Sen. Rand Paul emerged Wednesday as a sharp, tough critic of incoming Sen. Mitt Romney, dismissing Romney’s blast at President Donald Trump as “sour grapes.”
Paul, R-Kentucky, called Romney’s criticisms “bad for the Republican party and really bad for any kind of ability to work together in the Senate to get things done, when you take the time to attack someone’s character.”
Romney, who is scheduled to be sworn into the Senate on Thursday, delivered a scathing condemnation of Trump in a Washington Post opinion piece, charging that he lacks the character to lead. The op-ed rocked the Republican party, and triggered speculation that Romney could assume the role of Trump skeptic in a Senate that’s losing its more independent GOP voices.
“When he won the election, I hoped he would rise to the occasion,” said Romney, who in 2016 castigated Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud” during the 2016 campaign.
“But, on balance, his conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions last month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office,” Romney wrote.
Trump lashed out at Romney via Twitter and later, speaking at a Cabinet meeting, said he wished Romney “could be more of a team player.
“I endorsed him and he thanked me profusely”, Trump said.
Trump and Romney have had an on-off relationship. Romney was the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2012, losing to President Barack Obama. As Trump inched closer to the nomination in 2016, Romney delivered a well-publicized speech that argued that Trump was unfit for the presidency.
Once Trump was elected, though, Romney was courted as a possible secretary of state. Trump endorsed him in his Senate bid last year.
Paul has traveled a somewhat similar path with Trump Though Paul and Trump tangled on the 2016 campaign trail, when Paul sought the presidential nomination, they began a rapprochement last summer when Paul was one of the only Republicans to stick up for Trump when the president was criticized for seemingly siding with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Paul has since emerged as an influential Trump ally, even as he’s voted against Trump more than any other elected Republican senator. A vote tracker at FiveThirtyEight pegs him as voting with Trump 72.8 percent of the time.
Paul, who last month sided with Trump when the president suddenly announced he would withdraw American troops from Syria, said he has a good relationship with Trump “because I treat the president with dignity, I treat the president with respect.”
Paul charged that Romney belongs to a group of “never Trumpers” who also disdained former president Ronald Reagan. And the senator charged Romney was looking to “virtue signal” and look good by comparison to Trump.
Paul brushed aside concern that Trump often lobs personal insults, saying it was up to Trump to police himself. The senator said it was more important for colleagues to look at what they have in common with Trump.
“I don’t think it serves any usefulness for Republican senators to be out there attacking the character of the president,” Paul said. “It doesn’t go any good for people to be running around saying, ‘I’m holier than thou.’ “
Romney wrote in the op-ed that a “president should unite us and inspire us to follow ‘our better angels’ and that a president should “demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity.”
Paul countered that such jabs at character are difficult to critique — because character is “not fixable.”
“It’s a big mistake and it’s really getting things off on the wrong foot for the senator from Utah,” he said, insisting .Romney would be an outlier among Republican senators, even those who disagree with Trump on issues.
“Most people do not critique the president’s character,” Paul said. “I think the reaction has been stronger against his comments than maybe he predicted.”
Among the Romney critics Wednesday: Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who sided with Trump over Romney, who is her uncle.
Romney’s criticisms were seen as a signal that he wants to assume the role of Trump skeptic. Many key Republicans who challenged Trump, notably Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, and Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, are retiring, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, died last year.
Paul dismissed a suggestion that Romney could run against Trump in a Republican primary.
“I don’t think there’s an appetite for a Romney run within the Republican party,” he said. “Nor do I think that the Romney type of establishment, big government Republicanism is popular enough to win a general election.”