When newly elected Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, began his term five years ago, he was surprised to learn that “almost without exception” his Republican colleagues shared his very negative view of then-President Donald Trump. But most of them lacked the courage to speak up. And still do.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is one of the exceptions. Sen. Dan Sullivan isn’t.
Romney’s impression of his colleagues was revealed in an excerpt of a not-yet-published biography written by McCay Coppins. Based in part on discreet interviews during the past two years, it was published in The Atlantic just hours after Romney announced he won’t seek a second term.
Murkowski acknowledged she was grateful for the opportunity to serve with Romney. She added “he’s wrong about salmon!” That was in reference to the many salmon filets she’d given him, most of which remain in his freezer.
Romney and Murkowski built their relationship around a shared belief in institutional values and conservative principles. They understood that in a nation with so many competing interests, compromise is essential to progress. Their biggest joint effort produced the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.
Sullivan worked with Romney on several bills too. They were involved with the bipartisan groups that introduced the Critical Mineral Independence Act and the China Defense Spending Transparency Act.
But they parted ways over Trump’s cult-like hold on the Republican Party and its destructive impact on America’s democracy.
“To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation,” Romney wrote in January 2019. “A president should unite us and inspire us to follow ‘our better angels.’ A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect.” In these areas, Romney found Trump’s “shortfall” to be the “most glaring.”
A year and a half later, James Mattis, Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, echoed that judgment. He argued that Trump doesn’t even try to unite Americans. “Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Murkowski stated those words were “true, and honest and necessary and overdue,” and hoped it would help her colleagues “be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.”
Sullivan, who never shies away from reminding people that he’s a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve, never found that courage. Not even in defense of a retired Marine general like Mattis, who Trump vengefully attacked afterwards.
Trump wasn’t finished. He responded to Murkowski by promising to campaign against her in 2022. Sullivan supported her, but in the barest of terms by saying he’s “supporting all Republican incumbents.” And he lacked the courage to defend himself after Trump said he “should be ashamed” for endorsing her.
Our junior senator is an example of why Romney believes that today’s Republican Party in clearly “inclined to a populist demagogue message.” Trump drives it home with his constant attacks on the news media, his personal insults aimed at anyone who opposes him and his expectation that all in the party defend his lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
That was his last act as president and it led directly to his second impeachment. At the Senate trial, Sullivan was willing to “condemn former President Trump’s poor judgment in calling a rally on that day, and his actions and inactions when it turned into a riot.” But he shirked his constitutional duty to judge Trump for those actions. Instead, he interpreted the Constitution in a way that would allow every future president to defile it during their last month in office.
Only seven of the 50 Republican senators voted to convict Trump. Murkowski and Romney were among them.
Romney still has a year left in his term. After he leaves, he’ll be missed by Murkowski and the few others who still believe their duty is to put the country and Constitution ahead of their personal ambitions, the party, and its leader.
Sullivan may also regret that Romney is retiring. But when it comes to defending our Constitution, he’ll never live up to the model of honesty which Romney practiced with dignity and grace.