DEER VALLEY, Utah — Mitt Romney is once again testing his political power — critiquing President Donald Trump, raising money and campaigning for fellow Republicans, and not ruling out another run for office for himself.
The 2012 GOP presidential nominee is returning to the spotlight, six months after Trump — the man Romney once savaged as unfit for the presidency — nearly picked him to be secretary of state.
During an annual gathering of Romney’s top donors and political allies at a posh ski resort here, the former Massachusetts governor outlined his concerns with how Trump is conducting his “America First” brand of foreign policy, sketched out early plans to boost a big-spending super PAC dedicated to saving the party’s imperiled House majority, and even stoked speculation that he’s thinking about a Senate bid.
On Friday night, in a private appearance with former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat raised eyebrows when he told Romney he should consider running for Senate. Romney, who has refused to quash persistent speculation he might seek Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch’s seat should he forgo seeking reelection, did not push back at the suggestion, said two people who witnessed the exchange between the two former rivals.
As the audience applauded, Romney only smiled.
Romney’s return comes as senior Republicans express profound unease with the direction of Trump’s presidency and worry it will cost them dearly in the 2018 midterms. With Trump’s approval ratings at historic lows and his agenda in tatters, GOP leaders are in desperate search of big-name surrogates able to motivate increasingly despondent Republican voters — a profile that Romney, a mainstream figure who articulates the party’s traditional views, just may fit.
Spencer Zwick, a longtime Romney adviser and political gatekeeper, said he’d been inundated with appeals from Republican candidates asking the former GOP nominee to help them. Last week, Romney held his first fundraiser for a 2018 hopeful, an event benefiting Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who has been fiercely critical of the president. Over the coming days, Romney is also expected to release a robocall boosting Georgia Republican Karen Handel, who has been losing ground in a high-stakes June 20 special House election she had once been favored to win.
“All I can tell you is that the number of requests that Mitt has gotten in the last month to come to a district or to come to a state for a sitting senator — it’s like he’s a presidential candidate again, which I was surprised by,” said Zwick, who doubles as a top political aide to House Speaker Paul Ryan. “There are only so many people in the party that can headline these things.”
While those gathered at the E2 Summit hiked, participated in yoga sessions and listened to talks from business and political leaders at the posh Stein Eriksen Lodge, Romney plotted how to help the GOP in the coming election.
The former governor, who maintains deep ties to the party’s donor class, and several of his allies met with Corry Bliss, the top strategist overseeing Congressional Leadership Fund, a pro-House GOP super PAC. Bliss walked Romney through the group’s field deployment plan and outlined its goal to raise and spend $100 million over the course of the election cycle.
Romney is expected to help the group fundraise in the months to come. “Having the support of Gov. Romney is a key to our success,” Bliss said.
At a time of growing consternation in the party — and confusion in some ranks about what it will run on in 2018 — those close to the former governor say he is embracing his role in helping to lay the groundwork.
“My hope is that he takes an active role, certainly as we move toward 2018, because I think it’s going to be a very important cycle for Republicans, and I think he still has a very unique voice and it’s a voice that I do think is desperately needed in a lot of ways,” said Lanhee Chen, a former Romney policy adviser.
Romney, Chen added, would be able to present “a fuller picture of what Republican governance might look like.”
Romney’s appearance here is bound to reignite speculation that he is giving thought to a Senate bid. He had been widely expected to address the rumors during a 35-minute talk he gave on Friday afternoon in which he answered questions posed to him by Zwick.
Yet the prospect of a Senate race never came up during that session — a glaring omission that left attendees convinced that Romney wanted to avoid the topic. In private conversations here, multiple Romney advisers said that while a run remained unlikely, he was not yet prepared to close the door on it.
After the secretary-of-state deliberations culminated in December with Trump’s selection of Rex Tillerson, Romney maintained a relatively low profile. The former governor, friends say, has been spending extensive time each day reading up on news, keeping in touch with his extensive network of allies from the business and political worlds, and, as he has throughout the years, staying physically active.
On Friday morning, the 70-year-old led several dozen summit attendees on an early morning, 3 1/2-mile hike through the shrubbery-filled mountains of Deer Valley. Those expecting a casual outing with the former presidential candidate were in for a surprise: As they lumbered along, Romney raced ahead. “You coming?” he called out to one of his friends early on.
With his remarks on Friday, Romney ended his public silence. While his criticisms of Trump were far more measured than in the past — he said he agreed with Trump on many of his domestic policy goals — he telegraphed many of the GOP establishment’s concerns with the new president. At one point, he tweaked Trump for the palace intrigue that has roiled the early months of his tenure, saying, “it would be helpful if the theater of the White House, of the administration, were to be reduced.”
He also offered an implicit contrast with Trump’s rhetorically soft posture toward Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “If you punch him in the nose for doing something bad, then he is less likely to do something bad again,” Romney said. “If you don’t punch him in the nose, he will do it again, and again, and again.”
Later, Romney appeared to grow emotional as he stressed the importance of the country embracing a humanitarian approach overseas — a comment that some in the crowd perceived as a swipe as Trump’s "America First" platform.
Yet for all his disagreements with the president, Romney said he was eager to be considered for the secretary of state job — and that he would have accepted the position had it been offered. He told the tale of the unexpected courtship, which began one day while he was playing golf in Hawaii, when he received a call from then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence gauging his interest.
While he was at first surprised that Trump — who Romney, during the 2016 campaign, derided as a “fraud” and a “phony” — would want him, he was heartened that Trump would be open to a diverse array of ideas.
As the selection process wore on, though, Romney said it became increasingly clear to him that his differences with Trump would have made it hard for him to serve. He recalled one meeting, when Trump pressed him for his views on how to deal with Syria. Romney offered the president-elect three options for dealing with the country. Trump said he disagreed.
In picking Tillerson for the job, Romney said he had concluded, Trump made the right decision.
As Trump’s White House has plunged into chaos, some of Romney’s friends say they wonder whether not getting tapped was a blessing in disguise.
That question came up during a session on Friday afternoon, when journalist Bianna Golodryga, who was interviewing Arizona Sen. John McCain, asked whether Romney was better off having not been chosen.
Romney, seated in the audience, interjected.
“Next question!” he said.