Mitt Romney on Thursday sought to embarrass and humiliate Donald Trump in a blistering speech meant to buttress the growing movement of conservatives desperate to stop the Republican presidential front-runner at any cost.
Speaking at the University of Utah in a much-anticipated address on the state of the 2016 presidential race, Romney tore into Trump on every front.
The 2012 GOP nominee framed Trump as a vain loser – two insults directed at the heart of Trump’s appeal – who would get crushed by Hillary Clinton in the general election if he wins the party’s nomination.
Romney went after one of Trump’s biggest selling points, diminishing his success as businessman by saying the billionaire real estate mogul had been born into privilege and squandered his inheritance through a series of frivolous investments.
“He inherited his business, he didn't create it,” said Romney, himself a wealthy entrepreneur. “And what ever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there's Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks, and Trump Mortgage? A business genius he is not.”
The former Massachusetts governor repeatedly called into question Trump’s temperament, condemning the GOP front-runner for “the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics,” and accusing him of creating “scapegoats” out of minority groups.
“The audio and video of the infamous Tapper-Trump exchange on the Ku Klux Klan will play a hundred thousand times on cable and who knows how many million times on social media,” Romney warned.
Romney went after Trump’s economic policies, saying they would cause the nation to “sink into a prolonged recession,” and said his foreign policy would “make America and the world less safe.”
“He calls for the use of torture and for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists,” Romney said. “He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit first amendment freedom of the press.”
And he joined Marco Rubio in describing Trump as a con-man who is fleecing voters by taking advantage of their anger at Washington.
“Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE is a phony, a fraud,” Romney declared. “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 sought to paint a bleak picture of the nation’s future with Trump in the White House.
“Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes,” Romney said. “This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.”
Trump knew the attack was coming, and set out on a media blitz before the speech to preempt the attacks.
“Mitt Romney was a failed candidate; should have beaten Barack Obama easily," Trump said on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Tweeting to his 6.6 million followers, Trump ticked through a point-by-point rebuttal, arguing that “Hillary wants no part” of him in a general election, and saying he’s uniting the party and bringing scores of new Republicans into the fold.
At a campaign rally in Portland, Maine, Trump kicked back hard at Romney, calling him a “disaster” as a candidate and a “choke artist.”
Trump said Romney “demeaned 47 percent of the country” with his infamous remarks on poverty.
He said Romney thought about running for president again in 2016, but “chickened out because of me,” and claimed the 2012 nominee “begged” him for an endorsement.
“I could’ve just said, Mitt, drop to your knees, he would’ve dropped to his knees,” Trump said.
Romney has a complicated history with Trump. He sought out and ultimately won Trump’s endorsement in 2012.
At the time, Romney said of Trump's endorsement, "There are some things you just can't imagine happening in your life — this is one of them."
He praised Trump's "extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works to create jobs for the American people." Pointing to Trump, Romney said that while he had spent his life in the private sector, he said he was "not quite as successful as this guy."
He concluded that he appreciated the endorsement of Trump and "people across this country who care about the future of America."
Romney defended his past statements later Thursday, tweeting: "If Trump had said 4 years ago the things he says today about the KKK, Muslims, Mexicans, disabled, I would NOT have accepted his endorsement."
Now, Romney’s vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, is Speaker of the House and chairman of the Republican convention.
Ryan this week condemned Trump’s initial refusal to disavow white supremacist David Duke, but he has reached out to Trump’s campaign in an attempt to forge a working relationship with him.
On Thursday, Ryan dodged a series of questions about Romney's attack, saying only that "everything is fair game" until a nominee is chosen.
"I know Mitt feels strongly about this election and he's going to speak his mind," Ryan said on "Fox and Friends," adding that Romney is a party leader who's "worried about the future of the party."
Romney and Ryan attended a fundraiser together in Utah in late February, and ABC News is reporting that the two met privately at Romney’s home over the weekend.
While Romney’s insults were directed at Trump, his speech was meant to light a fire under the growing anti-Trump movement within the party.
Many mainstream Republicans are going public in their efforts to block Trump from the nomination by any means possible and are vowing not to support him if he makes it to the general election.
Dozens of high-profile conservatives, from Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) to conservative media personality Erick Erickson, are using their platforms to make the case against Trump.
And top GOP donors are scrambling to fund super-PACs that produce anti-Trump advertisements nationally and in critical primary states.
Romney’s speech could give direction to a faction of the party that appears panicked and flailing over what to do about Trump.
He has been venerated in conservative circles, as many Republicans believe the 2012 nominee, for all his faults as a candidate, has been proven right on a host of issues he ran on in 2012.
Romney has a has sought to use his influence in the 2016 cycle by refereeing from the sidelines, weighing in to influence the direction of discourse and connecting his network of fundraisers with the candidates they might support.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Trump’s rival for the GOP nomination who has largely steered clear of conflict with the front-runner, tweeted: “Well said.”
And John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who has previously stated he would support Trump if he wins the nomination, also voiced his support for Romney’s remarks.
“I share the concerns about Donald Trump that my friend and former Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, described in his speech today,” McCain said in a statement.
In July, Trump came under fire for denigrating McCain’s military service.
The Arizona Republican and entrenched establishment figure is up for reelection in 2016 and his rival, Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn Kirkpatrick Ariz. state senator who saved Gabby Giffords's life ends congressional bid due to COVID-19 surge Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms Democratic Rep. Ron Kind won't seek reelection in Wisconsin MORE, has sought to tie him to Trump.
“Voters should ask McCain why he is still planning to support Trump if he truly believes Trump would be a bad president,” she said in a statement on Thursday.
Many Republicans will view Romney’s remarks as a declaration of war by the establishment against grassroots conservatives.
Some believe Romney is merely adding fuel to the Trump movement, which is driven by a fierce anti-establishment streak.
“Mitt Romney with an incredible endorsement for Donald Trump,” Trump adviser Dan Scavino tweeted sarcastically on Thursday.
Some establishment Republicans, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Jeff Sessions, are beginning to line up behind Trump, seeking to build on the wave of enthusiasm surrounding his campaign.
They argue that Trump has galvanized grassroots conservatives who are frustrated with Washington and turned out millions to the polls – many of whom are participating for the first time, or formerly identified as Democrats or independents.
"I brought millions of millions people into the Republican Party over the last very short period of time,” Trump said Thursday. “It's the biggest story in politics, how many people are flocking into the Republican Party.”
“They're leaving the Democrats. They're leaving the independents. And they're with me 100 percent. There's great enthusiasm in the Republican Party except in the establishment.”
- Updated at 2:25 p.m.