By Alexander Bolton – Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is challenging President Trump’s antagonistic stance toward Black Lives Matter protesters at a time when Trump’s support in the polls is dropping. Romney made a surprising and stirring gesture on Sunday by marching toward the White House with hundreds of other people protesting police violence against African Americans after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On Monday, he announced that he is working with Republican colleagues to put together police reform legislation, filling the void left by Trump and GOP leaders in Congress who have not made it a priority.
“I state the obvious, which is black lives matter. If there’s injustice, we want to correct that. If there’s prejudice, we want to change that. If there’s bias, we hope to give people a different perspective and we can provide a sense of equality among our people,” he said.
Romney told reporters in the Capitol Monday that he wants to change the general lack of support among black voters for the Republican Party but that his decision to march was motivated by his personal outrage over Floyd’s death and his desire to combat prejudice and bias.
“I don’t know that I look at this matter from a political lens. My party obviously has an embarrassingly small share of African American votes. I certainly did in my election and we have since,” he said. “I’d like to see that change.”
“But that isn’t what motivated me to stand up and speak. I saw a heinous murder carried out by a person with a badge,” he said.
Romney said Floyd’s death is “an outlier” and “an extreme case” and asserted “the overwhelming majority of our law enforcement personnel are excellent men and women doing a job that is extraordinarily valuable and one that I esteem.”
Asked Sunday why he was marching, Romney replied, “We need to end violence and brutality, and to make sure that people understand that black lives matter.”
Romney’s words draw a sharp contrast with Trump, who in recent days threatened to unleash “vicious dogs” on protesters who stepped onto White House grounds and used U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops to disperse a crowd of peaceful protesters.
“Tremendous sincerity, what a guy. Hard to believe, with this kind of political talent, his numbers would ‘tank’ so badly in Utah!” Trump tweeted in a post dripping with sarcasm.
Asked about Trump’s criticism on Twitter, Romney on Monday replied: “He’s got time to do whatever he feels is appropriate.”
Romney said he hasn’t spoken with Trump or with Floyd’s family about the Black Lives Matter movement or the need for legislation.
Romney is Trump’s biggest critic in the GOP but has picked his battles carefully.
He acknowledged in an interview with The Atlantic magazine in February that his vote to convict Trump on an article of impeachment alleging abuse of power would likely impact his ability to move business in the Senate.
Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and longtime observer of Senate politics, said Romney’s action was a “gesture” to “distance himself from President Trump in a way that does not directly challenge Trump or provoke him.”
“It sends out a signal that he sympathizes with the people who are outraged at the death of George Floyd and wants to be identified with them,” he said.
Baker noted that Romney’s father, George Romney, served as governor of Michigan during the racially charged Detroit riots of 1967 and “acted in a very gentlemanly and civilized way.”
Trump has reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement much differently than George Romney did to the 1960s civil rights movement.
While Trump declared in prepared remarks during a Rose Garden ceremony last week that “justice will be served” for Floyd and his family and defended the “righteous cries” of “peaceful protesters,” he has also come across as hostile at times to the movement.
He has warned in one tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and last week retweeted a video of an interview in which conservative activist Candace Owens says she was sickened that Floyd has been held up as a “martyr” and asserts “he was not a good person.”
George Romney marched with the NAACP and other civil rights activists through Detroit’s Grosse Point suburb, a predominantly white community, in 1963 to highlight racial injustice and led a protest of 10,000 in Detroit in 1965 to protest violence against civil rights protesters in Selma, Ala. He also attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.
One of the main reasons George Romney opposed Sen. Barry Goldwater’s (R-Ariz.) bid for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination was because Goldwater opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Vin Weber, a GOP strategist and adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said Romney “very strongly feels his father’s legacy on civil rights.”
Weber said he thinks Romney’s show of solidarity with Black Lives Matter is “damaging, at least in the short run, to Trump’s reelection efforts because we’re seeing Trump’s numbers are falling.”
“To have a prominent Republican senator, a former standard-bearer for the party out there marching under these circumstances probably feeds to the narrative that Donald Trump really doesn’t need right now,” he added. “But you know, people got to do what they believe in.”
Weber said, “I think what Romney and many others are trying to say is the commitment of the country to civil rights and racial justice has not been and should not be a partisan issue.”
“Unfortunately for the president is the flip side is the president is making it appear to be a partisan issue,” he added.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Monday praised Romney’s march Sunday as a “unifying gesture.”
“Good for him. He felt moved to do that. It’s the right of every American, including a United States senator.”
“That’s his prerogative. People have the right to peacefully protest under the First Amendment, and I think when we see people protesting in a peaceful way, that’s part of our democracy,” he said.
Thune noted that Romney’s “dad was associated with the issue going back a long ways.”
“I think he feels a real connection to that, through his family for one thing but I think he cares deeply about the issue,” he added.
Romney on Monday said his son and grandchildren have also joined Black Lives Matter marches.
“My intent was simply to point out that I was upset as were members of my family,” he said.
“Our whole family is very animated about the bias and the prejudice which too often still exists in a country which is the land of the free and which was founded upon a principle that all men are created in the image of God and are equal under the law,” he added.
The use of tear gas on protesters in front of the White House left some GOP senators “aghast,” according to a Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity to discuss the private reaction of colleagues.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) last week criticized the forceful dispersal of protesters before Trump’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church as “painful to watch.”
She said Trump “came across as unsympathetic and as insensitive to the rights of people to peacefully protest.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) announced she was “struggling” over whether to vote for Trump and praised a scathing indictment of Trump’s leadership style penned by former Defense Secretary James Mattis as “true and honest and necessary and overdue.”
Mattis made his statement public after Trump marched across H Street NW to St. John’s church accompanied by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
He said that and other events related to Trump’s handling of the protests, such as threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops to quell demonstrations, left him “angry and appalled.”