When Barack Obama first decided that Hillary Clinton would make an able secretary of state, his own aides were caught off guard. David Axelrod, the president’s longtime adviser, wrote that he was “stunned” by the decision, since Obama and Clinton had had such an acrimonious primary fight.
But Obama was deadly serious about having Clinton at Foggy Bottom. He’d concluded as much before asking her for a formal meeting to discuss the idea, Axelrod said. And when that meeting took place and an offer was made, it was Clinton who balked, saying she felt too exhausted from the past year.
“I would characterize his conversation with her as more of an effort to recruit her than anything else,” recalled Tommy Vietor, Obama’s former communications hand, who did press for the transition in 2008.
Eight years later, a very different type of courtship has taken place between a president-elect and a former political rival turned potential secretary of state.
Over the past few weeks, Donald Trump made a spectacle of his consideration of Mitt Romney for the role of America’s chief diplomat. The two met at Trump’s golf course and dined over frog legs. Trump professed his admiration for his erstwhile critic, while aides trashed the idea of a political marriage between the two. On Tuesday morning, “The Apprentice: Foggy Bottom Edition” culminated in Trump announcing that he was passing over Romney for the post, choosing Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson instead.
The episode showed a managerial style very different than anything Obama exhibited. Where Obama was deliberate and decisive when dealing with his former foe, his successor has been theatrical, cunning and far more callous. In dispensing with Romney the way he did, Trump defanged a potential critic. He also humiliated him in the eyes of some peers.
That was the conclusion Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reached in an interview with The Huffington Post, shortly before the Tillerson nomination was made official. Reid argued that Romney, who’d called Trump a fraud during the presidential campaign, had lost any ability to criticize the soon-to-be-president by eagerly offering himself up for the secretary of state gig.
“This is a man who came out big-time against Trump. Oh, the things he said about Trump. Well, that’s great, that’s wonderful,” Reid said. “Either he wasn’t telling the truth, or he’s a person with no character. After having said that, to go and do homage to this guy he said awful things about, I don’t think that shows much character.”
“Mitt Romney is somebody I had respect for,” Reid said, in a somewhat dubious assertion. “I have none anymore.”
It’s not just Reid. After the Tillerson news broke on Monday night, others in the Republican Party argued that a political blindsiding had just occurred, courtesy of the president-elect.
And while the Trump team offered cordial, diplomatic niceties for Romney, a step removed from that orbit, the president-elect’s confidants were gloating about a former rival’s diminishment. Roger Stone, speaking to the conspiracy-theory outlet InfoWars, said that Trump had only been toying with the 2012 GOP nominee, and that he was more interested in retribution than in staffing a foreign policy team.
“Donald Trump was interviewing Mitt Romney for secretary of State in order to torture him,” Stone said. “And given the history, that’s completely understandable.”
Romney’s defenders have framed his decision to offer himself up for the secretary of state position as an act of patriotism. The same defenders say Reid is simply being petty. In a statement to HuffPost, Romney expressed no regret for changing his approach to a president-elect he once called a con artist.
“I was indeed very critical of Mr. Trump during his campaign. But now he has been elected president and accordingly, if I could have helped shape foreign policy to protect the country I love, I would have been more than willing to do so,” Romney said through a spokesperson. “As for Mr. Reid, I lost respect for him when he repeatedly lied about my taxes and later admitted to it cheerily. Good riddance, Mr. Reid. The Senate will be better served without you in it.”
As Romney noted, he and Reid have a fraught history, with the senator once infamously accusing Romney of not having paid taxes for 10 years.
But it stood to reason that next to Trump’s other options for secretary of state, Reid might have found Romney the most capable of the bunch. HuffPost put that question to Reid during our interview. He replied that by showing a willingness to work for a man he so thoroughly criticized, Romney had proved himself incapable for the task of secretary of state.
“I wouldn’t want someone who has the character that Mitt Romney is showing,” Reid said.
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