Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s most recent presidential nominee, took the unusual step of criticizing the odds-on favorite to be the party’s next nominee in a blistering speech that labeled Donald Trump a fraud who is playing the American public for suckers.
“Dishonesty is Trump’s hallmark,” Romney said Thursday at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“Let me put it plainly, if we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished,” Romney said at the start of his remarks in Salt Lake City. He is the chairman of Lexington, Massachusetts-based Solamere Capital.
Romney said he was not announcing his own candidacy and would not make an endorsement of any single candidate. He cited all three of Trump’s remaining rivals – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “One of these men should be our nominee,” Romney said.
“Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud,” Romney said, according to statements in his prepared speech. “His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.”
Romney offered a litany of reasons why Trump would be bad for the country: Trump’s tariffs would touch off a trade war and kill export jobs, his tax plan would balloon the deficit and national debt, and his plans overall “would be very bad for American workers and for American families.
“After all, this is an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter’s questions to her menstrual cycle, who mocked a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance, who bragged about his marital affairs, and who laces his public speeches with vulgarity,” Romney said.
“There is dark irony in his boasts of his sexual exploits during the Vietnam War while John McCain, whom he has mocked, was imprisoned and tortured.”
Romney’s speech comes after 15 states have already held their nominating contests, and Trump has won nearly half of the delegates up for grabs in those states. Many in the party fear that Trump can essentially end the contest if he pulls out victories in Ohio and Florida, two large, battleground states that hold primaries on March 15.
As the party’s 2012 nominee, Romney is the most significant figure in a rapidly intensifying effort from the Republican establishment to take down their presumptive nominee. His criticism marks the bluntest attempt so far by the Republican establishment to slow Trump’s momentum after his victories on Tuesday in the single biggest day of voting in the Republican race.
Responding Thursday on MSNBC, Trump said Romney was “a disaster” who failed to inspire voters in 2012. “He was a catastrophe,” Trump said. “He ran one of the worst campaigns, as you know, in presidential history.”
“Mitt Romney is a stiff,” Trump said on NBC’s “Today Show.” “He got killed, he got decimated in the election.”
Romney’s speech was delivered on a crisp, overcast morning with snow-covered peaks as a backdrop. Hundreds of students and community leaders lined up two-and-a-half hours early to the former Massachusetts governor at the University of Utah. The 680-chair music hall, with an organ perched high above the stage, was filled to capacity with at least 15 video cameras pointed at the wooden podium.
Many in the line that snaked around buildings on the austere campus were registered Republicans who expressed disgust with Trump’s raw rhetoric and his lack of foreign policy experience.
“One of the most disgusting things to me is his refusal to denounce the KKK,” said Nick Clayson, 21, a political science student at Utah State University and registered Republican. “That’s a huge issue for me. If it came down to Clinton or Trump I would want a third party candidate to enter the race.”
“Trump tells it like it is, he’s not politically correct – he says what people want to hear and doesn’t hold anything back,” said John Greene, 47, who owns a real estate business in Salt Lake City. “With his lack of foreign policy experience he could run this country into the ground.”
Others in the queue flew in from out of town the night before and were undecided about who they would support in their state’s upcoming primary election.
“I came to see if he can change the tide of the winds,” said Rachel Walston, a financial adviser from North Carolina and registered Republican who turned 37 Thursday. “For the first time in my life I might vote for a Democrat if it comes down to Trump.”
Several pointed to a groundswell of support in Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormon church, for Romney to enter the race. The Bain Capital founder is a favorite son in Utah as a prominent Mormon who gained fame after he turned a scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics into a profitable venture.
“There’s a lot of speculation out there that Romney is putting out feelers to see what the reaction is -- the next few weeks are so important,” said Lexy Wright, a political science student at the University of Utah who “tends to vote Democratic” and is from New York City. “There are dinner parties this evening for people who haven’t donated to a candidate yet to discuss funding a possible Romney run.”
“I wish Romney would run,” said Don Gilbert, 77, a retired loan manager whose lived his entire life in Salt Lake City. “As far as honesty and dealing with people and he’s had good experience in government. Trump is a little scary.”
Many agreed, however, that if forced to choose between Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton they would hold their nose and vote for the former reality TV star.
“If it came down to it I would probably vote for Trump,” said Josh Brewer, 34, a business management major at Utah Valley University. “I have to make my vote count.”
The public bickering within the Republican Party was forcing loyalists to choose sides between their past nominee and the leading candidate to be their next one. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Romney’s 2012 running mate, came to Romney’s defense Thursday, while maintaining that he would stay neutral.
“Mitt’s one of our leaders, he’s a principled conservative,” Ryan said on Fox New’s “Fox and Friends” show. “He’s worried about the future of our party.”
It was only four years ago that Romney and his wife, Ann, traveled to Las Vegas to accept Trump’s endorsement at a news conference where Romney praised Trump – who had taken to questioning Obama’s birthplace and eligibility -- for “an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works and to create jobs.”
Trump has taken to attacking Romney on Twitter, tweeting “I am the only one who can beat Hillary Clinton. I am not a Mitt Romney, who doesn’t know how to win. Hillary wants no part of ‘Trump’”
He also tweeted: “Why did Mitt Romney BEG me for my endorsement four years ago?”
In his Thursday remarks, Romney said Trump’s “domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgement to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”
Trump, Romney said, “relishes any poll that reflects what he thinks of himself. But polls are also saying that he will lose to Hillary Clinton.”
He added: “A person so untrustworthy and dishonest as Hillary Clinton must not become president. But a Trump nomination enables her victory.”
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa contributed to this report. Larimer reported from Washington.