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Impeachment Today Podcast: Will Mitt Romney Toe The Line For Trump?

In today's episode: Expert Romneyologist McKay Coppins on the Republican Senator who could be a wild card in Trump's trial.

Posted on January 14, 2020, at 5:54 p.m. ET

Alex Wong / Getty Images

It's Tuesday, January 12th, 2020, 112 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast helps you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

It's Tuesday, January 12th, 2020, 112 days since the House began its impeachment inquiry. And this is Impeachment Today.

Good morning. I'm Hayes Brown, reporter and editor at Buzzfeed News. The trial of the president is set to likely start this week and it's like being at the very top of a rollercoaster here personally, you know where it's going to end up, but there's going to be a lot of screaming before then.

Okay. Today we're talking to the Atlantic's political reporter extraordinary McKay Coppins. McKay is a chief example of why you should never try to iron your shirt sleeve while wearing it, Senator Mitt Romney. But before we get to all of that, let's catch up on what happened yesterday.

Okay, y'all. I am just going to put this out there. Monday was just really fricking weird when it came to impeachment news. First we learned that Senator Cory Booker was dropping out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. We bring this up because he's slated to be one of the jurors in the president's impeachment trial, and he cited that role in his announcement that he's suspending his campaign. "Our campaign has reached the point where we need more money to scale up and continue building a campaign that can win," Booker wrote in a statement. "Money we don't have, and money that is harder to raise because I won't be on the next debate stage and because the urgent business of impeachment will rightly be keeping me in Washington."

Then we learned that our old friend Lev Parnas has some tidbits to share with Congress. Parnas, as you may recall, worked with Trump lawyer turned budget bin Sherlock Holmes, Rudy Giuliani, to dig up information about Joe Biden and 2016 election related conspiracy theories in Ukraine. He was arrested for alleged campaign finance violations in September and proceeded to flip like Simone Biles on Rudy and the president. And in that vein, his lawyer last weekend turned over the content of one of Parnas' phones to House Intelligence Committee investigators, that equals scores of WhatsApp messages, text messages, photos, and thousands of pages of documents. A federal judge also ordered on Monday that Parnas and his lawyers could share the content of another three devices with Congress. How and if all this new potential information about the president's role and Giuliani's efforts, which as reminder, got his client impeached, how all this will play into the Senate trial is still a big old TBD. Later Monday night, Parnas' lawyer tweeted, "Call the witnesses." The tweet tagged, President Trump, Giuliani and the Senate majority and minority leaders. It ended #LetLevSpeak and #LevRemembers. It also included a video clip montage of pictures of Parnas with the president and Giuliani set to MC Hammer's classic Hammertime. Guys, surreal doesn't even begin to cover it.

And because 2016 will never fucking end, guess what? We have a Russia hacking angle to impeachment now. Yay. The New York Times reported Monday night that a cybersecurity firm had discovered a series of attempts to gain access to servers at a string of Ukrainian companies. The companies are all subsidiaries of Burisma Holdings, the natural gas company that employed Joe Biden's son, Hunter. The hacking was successful and carried all the trademarks of the campaign against the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign four years ago. And it follows that Russia would mean to use any information it grabbed to embarrass Biden and cause chaos in the 2020 election. Because sure, why not? Who doesn't love an extremely derivative sequel?

And now we have today's reading from our Nixometer. On our scale, zero normal day, normal White House, 10 Nixon resigns, flies off in a helicopter. And this morning, guys, we are at a 7.8. Yeah, things are weird. Chaos reigns. And the number of X factors at play in the president's trial keep fluctuating. It is a wild time out there, you guys.

Okay. After the break we talk to McKay Coppins about Senator Mitt Romney, the Republican who seems the least afraid of Trump. Stick around.

All right, it is time for this fucking guy. It's where we zoom in on a person, place or thing that is shaping the impeachment. Today, it's first term Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. We'll be looking at how he stands out amongst his fellow Senate Republicans as we prepare to start the president's trial. Joining us by phone from DC to talk about him is one of the country's leading Romney researchers, McKay Coppins. McKay is a political reporter for the Atlantic and former politics editor here at Buzzfeed News. Thank you so much for joining us, Mckay.

McKay Coppins:

Thanks for having me.

Hayes Brown:

So, Mitt Romney has had quite the spotlight on him for a minute now. So let's backtrack a bit. How do you go from being the 2012 Republican presidential candidate to the junior senator from Utah?

MC:

Yeah, it's interesting, that story has Donald Trump intertwined throughout. Obviously he became the Republican nominee in 2012, lost that election, but when he was fighting for the nomination against a bunch of more conservative candidates. He actually courted and received the endorsement of Donald Trump, who was at that time primarily known as The Celebrity Apprentice host and famous New York real estate guy, but also was known as the champion of this birther conspiracy theory about President Obama. And he was just starting to make a name for himself in right wing politics, he had become a staple of Fox News. And so while the Republican candidates then imported his endorsement, Mitt Romney got it. I was at the event when Romney received this endorsement from Donald Trump, and I remember writing a piece about it. It was in Las Vegas at Trump's hotel there, and wrote a piece about it for Buzzfeed about how embarrassed Mitt Romney looks by the whole thing. I think literally the headline was The Humiliation of Mitt Romney.

All of which is just to say that Romney and Donald Trump have always had very weird, and not exactly buddy buddy, relationship. Mitt Romney lost. He took a few years off from politics. But when Donald Trump then won the Republican nomination in 2016, Mitt Romney famously didn't endorse Donald Trump, and in fact went around the country giving speeches and interviews, decrying Donald Trump, said that if he was elected, there would be a phenomenon of trickle down racism and trickle down misogyny, calling him a phony and a fraud and really campaigning against Donald Trump. Trump took this very personally and their relationship has been fraught since then.

HB:

Right. And then Trump lost Utah. But then we have this picture of them having dinner together after the election with Romney, with his very pained expression on his face.

MC:

Wait, hold on. I want to just grab something. He lost the Republican primary in Utah. And then he won Utah, but with less than 50% of the vote. Evan McMullin came in and third-party candidate split the vote. But then, you're right, after Trump won, there's this brief moment where it looks like Mitt Romney might actually join the Trump administration. Trump was considering him for secretary of state. They had dinner in New York. Romney came out and said some nice things about Trump, said, "Maybe this will all work out." And then Trump did not give him the job. And so their relationship continued to be defined by comments and sniding at each other on Twitter.

HB:

So, what makes Romney decide, "Okay, F this, I am going to run for Senate instead"?

MC:

So, what I'm told by people close to Mitt Romney is that he decided to run for Senate in large part because he was so alarmed by how the Trump presidency was going, and by how quickly Republicans in Washington were falling in line behind the president. So, Mitt Romney decides to come out of retirement, run for Senate in Utah where he owns a house. He's he owns houses in a lot of places. But he owns a house, he's decided to retire there and he's a shoe in, right? He was the first Mormon presidential nominees and so he easily won. And he saw himself as somebody who could be a figure in Washington blazing a new path for the Republican Party, staying away from Trump and Trumpism and trying to hold to the old Republican traditions that DC has in contrast to what this president has.

HB:

And how has that been going for him since he arrived in the Senate in the start of last year?

MC:

Well, no, I think it's been harder probably than he imagined. On the one hand, he has actually been pretty busy with legislation, he's found a lot of bipartisan partners on a range of issues he cares about, things like regulating the vaping industry or getting compensation for college athletes. So on that side of things, he's stayed busy, but he hasn't really reversed the course of the Republican Party. Almost all of his Republican colleagues in Washington continue to be Trump allies. Nobody is really breaking with the president en masse. But Romney has maintained a level of independence that most of his colleagues have not achieved.

HB:

So then tell me, why does Romney feel so much more comfortable bucking Trump than the rest of his colleagues in the Senate?

MC:

I talked to Mitt Romney about this and I profiled him last few year, and one of the things he said to me was that, "I'm at the end of my career, I'm in my seventies, I've had my business career, I've had my political career. I'm trying to make a difference now." But it was clear to me that he was thinking about things like his legacy and he was thinking about things like how he would be remembered in history. And he seems to sense, in a way that a lot of his colleagues don't, that he could be defined by how he comports himself at this moment of American politics.

HB:

So, speaking of this moment on impeachment, where's Romney been on this? Because there's been talk among some folks out there where he's catch is the great white hope, to show that Trump doesn't completely own the Republican Party here.

MC:

Yeah, when I spoke to him, which was last fall, it was the House impeachment proceedings were happening. And he was very studiously noncommittal on anything. What he did say was that, "I see myself as an impartial juror. I'm not going to weigh in on the proceedings." He did come out and say that he found it appalling that the president was soliciting political favors from foreign powers and that that was completely inappropriate behavior for a president. And then from there, he's taken some less flashy measures to maintain whatever credibility he can for the Senate impeachment trial. He was one of the few Republicans, maybe the only Republican, who came out and said that he wanted to hear from John Bolton, wanted to hear his testimony. He also refused to join most of his Republican colleagues in a resolution condemning House Democrats and how they were conducting the impeachment proceedings. So, he's done a few things to show that he's supportive of at least the process and he wants to maintain the credibility of the process, but he has not given any indication about how he will ultimately vote.

HB:

Will he though vote with the Democrats on things like allowing witnesses once the trial begins? Because a lot of people are looking to him to be one of the four possible senators who makes a majority with the Democrats on issues like that.

MC:

It's a great question. I don't know. Here's what I will say: the White House is working him pretty hard. There were reports a couple of months ago about Trump was bringing him over to the White House to meet with him, people in the White House are constantly in touch with him. On the other hand, he has maintained, like I said, a level of detachment from the White House. And what I would say is that if there's any hope of some segment of Republicans joining with Democrats on both sides, that Romney would be a chief among them, partly because he seems to care even more than about Donald Trump's potential abuse as a power, he cares about this process being fair and being seen as legitimate by most Americans, and I think that that's going to be one of his guiding principles.

HB:

So, let's swing out a little bit wider really quickly and talk about the rest of the Republicans in the caucus. Are there any who seem like they will join Romney if he does vote with Democrats on procedural issues? And more importantly, is there anything in your mind that could happen during this trial, no matter how long it lasts, that sways 20 Republicans on removal? That laugh says a lot, McKay.

MC:

I got to say I'm pretty skeptical about that. Never say never, right? I'm the guy who said that Donald Trump would never run for president.

HB:

And thank you for that.

MC:

What I would say is there are a few other Republicans who seem to care about this procedural stuff and who have, at least at times, voiced criticism throughout this process of the Trump administration. Among them, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, Susan Collins from Maine, even Ben Sasse from Nebraska, though he's a little more iffy. Those would be the four I would watch. So, it's possible that we would get to a majority of people voting to convict, even if that's nowhere close to the 67 you need to actually convict him. That would be a meaningful statement. To swing 20 Republican senators, I would think you'd have to have more information emerge than what we have. That would fundamentally change the political dynamics and change the way that Republican voters across the country are viewing this president. Because at the end of the day, most Republican senators are acting purely out of political self-interest, and they know that their base is the president's base, and that if they turn on the president they'll face percussion. So, unless something changes the way that these voters see the president, I don't see a lot of Republicans changing their votes.

HB:

Well, that is bracing honesty, McKay. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MC:

Thank you.

HB:

Okay, it's time for the latest edition of our newest segments: Trial Watch 2020. It's where we run down what's happening next in the Senate impeachment trial. We're in the last stages of the House's participation before that trial starts. This afternoon, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is meeting with the House Democratic Caucus to finalize the next steps. That means we should have a resolution on the floor as early as this evening. Once that passes, and it will pass, the managers, who will be running the prosecution, will physically gather up the documents containing the articles of impeachment and march them on over to the Senate side of the Capitol building. And then they go through the process, which we described in yesterday's episode. That could be tonight or first thing tomorrow morning. So, I guess you'll have to listen to tomorrow's episode to find out, or watch the news. That works too.

Okay, that's it for today. Tomorrow, we'll break down everything House manager related: who they are, if we know, come on Speaker Pelosi, what they're going to be doing in the trial, and important stuff like what their favorite soda is. Mine is Coke Zero. I don't know if we'll have that information for you, but we will try because we depend on the facts here on this show. Lastly, if you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Impeachment Today on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you go to hear my disembodied voice, and maybe leave us a rating and a review. Also, tell your friends about the show, and our extensive back catalog of things to know about impeachment at this point, as we all figure this out together.

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