest Republican critics will soon have a high-profile platform in Washington.
Sensing the makings of a primary threat to the president, some of his most ardent backers on the Republican National Committee began making the case that the party’s rules be changed to ensure Mr. Trump’s renomination in 2020.
Calling Mr. Romney’s attack “calculated political treachery,” Jevon Williams, the national committeeman from the Virgin Islands, wrote in an email to other members of the R.N.C. that the party should move to protect Mr. Trump by amending party rules to make it harder for a challenger to have his name placed in nomination at the Republicans’ 2020 convention.
And, Mr. Williams wrote, the party should use its winter meeting this month to pass a resolution endorsing Mr. Trump and declaring him “the presumptive nominee in 2020.”
In the CNN interview, Mr. Romney said, “I’m not running again.”
But even if he just acts as an occasional critic of the president, Mr. Romney will run into resistance.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, viewing Mr. Romney’s offensive as an opening to nurture his ties with the media-obsessed Mr. Trump, scheduled an afternoon conference call with reporters to target his soon-to-be colleague.
“I just don’t think the president deserves to have a new senator coming in attacking his character,” said Mr. Paul, accusing Mr. Romney of acting “holier than thou.”
Mr. Trump’s senior aides were less exercised about Mr. Romney’s attack, with one of them noting with pleasure that the president was relatively restrained — and that an overreaction would only reinforce Mr. Romney’s criticism.
But White House officials were still irritated with Mr. Romney, pointedly noting that they only got a brief heads-up that the essay was coming. It was Ms. McDaniel who informed them about the column, according to a senior White House aide.
Mr. Romney’s allies said part of the purpose of the column was to give him a document that he can point back to, as an evergreen statement of his general thinking about Mr. Trump, rather than offering critiques in response to every presidential tweet.
For his part, though, Mr. Trump has been warily eyeing the arrival of Mr. Romney since well before the essay in The Post.
Last fall, Mr. Trump, mindful that Mr. Romney would move quickly to assert himself, asked Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, not to give Mr. Romney a leadership platform. A Republican familiar with the discussion said that Mr. Trump specifically wanted to keep Mr. Romney away from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s campaign arm in Senate races.
But even if Mr. Romney gets no formal title with Senate Republicans, Trump aides worry that Mr. Romney’s extensive fund-raising network will make it hard for the Republican campaign committee to resist making use of him in the 2020 election cycle.
The notion of installing Mr. Romney at the campaign committee was a pet project of his longtime family friend and adviser Spencer Zwick, who raised the idea with donors as a way of carving out a leadership role as an unusually prominent freshman lawmaker.
The idea drew at least mild interest from Mrs. Romney, but Mr. Romney was less intrigued and viewed it as a nonstarter for practical reasons, two people briefed on the conversations said. The position is effectively a fund-raising assignment, and another senator, Todd Young of Indiana, got the job.
But operating in a formal capacity as a partisan functionary would most likely have required Mr. Romney to stay silent about his disagreements with Mr. Trump, lest he put Republican candidates in the position of having to pick sides between the two men — the sitting president and the best-known Republican senator — on a routine basis.
Republican leaders believe that scenario may come to pass even without giving Mr. Romney an official leadership role, as he discovers the enormous megaphone available to him in the halls of Congress
But Mr. Romney said Wednesday that he would not seek to torment Mr. Trump.
“Just doing things symbolically that hurt somebody that you’re opposed to doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
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