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Romney promises to be a Trump critic in an op-ed. Trump: Remember Jeff Flake?

Romney and Trump are starting out the year by swiping at each other.

Mitt Romney in Trump Tower in November 2016.
Mitt Romney in Trump Tower in November 2016.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Mitt Romney is back to criticizing President Donald Trump — even as the president calls on him to be a “team player” and compares him to a now-former senator whose attacks were all bark and little bite.

Romney, who will be sworn in as a senator representing Utah on Thursday, kicked off the new year with an op-ed in the Washington Post published on Tuesday, criticizing Trump for not having “risen to the mantle” of the presidency. He wrote that Trump’s character “falls short.”

“With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring,” Romney wrote.

He clarified that there are areas of Trump’s policy agenda he approves of — unsurprisingly, the more typical Republican priorities such as tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative judge appointments. Despite his past criticism of Trump’s “trade wars,” Romney also applauded Trump’s decision to “crack down on China’s unfair trade practices.”

“I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state, and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault,” Romney wrote, providing a preview of how he plans to handle Trump questions from the press on Capitol Hill.

Trump is obviously not thrilled about this

The response to Romney’s op-ed from Trump’s camp was, of course, not one of particular excitement.

On Wednesday morning, Trump responded in a tweet, asking whether Romney would be “a Flake.” It was a reference to former Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who often lamented and criticized Trump but ultimately failed to do much in terms of serving as a check on the president and instead retired from the Senate.

“Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful,” Trump tweeted. “I won big, and he didn’t.”

Brad Parscale, the manager for Trump’s reelection campaign, was more aggressive in his response to Romney on Tuesday evening. He tweeted that Romney “lacked the ability to save this nation,” while Trump did. “Jealousy is a drink best served warm,” he wrote — using an expression that he appears to have made up himself.

Romney has been all over the place on Trump

It’s probably true that Mitt Romney would rather Donald Trump not be president. It’s also true that Romney likes to play it fast and loose with how intense his opposition is, seemingly depending on what’s more convenient at any given moment.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Romney, who was the Republican nominee for the presidency in 2012, was a leader of the Never Trump movement. He warned that “the prospects for a safe and prosperous future” for the country would be “greatly diminished” under Trump and derided him as a “phony” and a “fraud” in a speech in March 2016.

But after Trump won the White House, Romney has wavered in his anti-Trump stance. He met with the president regarding the possibility of serving as his secretary of state.

Upon deciding to run for the US Senate in Utah, Romney really toned it down on Trump. He happily accepted the president’s endorsement of his bid, despite in 2016 saying he wouldn’t have taken Trump’s backing in 2012 had he said the things he did about the Ku Klux Klan, Muslims, Mexicans, and people with disabilities. (Trump didn’t un-say those things, but Romney seems to be over it.)

In an interview with NBC News during his campaign in May 2018, Romney softened his rhetoric around Trump, saying that some of the things the president has said “are not ones that I would aspire for my grandkids to adopt” and acknowledging that he has “departed in some cases from the truth.”

In an op-ed for the Salt Lake Tribune in June, he said he would support the president’s policies when he thinks they are in the “best interest” of Utah and the US — including the tax cuts. “I will endorse the president’s policies that support those interests,” he wrote. “Hopefully, there will be few occasions where I will be compelled by conscience to criticize.”

Just ahead of the 2018 midterms in October, Romney seemed to distance himself from the Never Trump movement altogether. When asked what happened with his leadership in the movement, he replied, “I don’t think that was the case.”

Now that he’s won the election — and is headed to the Senate on Thursday — Romney once again seems to be positioning himself as a Never Trumper. Whether his opposition will be largely rhetorical or he’ll actually try to be a check on Trump is unclear.

Romney seems to think that being part of the Republican “team” can include at least public criticism of Trump. He seemed to preemptively respond to the president’s Wednesday tweet in that June Salt Lake op-ed.

“People ask me why I feel compelled to express my disagreements with the president. I believe that when you are known as a member of a ‘team,’” he wrote, “and the captain says or does something you feel is morally wrong, if you stay silent you tacitly assent to the captain’s posture.”