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Can a Republican take on Trump and survive? Mitt Romney is proving it’s possible.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/17/2020 Griff Witte, Ashley Parker

Mitt Romney wearing a suit and tie © Provided by The Washington Post BOUNTIFUL, Utah —Since Mitt Romney became the first senator in history to defy his party with a vote to convict in an impeachment trial, he's been called a "disgrace" by President Trump. He's been pilloried as a traitor each night on Fox News. And he's been formally censured by GOP organizations as far away as Louisiana.

Here in Bountiful, a devout and devotedly Republican city in Romney’s home state, voters might be expected to join in. And to an extent, they have.

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“I was disappointed,” said Gary Wight, who runs a formalwear shop, Latter Day Suits, across the street from the white-steepled tabernacle that sits at the heart of town. “Senator Romney isn’t doing what we sent him there to do.”

But Wight, a Republican who backed Romney in the last election, was quick to note a caveat: That doesn’t mean he won’t vote for him again.

It’s a refrain echoed across this mountainside city, one that reflects the wide latitude Utah’s junior senator is being given at home. Even as Romney has become the ultimate object of Trump-fueled derision outside the state, it’s a different story within Utah, where efforts to reprimand the senator have foundered and he has unlocked support from unusual quarters.

“Democrats in Utah were more excited about Mitt Romney’s vote than Republicans were disappointed,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. The response among critics, he said, has been conspicuously “muted.”

A truism of the Trump era — borne out in the wreckage of numerous once-promising careers — is that no Republican can take him on and hope to stay in politics.

Yet the measured reaction in Utah suggests that Romney has pulled off — for now, at least — what no other Republican has: openly challenging the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency and living to tell the tale.

That doesn’t mean that Romney has lit a path for other would-be renegades. Rather, the complex constellation of factors that surround his political survival in the face of a Trumpian barrage reflect just how difficult it might be to re-create elsewhere.

“Utah is different,” said Perry, a former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Gary R. Herbert. Unlike other red states, majority-Mormon Utah has long been ill at ease with Trump’s crude style, including his xenophobic attacks on refugees and his fondness for profanity.

Romney — with his pedigree as a former Republican presidential nominee and savior of Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Olympics — is different, too.

And so is the manner in which the 72-year-old announced his vote to convict, a solemn and faith-filled address from the Senate floor on Feb. 5 in which he cited “an inescapable conviction that my oath before God demanded it of me.”

“Utahns like politicians who have a conscience and a set of principles they follow,” Perry said. “There are many here who don’t agree with what Senator Romney did. But they’re not willing to go after him for voting his conscience.”

Trump, of course, has no such qualms. Romney, the president charged the day after the impeachment vote, “used religion as a crutch.” It’s an accusation that doesn’t sit well with many religiously observant voters here.

“I’m disgusted by it,” said Elaine Snarr, a political independent who thumbs through a well-worn copy of the Book of Mormon when not ringing up shoe sales from a shop on Bountiful’s postcard-perfect Main Street. “Faith is the foundation of everything, and Mitt Romney is a man of faith. How can Trump lead the country if he doesn’t have faith?”

a sign on the side of a road: Rachel Namba waves to cars along a road during a canvassing event in Bountiful, Utah, on Oct. 30, 2018, when Romney faced off with Democrat Jenny Wilson in the midterm election. © Kim Raff/Bloomberg Rachel Namba waves to cars along a road during a canvassing event in Bountiful, Utah, on Oct. 30, 2018, when Romney faced off with Democrat Jenny Wilson in the midterm election.

Like Utah itself, Romney has walked a fine political line on Trump, the thrice-married president who has been caught on tape boasting about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women.

In a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president in over half a century, Trump came up short of a majorityin 2016, winning with 45.5 percent of the vote.

Romney — a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Utah’s dominant faith — was among those who declined to support the Republican nominee. (He has said he wrote in his wife’s name instead, and that Ann Romney would probably get another vote this year.)

Yet Romney also interviewed to be Trump’s secretary of state. As Trump’s approval ratings among Utah Republicans have risen, Romney has voted with the president nearly 80 percent of the time. Democrats who had hoped that Romney might lead the GOP wing of the anti-Trump resistance have largely been disappointed.

But in his most critical decision to date on Trump — the ultimate whose-side-are-you-on test that was the impeachment vote — Romney broke rank, even as 99 other senators fell into line with their parties.

Brad Wilson, the Republican speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, found out via text while on the House floor.

“He might be a one-term senator,” Wilson remembers thinking.

Romney had not known exactly what the fallout from his vote would be. But he understood it would probably be seismic. He talked about it privately with a tight brain trust — including former campaign manager and longtime confidant Beth Myers as well as Matt Waldrip, his Senate chief of staff.And he acknowledged the reality in his speech before casting his vote, predicting he would be “vehemently denounced” and receive “abuse from the president and his supporters.”

“He is clear-eyed and at peace with his decision,” Waldrip said. “But that doesn’t mean he didn’t understand the gravity of it.”

By the time Romney visited Wilson and the other Republicans state legislators in Salt Lake City the next day — his first stop after flying home the night before — the backlash was well underway.

Beneath the gray neoclassical dome that rises dramatically atop Salt Lake’s Capitol Hill, there was already a push among state legislators to censure the senator — or even to enable a recall.

Trump, meanwhile, had attacked Romney that morning at a normally apolitical prayer breakfast, and again during remarks at a “celebration” in the East Room of the White house.

The White House had also released talking points slamming Romney’s vote as a “display of self-serving political expediency.” Fox News hosts had gone into overdrive, referring to Romney as a modern-day Benedict Arnold.

By then, Romney was a long way from Washington. The senator had wanted to meet Utah’s top lawmakers as soon as possible after the vote because he thought it would help him communicate his decision to constituents. He also wanted to directly confront some of the dissension and public frustration percolating among his home state’s local leaders.

Sitting with Wilson in the speaker’s office, Romney immediately had the chance: What did Romney have to say, Wilson wanted to know, to those who thought his vote was less about conscience or faith and more about a personal grudge against Trump?

“It was a tense question,” Wilson recalled. But Romney had a “very good answer” based on his understanding of the evidence, “his fidelity to the oath that he took and his fidelity to God.”

Wilson had opposed Trump’s impeachment, like the vast majority of Utah Republicans. But the senator’s response “led me to believe he felt comfortable with the decision he came to based on the information that he was given.”

Instead of an escalation, the meetings in Salt Lake helped to defuse the anger, with both sides doing a lot of listening, according to people familiar with the exchanges.

There were other signs, too, that the reaction from home was not going to be as harsh as some feared.

During impeachment, each member of Romney’s staff took a turn answering constituent calls — from the interns to the senior aides. The goal was to make sure everyone understood how voters felt.

Within the first two days after Romney’s vote, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, according to someone familiar with the call reports.

Romney’s Senate Republican colleagues, while not offering support, at least signaled to Romney that they wouldn’t hold the vote against him.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reached Romney by phone the day after the vote and offered a gracious message of understanding, said two people familiar with the conversation. The Senate Republicans — who hold a slim majority — needed his vote going forward, and his decision on impeachment would not affect their working relationship.

It was a dramatically different message from the one that Trump was sending. At a White House event on Feb. 10, featuring the nation’s governors, Trump again turned his attention to the senator. “How’s Mitt Romney?” the president asked Herbert, Utah’s governor. “You keep him. We don’t want him.”

Had Herbert been inclined to seize the moment to take the president’s side, he hardly could have had a better opportunity. Instead, he ignored Trump’s remarks and asked about the national debt.

Herbert, who did not support Trump in 2016 after rescinding an earlier endorsement, was among the many Republican leaders in Utah who spoke out against the legislative push to reprimand Romney.

By Feb. 11, after a 90-minute meeting of the Republican caucus, Wilson announced that the effort had fizzled. Instead, lawmakers intend to pass a resolution commending the president, especially for his help in boosting the state’s surging economy.

Wilson said he still hears from “Republicans friends and neighbors who are mad as hornets” about Romney’s vote. But many, he said, “have taken a deep breath” and just want to move on.

“We’ve got work to do. And Mitt Romney’s done a lot of great things for this state,” he said.

Similar dynamics were at work within the state GOP, where central committee member Brandon Beckham drafted his own censure resolution.

Romney’s vote, Beckham said, “brought embarrassment to our party” and should be formally rebuked. But he soon found that not everyone agrees. Within hours of announcing the resolution, Beckham said his Facebook page was full of criticism and abuse.

“There’s a lot of sympathy for Romney with his statement about religion and God,” Beckham lamented. “It’s almost like he’s a prophet in the way that he’s untouchable. He can’t do anything wrong.”

On the streets of Bountiful — a city of 44,000 that dates to its 19th-century founding as the Mormons’ second settlement in Utah — that’s not entirely true.

Wight — who tailors suits for LDS missionaries before they embark on their journeys — said he was skeptical of Romney’s claim that he had acted out of principle.

“I’m not saying he’s a liar,” said Wight, 70. “I’m just saying he’s a politician.”

At Lost and Found — an antique shop stocked to the rafters with furniture, art and knickknacks — co-owner Rex Rodda was similarly unpersuaded.

“It was personal,” said Rodda, 54. “He’s like a spoiled little kid. Trump got the prize that he wanted.”

Rodda, a Republican who was once an enthusiastic Romney supporter, said he was unlikely to vote for the senator should he decide to run for reelection in 2024.

But even if Romney loses Rodda’s vote, the senator has gained the backing of one of Rodda’s customers, Colleen Rasmussen.

“I didn’t vote for him last time around,” said the white-haired Democrat as she picked out valentines. “But I’ll vote for him next time. He did what his heart told him to do. That took a lot of courage.”

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Mitt Romney speaks during a backyard campaign stop in American Fork, Utah, on June 20, 2018, after being forced into a Republican primary against a conservative state lawmaker. © Rick Bowmer/AP Mitt Romney speaks during a backyard campaign stop in American Fork, Utah, on June 20, 2018, after being forced into a Republican primary against a conservative state lawmaker.

griff.witte@washpost.com

ashley.parker@washpost.com

Parker reported from Washington.

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