When Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) announced his retirement from the US Senate on Tuesday, President Donald Trump marked the occasion with a Tweet that congratulated Hatch and called the senator a “tremendous supporter” and “friend.”
Congratulations to Senator Orrin Hatch on an absolutely incredible career. He has been a tremendous supporter, and I will never forget the (beyond kind) statements he has made about me as President. He is my friend and he will be greatly missed in the U.S. Senate! pic.twitter.com/0VjzLEeHTl
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2018
It didn’t take long for Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential nominee, to be tagged as Hatch’s heir apparent. A Utah native, a Mormon, and an experienced politician, Hatch himself has given Romney his blessing and support. “I’m hopeful he’ll run, because he would be just fine,” Hatch said on a Utah radio program Wednesday morning. “And he would certainly be somebody who, I think, could succeed me into the job.”
Romney, however, is not likely to receive the same ringing endorsement from the president. The two have had a long relationship that included some highs and many, very public, lows. For instance, in February 2016, Trump, who is not known for his restraint in matters of personal feuds, did not hold back when Romney joined the bipartisan chorus that asked the candidate to release his tax returns:
Mitt Romney, who was one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics, is now pushing me on tax returns. Dope!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2016
But to characterize the relationship between Trump and Romney as purely contentious would be to ignore a longer history. Almost exactly four years before the President called Romney a “dope,” private-citizen Trump endorsed Romney’s 2012 candidacy in grand fashion at his hotel in Las Vegas, with Romney and his wife Ann beaming at his side.
“Mitt is tough, he’s smart, he’s sharp,” Trump told the crowd. “He’s not going to allow bad things to continue to happen to this country that we all love.” Romney replied with his own dose of flattery. “There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them,” he said. “Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight.”
Trump had also thrown his weight behind Romney in the 2008 presidential primary race, but exercised some uncharacteristic humility, noting, “I don’t want to hurt any of the candidates by endorsing them.”
The relationship between Trump and Romney was a casualty of the bitter 2016 GOP primary that sharply divided the party between establishment Republicans, like Romney, and the new order Trump’s supporters ushered in. Here’s a brief history of the tumultuous, on-again-off-again relationship between the president and the potential Senate hopeful.
2003: A couple of rich guys hanging out together
Once, the two businessmen-turned-politicians ran in similar social circles. In 2003, then-Governor Romney, Trump, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka attended the 40th wedding anniversary party of New England Patriots’ owner (and longtime Trump ally) Robert Kraft. Joined by star Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and members of the band Aerosmith, guests “huddled under a tent on the 50-yard line where they scarfed Dom Perignon, Beluga caviar, and filet mignon,” according to a Boston Herald article documenting the occasion. The two reunited a few months later when they took in a Patriots’ playoff game from Kraft’s luxury suite.
2012: The Romney endorsement
Trump had toyed with a 2012 presidential run, and early 2011 polling showed that he stood a chance in fractured field. He eventually stepped away from the race, but not without reminding the public that if he had run, he would have won. His major influence was as the champion of the “birther” movement: an unrelenting quest to convince the American public that President Obama had been born in Kenya and was not an American citizen. Trump insisted these assertions could only be disproved with President Obama’s birth certificate, although, once Obama presented the document, Trump continued to insist inspections were required to assess its authenticity.
Trump’s lavish Las Vegas endorsement of Romney took reporters by surprise: early reports suggested Trump would throw his support behind former House speaker Newt Gingrich. But Trump proved himself a loyal ally throughout the primary season—he hosted a birthday party for Romney’s wife, Ann, which doubled as a campaign fundraiser and took to the conservative talk show circuit to sing his praises.
Romney graciously thanked Trump for helping put him over the edge in the Nevada primary, which came days after his endorsement. Whatever discomfort Romney may have felt over the birther campaign, he brushed aside diplomatically: “You know, I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” he said. “But I need to get to 50.1 percent or more, and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”
On Election Day, Trump pleaded Romney’s case on Twitter:
Make sure to vote today. Vote for real change. Change that will deliver jobs and a free & strong America. Vote for @MittRomney.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
2015: The tide turns
In the weeks that followed Romney’s 2012 loss, Trump took to Twitter for the post-mortem, offering sympathy to a candidate who just “didn’t catch on.” The warmth, however, drained over the course of the next year—in what appear to be crassly constructed retweets, Trump insisted he would have been a stronger candidate and triumphed. By the time Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, his attacks on Romney accelerated, ostensibly to stymie any 2016 ambitions the two-time candidate may have still harbored.
Why would Republican candidates want the support of Mitt Romney. He lost an election against Obama that should NEVER have been lost!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 4, 2015
Romney kept a low profile during this period, but when Trump disparaged Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) military record, Romney panned the move on Twitter, remarking that the difference between Trump and McCain was that “Trump shot himself down,” and that “McCain and American veterans are true heroes.” When Trump announced his proposed ban on all Muslim immigrants, Romney again slammed Trump, saying the candidate “fired before aiming.”
February 2016: The tax returns
Romney appeared on Fox News in early 2016 to exert pressure on Trump to release his tax returns, and, once more, used Twitter to make his case:
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 25, 2016
The barrage annoyed the candidate, who fired back that Romney didn’t release his tax returns until the weeks before the general election, and only did so under pressure from then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
Mitt Romney didn’t show his tax return until SEPTEMBER 21, 2012, and then only after being humiliated by Harry R! A bad messenger for estab!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2016
Romney issued the fact check, reminding voters that he had actually released his tax returns in advance of the Republican primaries. “Facts are stubborn,” the former candidate tweeted. “I released my back taxes on 1/24/12. No excuse for hiding your back taxes.”
March 2016: The University of Utah speech
Romney delivered a speech at University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute in order to offer his “perspective on the nominating process of my party.” During the speech, Romney called Trump “a con man,” criticized his plans for taxes and the economy, and condemned his positions on immigration and foreign policy. “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee,” Romney said, “the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.” He reinforced his points on Twitter the same day:
If Trump had said 4 years ago the things he says today about the KKK, Muslims, Mexicans, disabled, I would NOT have accepted his endorsement
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) March 3, 2016
Candidate Trump decried Romney’s attacks in a Tweetstorm in the days that followed. He even recalled a friendlier time, wondering “Why did Mitt Romney BEG me for my endorsement four years ago?”
.@MittRomney was a disaster candidate who had no guts and choked! Romney is a total joke, and everyone knows it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2016
In the coming weeks, Romney emerged as a leader of the Never Trumpers, doing robocalls for Marco Rubio and John Kasich in an effort to foster a “brokered convention,” a situation in which after the party failed to identify its leading nominee through primaries, it would be forced to conduct a floor vote at the convention.
May 2016: No ringing endorsement
As the Republican field narrowed in late spring 2016, and Trump looked more clearly like the GOP’s pick, Romney still refused to endorse Trump. In early May, he said he was “dismayed” by the results of primary season and troubled by the “demagoguery and populism” exhibited by his party. Trump did not take kindly to Romney’s lack of support, telling crowds that he had intimidated Romney from seeking a 2016 run. “He saw Trump saying he can’t run, because I understand losers,” Trump said at rally in California in late May, adding that Romney “walks like a penguin.”
Tensions reached a head in early June when, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Romney declared that Trump’s brand of political incorrectness would spell trouble for American culture. “Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation,” Romney said, “and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.” Trump refuted Romney’s claims over Twitter, noting that prominent Americans who had endorsed him would not have done so “if they thought I was a racist!” He reminded followers that Romney “choked like a dog” when he sought the presidency four years earlier.
Romney—along with senators Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), past presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, and many other high-profile figures in the GOP—did not attend the Republican nominating convention in Cleveland that summer.
November 2016: Cabinet flirtations
Frosty relations between Trump and Romney began thaw after November 7. According to President-elect Trump, Romney had called to congratulate him on his win the week after Election Day. A meeting between the two quickly followed amidst rumors that Romney, alongside former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, was on the shortlist for Secretary of State. Trump’s eventual pick, Rex Tillerson, was reportedly not yet under consideration. The idea was perhaps inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which Trump had allegedly referenced in the days following his victory (the move followed a pattern set by President Obama, who had also looked to Team of Rivals when he sought out Hillary Clinton for the role eight years prior.)
Speculation soared as the President-elect dined with Romney and soon-to-be Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at Jean-Georges restaurant at Trump Tower in New York. While Romney didn’t take back any of his previous criticisms of the President-elect, after leaving the restaurant, he described the dinner conversation as “enlightening, and interesting, and engaging.” He said that the evening gave him “increasing hope that President-elect Trump is the very man who can lead us to that better future.” Romney reportedly would have accepted the position if Trump had chosen him over Tillerson.
December 2017: The Utah visit
After being passed over for the State job, Romney remained relatively quiet as President Trump assumed office. After Trump’s response to violence in Charlottesville, Romney, in a long Facebook post, condemned the president for stating there was “blame on both sides” of the white supremacist-led violence that injured dozens and took one life. “Whether he intended to or not, what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn,” he wrote. Just a few weeks later, he became a Trump supporter again, praising the speech the president gave at the United Nations for its “strong and needed challenge to UN members to live up to its charter and to confront global challenges.”
Their not-so-distant feud, however, was in the background during the president’s December visit to Utah to announce the sizable reduction of two of the state’s national monuments that Hatch had requested. Amidst rumors of Hatch’s retirement (and Romney’s potential run), Trump urged Hatch to “continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come,” suggesting the 83-year-old senator run again in 2018. While a Trump spokesperson denied that Trump’s support for Hatch should be interpreted as a slight to Romney, and that Romney was “not a focus” of the President’s trip, the official acknowledged, “When the guy forms an exploratory committee, we will have a view.”