This week, President Donald Trump announced a bloated new task force with a clumsy name. The “Opening Up America Again Congressional Group” is charged with strategizing how best to reopen the country for business, in phases, and based on regional progress on flattening the curve of COVID-19 spread. The conglomerate defies logic in both the volume and absence of Congressional members.
This new task force has 97 members. NINETY-SEVEN. It includes nearly two-thirds of the Senate, but only seven percent of the House of Representatives. Every Republican senator was selected, except for one. The lone reject was the President’s favorite GOP punching bag, Utah Senator Mitt Romney.
While technically bipartisan, the group is heavily stacked with GOP members. The task force is 76% Republican, 23% Democrat and one percent Independent – Senator Angus King, Jr., from Maine. A 60/40 split might have provided better optics. The omissions, besides Romney, are conspicuous. No senator from the hardest-hit states of New York or New Jersey was selected. All four are Democrats who have been highly – often unfairly – critical of the President, but that should not matter at a time like this.
The task force roster looks like a hand-picked group of politicians that Trump likes, and some non-GOP tokens that he can tolerate. Of the seven Democrat senators who ran for their party’s 2020 nomination, only Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar was invited. She was the most moderate senator in the field and did less Trump-bashing than most of her rivals. While it’s nearly impossible to find a Democrat in Washington who hasn’t bad-mouthed the President, the ones on this task force have generally been more muted. Senator Dick Durbin, from Illinois, may be the most outspoken among the group, and he’s a teddy bear compared to many of his Senate colleagues.
Cherry-picking from the opposition party is one thing. Ostracizing a single senator and former Presidential nominee from your own party is another. The President and the senator share a checkered past, to put it mildly. Trump endorsed Romney for President in 2012 and for the Senate in 2018. That’s easy to forget, considering what happened with them in between those announcements, and what has happened since.
Romney’s speech at the University of Utah in March 2016 was a scathing takedown of his own his party’s presumptive nominee unlike anything in modern political history. He called Trump “a phony, a fraud,” and said Trump’s “promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” Ouch. Had Romney staked his own candidacy that day, or come out solidly behind a particular candidate, he might have changed the course of the nomination. Instead, he encouraged voters in Florida to support Marco Rubio, voters in Texas to support Ted Cruz and Ohio voters to support John Kasich. His diatribe, while entertaining, served to merely bash Trump (and Hillary Clinton) without offering an alternative. So it fizzled into the background of the Never Trump movement and provided baffling context for the next episode of the Trump-Romney soap opera.
Less than nine months later, Romney praised Trump after a meal of frog leg soup, steak, scallops and lamb chops (apparently, the Trump Hotel chef was out of alligator that night), saying, “Trump is the man who can lead us to a better future.” The President-elect was allegedly considering the former Massachusetts governor for Secretary of State, though I always suspected Trump was only teasing Romney with the prospect. Either way, Romney was not selected and chose to run in 2018 for the Senate seat in Utah being vacated by Orrin Hatch, with the President’s endorsement.
After winning the election, but before taking office, Romney penned a blistering op-ed in the Washington Post on New Year’s Day, 2019. In a toned-down reprise of his 2016 speech, Romney did credit Trump for some early successes, but still derided him as largely unfit for office.
Fast forward to February 2020. Senator Romney was faced with a vote on two counts of impeachment against the President. Out of 53 GOP senators, Romney inexplicably cast the lone vote against Trump, on one of the two counts – abuse of power. This drew not only the ire of many of his colleagues, but predictably, venom from Trump as well, who called Romney “a disgrace.”
Still stinging from Romney’s vote, Trump showed little empathy when told that the senator was self-quarantining after possible exposure to the coronavirus in late March. After hearing about it during the daily White House briefing, the President responded sarcastically, “Romney’s in isolation? Gee, that’s too bad.” And after learning that his rival had tested negative, Trump layered on even more sarcasm, saying he was so happy he could “barely speak,” before blasting Romney for being a terrible senator and Presidential candidate.
So now we are here, where the President continues to hold a grudge, to single out Senator Romney from service on this crowded task force, and to fail to rise above the swamp he vowed to drain. Trump could easily have added Romney to the team. More easily, he could have left 30 GOP senators out, making the task force much more manageable. Instead, he chose to make a statement, like he so often does. For his part, Romney has thus far handled the snub stoically. We will anxiously await the next chapter in this cozy relationship. I’m betting it won’t include an endorsement from either of them.