McKay Coppins, a journalist and staff writer at The Atlantic, is the author of a forthcoming biography about Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney. That book, “Romney: A Reckoning,” appears to dovetail quite well with the senator’s plans to retire, announced Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, Coppins published a piece in The Atlantic featuring some excerpts from his book. They are eye-opening, to say the least, not so much for what they reveal about Romney himself, but for their frank and brutal assessment of Romney’s Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate, particularly their slavish fealty to Donald Trump.
According to Coppins, when he and Romney began to meet privately for the book in 2021, the senator had not advised any other senators that he’d begun working with a biographer, meeting most often at Romney’s Washington, D.C., residence. Coppins acknowledges that he didn’t expect the level of candor Romney exhibited towards him.
From acknowledging that a “very large” segment of the Republican party “really doesn’t believe in the Constitution,” to his frank accounts of other Republican senators’ true feelings about Donald Trump, Romney doesn’t appear to have held anything back from his biographer, often providing unedited texts, emails and documents for Coppins’ thorough perusal. Even though Romney had privately advised Coppins early on that he wasn’t going to seek reelection, Coppins came away with the impression that there was something “beyond his own political future” that accounted for his startling honesty.
That “something,” Coppins believes, was “not just about the decomposition of his own political party, but about the fate of the American project itself.”
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It appears that the greatest catalyst for Romney’s pessimism was the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
Coppins notes that Romney became noticeably preoccupied with world history and the fall of global empires after he witnessed the insurrection of Jan. 6. Romney concluded, in large part, that it was history repeating itself, noting that the rise of particularly oppressive tyrants inevitably preceded the dissolution of empires. According to Coppins, Romney said, “Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce.”
It’s clear that Romney sees Trump as that gargoyle. In one incident Romney shared, he reached out via text message to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after a concerning phone call.
“In case you have not heard this, I just got a call from Angus King, who said that he had spoken with a senior official at the Pentagon who reports that they are seeing very disturbing social media traffic regarding the protests planned on the 6th. There are calls to burn down your home, Mitch; to smuggle guns into DC, and to storm the Capitol. I hope that sufficient security plans are in place, but I am concerned that the instigator—the President—is the one who commands the reinforcements the DC and Capitol police might require.”
According to Romney, McConnell never responded.
A significant section of the book addresses the evolution of Romney’s own feelings toward Trump, which apparently rapidly descended into complete disgust, culminating in Romney writing a 2019 opinion piece in for The Washington Post excoriating Trump as unfit to lead the nation. He emphasizes to Coppins that this sentiment was and is shared by almost all of his Republican Senate colleagues.
From Coppins’ book:
“Almost without exception,” he told me, “they shared my view of the president.” In public, of course, they played their parts as Trump loyalists, often contorting themselves rhetorically to defend the president’s most indefensible behavior. But in private, they ridiculed his ignorance, rolled their eyes at his antics, and made incisive observations about his warped, toddler like psyche. Romney recalled one senior Republican senator frankly admitting, “He has none of the qualities you would want in a president, and all of the qualities you wouldn’t.”
According to Coppins’ account, when Romney would criticize Trump, his fellow GOP senators would “express solidarity” with him, sometimes saying they wish they had a constituency that would allow them to express their true feelings. As Coppins reports, Romney also described an incident where Trump attended a private meeting with Republican senators, who remained “respectful and attentive,” only to burst out laughing when Trump exited the room.
Romney also quoted McConnell as calling Trump an “idiot,” and saying Romney was “lucky” he could say what he actually thought of Trump. According to Coppins, McConnell denied this conversation. Romney also confirmed what many of us have already assumed: His Republican colleagues were cynically dismissive of the (first) impeachment proceedings against Trump.
“They didn’t want to hear from witnesses; they didn’t want to learn new facts; they didn’t want to hold a trial at all,” Romney told Coppins. Romney also claimed that McConnell warned that a “prolonged, polarizing Senate trial would force them to take tough votes that risked alienating their constituents,” something that McConnell felt would lead to a Democratic Senate majority. As Romney told it to Coppins, he was appalled that there was not even the slightest pretense of impartiality in Republicans’ strategy to handle Trump’s impeachment.
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Coppins report, quite honestly, paints a picture of a Romney desperate to actually do the right thing and approach the Trump impeachment as an impartial juror would, and as he felt his constitutional duty demanded—an approach which led Romney to conclude that Trump was guilty. Even so, he spoke to his 2012 running mate and former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan on the phone, and Ryan apparently did his level best to convince Romney that he’d be killing his future political prospects by voting to convict Trump. According to Coppins, after Romney cast that vote—the lone “guilty” vote cast by a Republican senator in Trump’s first impeachment—he “would never feel comfortable at a Republican caucus lunch again.”
Coppins’ biography also examines Romney’s reaction to the Jan. 6 insurrection, describing in detail Romney’s reactions to the Capitol being attacked, even as he and his fellow senators were being evacuated.
At some point, Romney’s frustration and anger appears to boil over. As Coppins writes:
He turned to Josh Hawley, who was huddled with some of his right-wing colleagues, and started to yell. Later, Romney would struggle to recall the exact wording of his rebuke. Sometimes he’d remember shouting “You’re the reason this is happening!” Other times, it would be something more terse: “You did this.” At least one reporter in the chamber would recount seeing the senator throw up his hands in a fit of fury as he roared, “This is what you’ve gotten, guys!” Whatever the words, the sentiment was clear: This violence, this crisis, this assault on democracy—this is your fault.
Coppins confirms that Romney was aware of and disapproved of his GOP colleagues’ plan to reject electoral slates and thus perpetuate Trump’s hold on power. Late into the evening on Jan. 6, he had believed that the harrowing Trump-incited assault on his own colleagues’ safety would prompt them to abandon their plans. He was surprised when the unctuous Josh Hawley nevertheless stood up and delivered his speech supporting Trump’s position, a decision that Romney attributes to pure “political calculation.”
But one of the most telling passages excerpted by Coppins addresses not Trump’s first, but his second impeachment, and the refusal of Romney’s fellow Republicans to convict Trump for instigating the insurrection of Jan. 6.
According to Coppins’ account, Romney attributes this to his colleagues’ fear for their personal safety.
But after January 6, a new, more existential brand of cowardice had emerged. One Republican congressman confided to Romney that he wanted to vote for Trump’s second impeachment, but chose not to out of fear for his family’s safety. The congressman reasoned that Trump would be impeached by House Democrats with or without him—why put his wife and children at risk if it wouldn’t change the outcome? Later, during the Senate trial, Romney heard the same calculation while talking with a small group of Republican colleagues. When one senator, a member of leadership, said he was leaning toward voting to convict, the others urged him to reconsider. You can’t do that, Romney recalled someone saying. Think of your personal safety, said another. Think of your children. The senator eventually decided they were right.
Coppins emphasizes that Romney believes his colleagues’ fear was—and is—well-founded. Romney says he began to observe an increasingly “deranged” quality in Republican voters, even among his most loyal constituents back in Utah. As the 2022 election approached, Romney grew increasingly appalled by the MAGA fanaticism exhibited by his party’s senatorial candidates. He regarded J.D Vance of Ohio, whom, as Coppins writes, Romney felt “reinvented his whole persona overnight,” as particularly loathsome.
According to Coppins, “[w]hat Romney couldn’t stomach any longer was associating himself with people who cynically stoked distrust in democracy for selfish political reasons.”
By that point, according to Coppins, Romney had begun to gradually let his colleagues know that he wouldn’t be running again. He briefly toyed with the idea of making a third-party run for president in 2024, but abandoned it after concluding it would more than likely siphon votes from President Joe Biden and possibly lead to a Trump victory. Since then, he has had some discussions about forming a quasi-political party with like-minded “centrists” such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, with a view toward ultimately endorsing whichever party’s nominee—Democrat or Republican—aligns most closely with their own views.
Coppins suggests this idea is still in the “brainstorming” stage.
By taking himself out of the running, it appears Romney’s quest for political relevance may be quixotic. But Coppins’ piece in The Atlantic may be the closest thing to a fair assessment of what the modern Republican party actually thinks about Trump, and why it behaves in the sycophantic manner it does.
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