Top advisers to President-elect Donald Trump escalated their attacks on Mitt Romney on Sunday, catapulting their long-simmering frustrations on to TV news in an extraordinary public airing of grievances.
In a series of interviews on the Sunday political talk shows, Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump aide, argued firmly against tapping Romney for secretary of state, echoing internal skepticism among some in Trump’s inner circle.
“I’m all for party unity, but I’m not sure that we have to pay for that with the secretary of state position,” Conway said in an interview with CNN. “We don’t even know if Mitt Romney voted for Donald Trump.”
Conway said her comments reflected conservatives’ opposition to Romney, who was a frequent Trump critic during the presidential campaign. “It’s just breathtaking in scope and intensity,” Conway said of the opposition to Romney among Trump supporters, characterizing their reaction as “betrayal.”
The public Romney-bashing comes amid a behind-the-scenes battle for influence among Trump’s top aides, with Conway and incoming White House senior strategist Steve Bannon arguing that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump loyalist, is the best pick for secretary of state. Meanwhile, Vice President-elect Mike Pence is said to be advocating for Romney, arguing that the former presidential candidate can be a bridge to centrist Republicans.
But some Republicans wondered aloud whether Conway’s comments might be orchestrated by Trump himself as part of a campaign to embarrass Romney, noting Trump’s penchant for headline-stealing public fights. Romney had called Trump “a con man, phony and fraud” during the campaign.
“Attacks on Romney not a solo act,” Republican political commentator Ana Navarro, a vocal Trump critic, tweeted. “Trump coordinated payback/humbling.”
In past episodes of Trump-camp strife aired on cable TV, Conway often deflected questions about internal disagreements.
But Sunday, she doubled down on her critique — as did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another Trump adviser, in an interview with Fox News on Sunday.
“I think there’s nothing that Mitt Romney can say that doesn’t sound phony and, frankly, pathetic,” Gingrich said, adding later: “Speaking for most of the Trump supporters, while we will support President-elect Trump and whatever he does, I think we would be enormously disappointed if he brought Mitt Romney into any position of authority.”
Those who believe Conway is trying to influence Trump’s decision suggested that Sunday’s news interviews may have been her best option. Trump is a rabid consumer of cable news and is said to be influenced by it, sometimes.
But others tried to push back on the flood of anti-Romney rhetoric coming from some Trump advisers.
“Giuliani and Conway are trying to intimidate the President-elect. How weak do they think he is? Their lack of discretion is embarrassing,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who has a hot-and-cold relationship with the president-elect, tweeted on Sunday. He added in another tweet: “Now all world leaders will be watching to see if a President Trump can be bullied by his staff.”
Meanwhile, the New York Post reported Saturday night that Trump asked guests at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida who he should nominate as secretary of state.
While people close to Trump say Romney is a leading candidate for secretary of state, they also cast doubt on earlier news reports that suggested the president-elect is ready to nominate him.
Reince Priebus, Trump’s pick for chief of staff, downplayed reports of internal dissension. “He’s going to make the best decision for the American people,” Priebus said of Trump on “Fox News Sunday.” “It isn’t a matter of warfare.”
Romney, for his part, has stayed largely silent since meeting with Trump earlier this month. Romney is spending time with his family in California.
“Gov. Romney is a man of great integrity and character, and President-Elect Trump deserves a lot of credit for even considering him for a job in his administration,” said Ryan Williams, Romney’s former spokesman, stressing that he hasn’t spoken directly to Romney about the secretary of state job. “I’m not surprised to see that Mitt is staying above the fray and showing respect to the president-elect by letting him reach his own decision.”
Romney has sought to brandish his foreign policy credentials in recent months. During a June 2015 donor summit he hosted in Utah, Romney criticized President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in a lengthy Power Point presentation.
Trump’s team did not confine its efforts Sunday to assailing Romney. On the heels of a Trump tweet portraying Hillary Clinton as a hypocrite, Conway took aim at Clinton’s campaign for hitching itself to Jill Stein’s “ridiculously fantastical recount” in Wisconsin.
“The question for the Democrats is, why are you doing this?” Conway said on ABC’s “This Week.” “And by the way, what does President Obama think of this recount charade?”
Alex Isenstadt, Matthew Nussbaum and Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.
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