“There are some things you just can’t imagine happening,” Romney said, looking as though he couldn’t believe what was happening. “This is one of them.”
Four years later, Trump is on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination — and Romney has emerged as one of the frontrunner’s most outspoken opponents.
"Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said in a speech Thursday. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the American public for suckers."
Romney’s decision to fully throw his support behind the anti-Trump wing of the GOP was both personal and practical, according to friends and former advisers. In a fractured party with few neutral arbiters or power brokers, Romney came to believe he could play a key role in orchestrating the Republican opposition to Trump. And even though his allies continue to defend his cozying up to Trump in 2012, Romney himself has privately expressed a sense of personal obligation to help undo whatever damage that episode might have caused.
“Mitt Romney has positioned himself as an elder statesman in our party,” said Katie Packer, a former adviser who now heads the leading anti-Trump group, Our Priorities PAC. She added, “I think he views this as a time for him to not admonish the candidates, but to remind voters that the decision they face is a serious one and that these times require a serious candidate, not a con man who happens to be a reality TV star.”
Until recently, Romney had remained publicly neutral in the 2016 primaries, aside from criticizing a couple of Trump’s campaign provocations on Twitter. Last month, as Trump began racking up delegates, Romney decided to take him on more pointedly, calling on the billionaire to release his tax returns and speculating that they might contain secrets that would expose him as a fraud.
The irony of this line of attack did not escape Mitt, according to people close to him. In 2012, Harry Reid publicly speculated that Romney had not paid taxes for 10 years — a baseless accusation that drove media chatter for weeks. Romney took a certain amount of delight in using the same tack against Trump. He experimented with a variety of verbiage while deciding how best to level the charge, before finally settling on the word “bombshell.” He tapped it into his iPad and then chuckled to himself, awaiting Trump’s response.
“That ‘bombshell’ remark was all him,” said Spencer Zwick, a longtime friend and head of his 2012 fundraising effort. “At his core, he really does believe that Trump needs to release his tax returns because he might be trying to hide something. But he also knows that if you’re going to get into a Twitter war with Donald Trump, you have to be ready to fight.”
For Romney, the anti-Trump effort became more serious over the weekend, after he watched the candidate repeatedly refuse to disavow the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan during a CNN interview. Romney, who has long idolized his father for championing civil rights as a Republican governor in the ‘60s, was viscerally revolted by Trump’s performance.
Two former Romney advisers said Trump’s CNN interview convinced him to speak out more forcefully against the frontrunner. They added, however, that he is under no illusion that his remarks will dissuade Trump’s supporters from voting for him. In fact, when friends and allies have urged him in recent months to weigh in more often on various 2016 developments, he has responded, self-deprecatingly, that he is “old news,” and a “loser” — a politician who lacks Marco Rubio’s skills as a communicator and Ted Cruz’s passionate base of supporters. “No one wants to hear from me,” he told one friend.
But he also acknowledges that, as the former Republican nominee, he has the ability to drive media coverage with his commentary, and sources said he will be much more visible on TV in the coming days and weeks as he makes the case against Trump.
"I don’t think Mitt's speech is going to make or break Donald Trump's candidacy. But I do think there are a lot of people in the party and a lot of people around the country who see him as being a man of integrity," said Robert O'Brien, a friend and former foreign policy adviser to Romney. "Mitt would probably tell you his speech will not necessarily move the needle one way or the other. But there has been a lot of attention to his views, and he thinks it's right that he weigh in at this time."
His reemergence has, predictably, set off a fresh wave of speculation about his own political intentions, and two former Romney advisers said they’ve heard from scores of donors and loyalists this week asking if he is positioning himself to be drafted from the convention floor. But Romney has been adamant in public that he has no interest in such an outcome, and is expected to keep pushing back against the speculation, believing that his anti-Trump message will be undermined if it’s viewed as advancing his own self-interest.
For the same reasons, Romney has opted not to endorse Marco Rubio, the candidate for whom he has privately expressed a preference.
“Once you back a candidate, you’re just one of their surrogates,” said Zwick. “Mitt Romney is the former nominee of his party and he has his own opinions. He doesn’t have to get up and read the talking points from another campaign.”
If Republicans do arrive in Cleveland to a contested convention, one former adviser said Romney’s more likely role would be to help broker a “unity ticket” among the remaining non-Trump candidates.
“He is one of the few people with the stature in the party to convene a meeting of the candidates at the right time and help midwife a Republican ticket that would help beat Hillary Clinton,” the adviser said.