Note: This column appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune today 3/19/2017
By R.B. Scott
For a fleeting fortnight in December it seemed possible, if improbable given his outspoken assault on the character of the new president, that W. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, would be named Secretary of State and bring reassuring political stability and intellectual depth to the chaotic cabinet of President Donald Trump.
Predictably, vengeance was Steve Bannon’s, Trump's chief political schemer who seems to fuel palace intrigues wherever he goes. Just this week, Bannon attempted to set-up House Speaker Paul Ryan to be fall guy should efforts to repeal Obamacare fail.
The antidote to discomfited Mitt became ExxonMobil’s chief executive Rex Tillerson, despite his unsettling close ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The Secretary of State had no sooner settled into his new digs when the president announced that his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would handle relations with Israel and broker peace in the Middle East.
Then, Tillerson’s choice of Elliott Abrams as Deputy Secretary of State was nixed by Schemer-in-Chief Bannon. Like Romney, Abrams had some rather nasty things to say about the future president during the campaign season. Bannon wasn’t about to forgive and forget. No wonder the respected Foreign Policy Magazine and several others are suggesting that Tillerson will likely turn out to be the weakest Secretary of State ever.
Matters turned more intriguing a few days later when Trump presented Romney’s distant cousin and arch-rival, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and 2012 GOP presidential candidate himself, as the Abrams antidote, then as ambassador to the Kremlin.
Was this maneuver aimed at Tillerson, Huntsman, or Romney? The answer could be: all of above! However it plays out, the drama will likely resonate from the Cotton Bottom in Holladay, Utah to the Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C. and, possibly, beyond.
Does Huntsman’s posting to Moscow mean he will not seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2020? President Obama worried that Huntsman could be his opponent in 2012 when he asked him to serve as ambassador to China in 2009. Sure enough, Huntsman resigned after 18 months to pursue the presidential nomination, one that eventually went to cousin Mitt Romney.
With the three most important international relationships (China, Russia and Israel) in the hands of others (Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin and is an acknowledged Asia expert) who would blame Tillerson if he discovered a face-saving way to exit stage left as quickly as possible?
Should that happen, might Huntsman be his replacement? If so, it would be the consummate coup de grace of Romney, who has yet to apologize for his harshly accurate assessment of Trump as a “fraud, phony…playing the American public for suckers…”
In the meantime, images of Huntsman hobnobbing with Vladimir Putin will remind Tillerson of who’s really running foreign policy and be visible thumbs in Romney’s eye as well.
The Huntsman-Romney contretemps dates back to the late 1990s when Mitt beat-out Jon for leadership of the troubled 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. The enmity intensified in 2008 when Huntsman reneged on his pledge to support Romney for president and, without forewarning, abruptly joined the campaign team of Senator John McCain. As the presumptive GOP nominee, thanks to Romney’s unwillingness to mount a floor fight at the convention, McCain clearly implied that gentleman Mitt would be his running mate. Instead, while Romney was out stumping for the team in Colorado, McCain, perhaps bowing to pressure from cousin Jon, turned his back on cousin Mitt and chose the colorfully inept Sarah Palin instead.
The White House’s real aim may be to disrupt the 2018 election in Utah, should 82-year-old Senator Orrin Hatch retire as expected. Huntsman is interested in the seat. So is Romney, who remains very popular in the state he now calls home. A mano a mano primary battle between the two most visible Mormon pols in history would be unprecedented.
The possible scenarios don’t end there. The increasingly unpopular, ambitious but very visible Representative Jason Chaffetz has his eye on Hatch’s seat. He too once opposed Trump but repented, an opportunistic act of contrition that hasn’t played well at home. His star seems to be descending rapidly. In February Chaffetz was assailed for his unwillingness, as Chairman of The House Oversight Committee, to pursue Team Trump’s engagements with the Russians as doggedly as he went after Hillary Clinton’s careless use of unsecured email servers. Last week he stumbled over his sharp tongue when he crassly took a Marie Antoinette-like gibe at working class Americans: “…Rather than getting that new iPhone… maybe they should invest in their own health care.”
Assessing all the possibilities, the cunning Italian statesman Nicolo Machiavelli, were he alive, might encourage Senator Hatch to step aside immediately, allowing Governor Gary Herbert to make an interim appointment of, say, his predecessor Jon Huntsman. Or, the ever-popular Mitt Romney. Or, another famous schemer with local roots and political oomph, like the perpetually Machiavellian Karl Rove.