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Mitt Romney biographer offers a startling account of dysfunction in the Senate

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Try as you may, you won't find many prominent Republicans in the U.S. uttering a harsh word about Donald Trump - unless, that is, you read the new biography of Utah Senator Mitt Romney by my guest, Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins. In it, for example, Romney reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told him around the time of the first Trump impeachment trial that the president is, quote, "an idiot" who doesn't think when he says things.

McKay's book is full of anecdotes that have generated buzz among the Washington press corps, but it's more than that. It's a remarkable account of Romney's reflecting on his many decades in politics, including his term as governor of Massachusetts, his two unsuccessful runs for president, his entry to the Senate in his 70s, and his many efforts to thwart Donald Trump's drives for the White House, which continue today. Romney, currently a senator from Utah, has announced he won't seek reelection in 2024.

Romney gave McKay long interviews as well as hundreds of pages of private journals, personal correspondence and sensitive emails for his research. In the book, Romney considers how his party has become one in which, as he put it, many of its members don't believe in the Constitution, and he reflects on his role in enabling changes he finds so troubling.

McKay Coppins covers national politics, religion and the media for The Atlantic. He's the author of "The Wilderness," a previous book about the battle for the future of the Republican Party. His new book is "Romney: A Reckoning." Well, McKay Coppins, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

MCKAY COPPINS: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: You know, I'd like you to begin with an anecdote that's gotten a lot of attention in Washington from this experience, and this is when the Mueller report on Russian interference in the election was complete but wasn't public. We just had that summary from Attorney General Bill Barr, which Trump regarded as exoneration, of course. Mitt Romney is in the Senate Caucus Room with the other Republican members of the Senate, and President Trump stops in. Tell us what happened.

COPPINS: He's immediately greeted with a standing ovation. The senators - they're kind of treating him like a conquering hero, right? And Trump, as is his wont, launched into some sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness remarks. He talks about the Russia hoax and relitigating the midterm elections. And, you know, he's hitting all of his favorite policy points about China tariffs and border security and, you know, just kind of rambling. And at one point, Trump even said that the GOP would soon become the party of health care.

And Romney kind of looked around the room, saw all the senators nodding dutifully in agreement along with everything that Trump was saying, and then as soon as the president left, the entire Republican caucus burst into laughter.

DAVIES: You know, what's interesting about that is that, you know, members of the Senate, particularly with members of their own party, regard things that happen in a conference room and in private conversations as, you know, confidential and that that will be respected. In this book, Romney tells you all kinds of stuff that people said to him which are embarrassing. You, of course, went to check this with, you know, those involved. How did they react to all this information getting to you?

COPPINS: It was a range of reactions. I mean, I should say, first of all, that, you know, Romney himself was somewhat conflicted about sharing all this private, behind-the-scenes information because, as you say, there is an understanding, an assumption of things happening inside these caucus rooms as being kind of, you know, confidential - like, that everybody is going to respect each other's privacy and not share them publicly, right?

The reactions from the people who were inside the room ranged from, you know, blithe dismissal to outrage to some outright anger. But I think more than anything, a lot of people were just surprised. They were surprised that one of their own was willing to kind of pull the curtain back and reveal what was going on in these caucus rooms. And Romney himself, you know - in some cases, I had to pull it out of him. In other cases, he kind of would vent to me.

But he - I think what ultimately led him to share all this was just the hypocrisy. I think he had a hard time with seeing so many of his Senate colleagues act one way in public and act a different way in private, and I think that's what ultimately caused him to share this all with me.

DAVIES: You know, I mentioned in the introduction Mitch McConnell's comment to Romney that Trump was, quote, "an idiot" wasn't the only unflattering thing that comes out in there about McConnell. I assume you tried to reach him. What did he say about these things?

COPPINS: His office said that he didn't recall the conversations or didn't recall them the way that Mitt Romney recalled them but then didn't offer any details to dispute them directly. So, you know, it was an interesting project because throughout this whole process, Mitt Romney was sharing these things with me kind of in secret.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's interesting that, you know, Mitt Romney went to the Senate in 2018, and this was at a time after Trump had been in office for two years. The Republican Party was fully under Trump's sway. Mitt Romney was a freshman senator at age 71 - not the typical newcomer to this body. Give us a sense of his mindset when he came to the Senate at this age, at this moment.

COPPINS: Well, Mitt Romney had, of course, been the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. He was a prominent figure in the party with connections with a lot of top Republicans, Republican donors. He had a relationship with Mitch McConnell before he entered the Senate.

And it was interesting. You know, he still thought in 2018 that he could come into the Senate and provide an alternative voice for his party. He was still under the illusion that Donald Trump might be remembered as a sort of one-off fluke - right? - and that the Republican Party, with the right leadership and with somebody like him speaking out on behalf of what he considered traditional Republican values, could steer the party back toward a more normal, classically conservative direction.

And in retrospect, that obviously looks quite naive, but at the time, Mitt Romney was optimistic. He believed that there were still a lot of good people in the party. They were just scared. They were worried about Donald Trump. They didn't understand his popularity. They were afraid of speaking out against him while, meanwhile, the worst people in his party - the - you know, the white supremacists and, you know, right-wing nationalists and all of the kind of MAGA people - were emboldened.

And Romney believed that if he could get into the Senate, he could encourage and empower the best in his party while pushing back against the worst. What he found when he got to the Senate is that that was much harder than he anticipated.

DAVIES: Right. He did come in with some stature, having been the party's nominee only six years before. You'd think it would count for something. You know, we think of a senator's lifestyle in Washington as every evening, you're out attending events, networking. It's interesting that you describe his was quite different.

COPPINS: That was one of the most surprising things when I began this process. Once I began meeting with him for interviews, I began to go to his house. He has a townhouse about a mile from the Capitol, and I was struck by just how isolated and even lonely he seemed. He had bought this townhouse in hopes that his wife and sons would come and visit him in Washington. But that didn't happen very often. He had relatively few friends in Washington. In his own party, he was becoming increasingly a pariah, but he also didn't feel like he fit in with the Democratic Party. So, you know, it was funny. The first meeting I had at his townhouse, he showed me his freezer, which was full of frozen salmon filets that he had gotten from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. And he told me, you know, I don't really like salmon, but I find that if I cook these and then put them on a hamburger bun and cover them in ketchup, they make for OK dinners.

(LAUGHTER)

COPPINS: And, you know, I'm sitting there. I'm like, this is a guy worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He's a United States senator. Surely he could do better than, you know, salmon burgers in his own house. But it turns out, most evenings he would sit on a recliner in front of a huge TV watching, you know, Netflix shows and leafing through briefing materials and eating alone. And that was really his life as a senator when he first got there.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with McKay Coppins. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic, covering politics, religion and the media. His new book is "Romney: A Reckoning." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins, whose new book is an examination of Mitt Romney's career - his runs for president, his service in the Senate and his efforts to battle Donald Trump and the growth of extremism within the Republican Party. Coppins' new book is called "Romney: A Reckoning."

It's interesting, you know, that Romney and Trump have a pretty long history. You write that kind of in the early part of that relationship, he never thought of Trump as a serious guy, but kind of liked him, right?

COPPINS: Yeah. I was surprised by how far back that relationship went. It turns out that Romney first met Trump in January of 1995, when he was invited to Mar-a-Lago to spend some time with Trump. This was when Romney was still in finance, and there was some business reason for them to meet. And the way Romney kind of tells the story of that first meeting is that he basically saw Trump as not a real business guy - he - more of kind of a cartoonish celebrity. But, you know, Romney also says that he's not above gawking at famous people, and he thought it would be kind of a kick to hang out with him for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. And you know, everything about the experience at the time sort of confirmed his instincts about Trump.

He said that when they first pulled up to Mar-a-Lago, there was a line of servants in white linen, you know, waiting to greet him as though they were - he was, like, a king or a lord or something. And Romney remembered saying - just thinking like, where on earth are we? You know, he said he'd never seen anything like that in America. Later, when Trump gave him a tour of Mar-a-Lago, he kind of was showing off various things in this house, this complex that he had just bought, actually. And he showed him a set of gold colored silverware. And Trump said they didn't know this was here when they sold me the place. And it's worth more than I paid for the house. I'm going to make a fortune. And it's just - it was funny because Romney basically came away from the experience saying, that was everything I wanted out of this. You know, it was weird and memorable and a great story that I'll tell people, and I'll probably never see this guy again.

DAVIES: Right. Or not like he'll have any impact on my life or the country, which turned out to be quite wrong. You know, he ran for - Romney, that is to say - Romney ran for president in 2008, failed to get the Republican nomination, made another successful try in 2012. And by then, he was a really smart, experienced candidate with consultants who knew how you had them manage relationships and image. And by this time, Trump was a far more prominent political figure. You know, he was talking about birtherism and just had a lot to say and had some influence within the party. He was kind of a problem for Mitt Romney - wasn't he? - during that campaign?

COPPINS: He was. And, you know - so at the time - this is in 2011, early 2012 - Trump had become this kind of conservative political celebrity because he was floating these conspiracy theories about Barack Obama. He was getting on Fox News a lot. And there was a point during the primary campaign that somebody came to Romney and said, I know you're going to hate this, but you need to let Donald Trump endorse you.

(LAUGHTER)

COPPINS: And Romney's first response was, no way. This guy is a buffoon. He won't help me at all. I'll look ridiculous standing next to him. But basically, the case that was made to him was, you know, Romney was already held in suspicion by a lot of voters in the Republican base. He was seen as too moderate. He came from Massachusetts. His religion was sort of alien to a lot of evangelical voters. And so he couldn't really afford to turn up his nose at an endorsement from this, you know, Fox News loudmouth, right? And so, you know, basically, Romney was convinced that if he didn't accept Trump's endorsement, Trump would go and endorse one of his primary opponents, and it would hurt him.

And so Romney ultimately relented. And there was this really surreal event in Las Vegas at the Trump Hotel on the Strip there where Donald Trump stood on stage with Mitt Romney and endorsed him. And Romney was embarrassed in the moment. He was embarrassed in retrospect. If you watch the clip of Trump endorsing him, Romney is kind of angling away from the camera, and he told me he wanted to be anywhere other than there, basically. In the moment, he said, there are some things you just can't imagine happening. This is one of them.

DAVIES: Right.

COPPINS: And so that was how Romney viewed Trump at the time. But he also recognized that to win the Republican nomination in that climate, he was going to have to do some things that he didn't want to do. And I'll tell you, a lot of our conversations involved me kind of pressing him to grapple with how much regret he had over those decisions and whether he wishes he could do it differently.

DAVIES: Well, how much regret did he have?

COPPINS: Well, you know, what he told me is that in the case of this endorsement in particular, he's obviously embarrassed by it in retrospect, and he wishes that he hadn't done it. He - but he also rejects the notion that some people have suggested that his decision to embrace Trump during the 2012 primaries somehow set Trump up to run for president four years later. Romney basically argues that Trump rode a kind of wild, unpredictable populist wave into the White House, and that would have happened with or without Romney. But, you know, there's a - and I think that's a - you know, he has a fair case to make there.

But I think this also gets at some of the rationalizations that he's employed over the course of his career. And that's sort of a running theme of the book, that at various points in his life and career, he has found ways to convince himself that the most politically convenient thing is also the right thing. And he admits to that and now says that at this stage of his political career, he's trying really hard to be on guard against that instinct for rationalization 'cause he knows he has it in him.

DAVIES: Right. Well, that's a malaise not uncommon among ambitious politicians, for sure. You know, he had to manage Trump's ego during that 2012 campaign. And then election night was kind of interesting. Romney actually thought he was going to win, and then he had to make a quick concession speech. Trump's behavior that night was an interesting little portent, wasn't it?

COPPINS: Indeed. Donald Trump had planned to be at what he thought was going to be a victory party for Mitt Romney in Boston on election night. Once he realized that Romney had lost, Trump decided not to go to the party, got on his plane and, from his plane, began tweeting about the election being stolen. He said, we can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided. Let's fight like hell and stop this great and disgusting injustice. This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy. Revolution. And at the moment, relatively few people even paid attention. But obviously, in retrospect, a kind of frightening foreshadowing of things to come.

DAVIES: You know, the other thing I have to ask you about is his reflection on that campaign against Barack Obama. This was 2012. Obama was up for reelection. And, you know, Romney came to regard him as someone who was, you know, dishonorable, who could not be trusted, whose reelection would be a disaster for the country. Does he still think that?

COPPINS: One thing he told me upon rereading some of the journals that he gave me - because he'd kept extensive, detailed journals throughout his 2012 presidential campaign. And in those journals, he would often write about, you know, just how calamitous it would be if Barack Obama won reelection and how dishonorable his campaign was and how dishonest he was. And what was interesting is that when Romney gave me those journals, he went back and reread some of them. And he said, you know, looking at these now, you can really tell, first of all, that I was in the heat of a presidential campaign and emotions were running high. But also, I just had no idea how much worse it could get, right?

You know, he said, in hindsight, Barack Obama was a, you know, perfectly fine president that I disagreed with. And he even said he - his - he had - you know, his character was strong, and he was a good man, a good family man, and I respect him. We just disagreed on fundamental issues. But he didn't realize that there would be a moment in the not-too-distant future when people - the person occupying the White House, you know, didn't just disagree on basic policy issues, but disagreed on the fundamental character of the nation. And so he has sort of walked back some of his harshest criticism of Obama.

DAVIES: Need to take another break here. We are speaking with McKay Coppins. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic, covering politics, religion and the media. His new book is "Romney: A Reckoning." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins, whose new book is a reflection on the political journey of Mitt Romney, who was the Republican Party's nominee for president in 2012 and is now finishing his career as senator from Utah with a term that ends next year. Romney gave Coppins extensive interviews, as well as personal journals and other records to explore why he believes extremism has taken such a strong hold among Republicans. Coppins's book is "Romney: A Reckoning."

So as 2016 approached, Romney thought about making another run for president and didn't. And then he sees Donald Trump announce and suddenly pick up momentum. What surprised him about Trump's success?

COPPINS: Well, there were a lot of things about Trump's rise that surprised him, but his first surprise came in just how easily Trump was able to weather the backlash over various outrageous things he said. You know, Mitt Romney, as a presidential candidate, had been so careful and so disciplined. And then Donald Trump - you know, he told me it seemed like he said something every day that if Romney had said on the campaign trail, it would have been the end of his career, right? But there was something about Trump's audaciousness, his - the volume of scandals and controversial comments that basically made him sort of Teflon, right? And so that was the first thing that surprised Romney.

Romney will also admit that it took him too long to take Trump seriously as a candidate. For the first, you know, five, six months of Trump's campaign, Romney just assumed he would flame out. Romney himself, when he had run for president, had faced a series of less serious challengers who would spike in the polls and then kind of fade away - people like Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. And Romney assumed Trump was going to be one of those. By the time Trump was on the verge of clinching the nomination, it was almost too late to do anything about it, but that didn't stop him from trying.

DAVIES: Right. It's interesting that this was a time when he himself was neither in elected office nor seeking it, but he really made stopping Trump his priority. And I don't remember - or maybe I never knew - just how hard he had worked to marshal other candidates into strategies to try and stop him - Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich. I mean, there's a lot of interesting moments in those efforts. You want to share one or two with us?

COPPINS: Yeah. I didn't know about this, either. I mean, frankly, I learned about these things from his emails when he printed off, I think, you know, thousands of emails that he had written to and received from various high-profile Republican politicians over the years. And in that trove of emails, there was this kind of remarkable story of - you know, from basically February to May of 2016, Mitt Romney worked pretty hard behind the scenes to do anything he could to stop Trump from winning the Republican nomination. He began by trying to broker a unity ticket between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

And what he found was that both of the candidates, when they talked to him, would say, oh, yeah, yeah. That's a great idea. Let's do that. But then days would go by, and nothing would happen, and he couldn't get the campaigns to coordinate, and he couldn't get them on the same page. And Romney became frustrated by just how much the kind of short-term thinking and ego and ambition and, frankly, in his words, delusion made it impossible for the rest of the Republican Party to coordinate against Trump.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that Mitt Romney did during that campaign was early on in March, he held a news conference in which he called Donald Trump a phony and a fraud. And, you know, this is the former nominee of the party. It made some news, and it certainly set Trump off into, you know, a spasm of condemnation but, in the end, didn't make that much difference. But it kind of put him on record as seeing Trump as a threat. Trump, of course, wins the election. And then after that, I think you said Romney was on a golf course when he gets a call from Mike Pence, who wants what?

COPPINS: He says that Donald Trump wants to meet with him about Romney potentially serving as his secretary of state. As you can imagine, Romney is taken aback by this offer and initially suspects that it's some kind of trap - right? - because he had been such an outspoken critic of Trump's. He's assured that the offer is genuine. They want to talk, see if it would work out. And so Romney decides to take the meeting.

And this is another one of those moments where, you know, I pressed Romney to think about why he agreed to do this. And, you know, he told me there are kind of two factors in his decision to entertain the idea of serving in a Trump administration. One was, you know, he felt like he could do some good there. He was worried about the state of the country, the state of the world in a Trump administration. He thought that this could be a real emergency and that it would be important to have an adult in the room.

He was also receiving calls from former secretaries of state and former presidents, both parties, telling him that if he gets the offer that he has to take it for the good of the country. So that's the noble reasoning. But then, you know, Romney admitted to me there was another rationale here which is that he just wanted the job. He wanted the power. But in the end, it became very clear to both him and Trump that it just wasn't going to work out.

DAVIES: You know, the description of the meetings are interesting because what Romney says is, look. I have some conditions for this. They are things like, you don't get to pick the ambassadors. I'm going to pick my own team. I want a weekly meeting with the president. Other things to make - you know, make it a professional foreign service. And they have a meeting and then a second meeting. And it seems as if the critical thing was Trump needed Mitt Romney to stand up and say publicly, I was wrong. Donald Trump is terrific.

COPPINS: That's right. None of those conditions you mentioned were sticking points for Trump. At least, he didn't express any concern about them in the meeting. What was much more important to him was that Romney retract his criticism of Trump and just sort of fully publicly repent of it. And, you know, Romney repeatedly had to tell Trump and his team, like, I can't do that. I'll look ridiculous. And there was one evening after he had a dinner at a restaurant in New York City with Trump that Romney went out and took questions from reporters and basically decided, OK, I'll go as far as I can. And he said, you know, I appreciated the speech that Trump gave on election night. I thought it was very, you know, gracious and presidential. I'm encouraged by some of the people he's adding to his administration, and I'm hopeful that he could put our country on the right track. That was as far as he felt he could go in kind of auditioning for this job. But he immediately got a call from Trump saying, that's not enough, you have to go further. And Romney wasn't willing to, and so ultimately the job was never given to him.

DAVIES: And then Trump and his allies jumped all over it, saying, this is Mitt Romney, the guy who begged for my endorsement in 2012 and didn't work out so well. Let's take another break here and then we'll talk some more. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with McKay Coppins. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic covering politics, religion and the media. His new book is "Romney: A Reckoning." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins, whose new book is an exploration of Mitt Romney's career, his runs for president, his service in the Senate, and his efforts to battle Donald Trump and the growth of extremism within the Republican Party. Coppins' new book Is "Romney: A Reckoning."

So Mitt Romney, I guess, is in the last chapter of his political career, serving as a senator from Utah, which, you know - I don't know. He hadn't really lived there so much. He had served on the Olympic Committee there. But Orrin Hatch, who had held the seat for so long, had reached out to him. And so he won that seat. It's interesting. It's a seat with a lot of Mormons in a state that Trump had never done so well in. But he goes to the Senate. And among the things he says he wants to do is actually work on real issues, and he gave you a real list of them. It's big things like - what? - climate change and smaller things like compensation for college athletes. And so he, you know, starts introducing himself to senators saying let's work together. What are those encounters like?

COPPINS: Early on, he's told by one of his Senate colleagues, look, 20 senators do all the work here and 80 of them just go along for the ride (laughter). And so Romney decided early on that he wanted to be a workhorse. He wanted to be seen as somebody who is ready to roll up his sleeves and work on policy with members of either party. But what he found was that even among those who were really - you know, saw themselves as legislators, there was not a lot of long-term thinking in the Senate. Climate change was an example.

You know, he assumed that - and I think this speaks to sort of Romney's institutionalism - that somewhere in some room in the United States government, there were serious-minded, thoughtful people who had a master plan for how to address these kind of generational issues that America was facing. And with climate change, for example, you know, he had a list of very detailed questions. He said, OK, if we're going to transfer to renewable energy, we need to have, you know, sustainable sources of lithium and all these other materials that will help, you know, create batteries, for example. And then we can't be dependent on China because they're competitive with us. So what's the plan?

And when he would bring up these kind of detailed issues with his Senate colleagues, he would kind of get blank stares. And that discouraged him because, you know, he had so much faith in the Senate as the great deliberative body with, you know, serious people working on serious issues. And what he found was that a lot of people weren't interested in working on issues at all, and even the ones who were not quite as in the weeds as he would like them to be.

DAVIES: Right, he says the hearings were never really about getting information, they were a chance to, you know, preen for cable television. You know, I have to say, I mean, this kind of made me stop in my tracks. You've covered Washington for a long time. I wonder what your reaction is to the notion that 20 senators do the work, 80 of them are just there for the ride or to get on television. You know, every one of these senators has press offices that generates information about, you know, the great projects they're bringing home and the courageous positions they've taken on issues. Is that really true, that 80 of them just aren't doing much?

COPPINS: It's a good question. I mean, look, you know, maybe the exact number is 75 or 70 or whatever.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

COPPINS: But, I mean, I will say that as a reporter covering Washington, I am often surprised by, you know, how few elected leaders seem to actually be engaged on a daily basis in real legislating. I mean, part of it is just structural, the way that our system is set up. A lot of these guys have to spend an inordinate amount of time raising money, you know, calling fundraisers, donors, figuring out how to have enough money to run for reelection. Even in the Senate, where they have longer terms, it still seems like they're constantly thinking about their brands. And they see their seats as platforms to share points of view, but not necessarily to, you know, get in the weeds on legislation and get laws passed.

I don't think it always was this way. You know, when you talk to people who are older than me and have more experience in Washington, they will say that, you know, 30, 40 years ago, it maybe would have been flipped. There would be 20 senators who were, you know, show horses, but the other 80 really wanted to get stuff done. I think that because of how polarized our country has gotten, how dysfunctional our institutions are, we've begun to attract people who don't have as much interest in actually doing the work. And Mitt Romney certainly was a witness to that.

DAVIES: You write that Romney called the Senate a club for old men, meaning what?

COPPINS: (Laughter) Well, this was a really interesting insight. He basically said, on some superficial level, you know, it's a lot of old people. We have on-site barbers and doctors, and everybody wears orthopedic shoes. But, you know, on a more serious level, he told me he had not realized just how much psychic currency his Senate colleagues attached to their jobs. It almost was as if, you know, losing reelection was akin to death for them, right? There were - a lot of his colleagues were in their 60s, 70s, even some in their 80s. And to them, the relevance and power and importance associated with their position was essential to their lives. It was central to their identities. And what it meant was that every decision they made came back to, will this help me get reelected? In fact, he had a Senate colleague tell him explicitly, when you're mulling a vote, the first question you should ask yourself is, will this help me get reelected? And then secondary, he said, was, will this help my state and my constituents? I mean, that one, to me, was kind of the shocking one because that is remarkable - right? - to think that his Senate colleagues are just saying out loud that reelection is the most important thing to consider. And it seems like that's a fairly widespread sentiment in Washington in the Senate, even if they would never say it publicly.

DAVIES: Yeah, that is a pretty dispiriting thought. And you write that Romney - his reaction, which he didn't always say, was, you know, losing an election is not the worst thing that can happen. Trust me. I've done it.

COPPINS: That's what he said. He said, take it from someone who knows, right? I've lost plenty of elections. You know, he often says losing a presidential election is maybe the most devastating thing that can happen to a politician. And, you know, once you've done it, it gives you a little bit of perspective. And so he would often try to help his Senate colleagues understand that, you know, there are worse things than losing reelection in the Senate.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with McKay Coppins. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic covering politics, religion and the media. His new book is "Romney: A Reckoning." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Atlantic staff writer McKay Coppins, whose new book is an examination of Mitt Romney's career - his runs for president, his service in the Senate and his efforts to battle Donald Trump and the growth of extremism within the Republican Party. Coppins' new book is called "Romney: A Reckoning."

One of the more interesting episodes that you describe is Romney during the impeachment trial involving Trump and his actions in Ukraine. And it was interesting the posture that the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, took on the issues there. One of them was whether the Senate should call additional witnesses to get more information. What was McConnell's approach in advising his caucus?

COPPINS: What struck Romney was that McConnell didn't bother defending Trump's actions. He essentially told his caucus, look. This is a political process. You are not impartial jurors. You should act like politicians in this process. And even in private with Mitt Romney, he kind of pulled Romney aside at one point and basically said, look. We don't want to drag this out. It's going to hurt some of our more vulnerable Republican senators in reelection. And so I want you to join us in voting to quickly end this Senate trial so we can move on.

And what was interesting to Romney is that he didn't make any kind of case for why Trump shouldn't be held accountable. Instead, McConnell basically argued that protecting the GOP Senate majority was essential. He said if Trump lost reelection and Republicans lost control of the Senate, this apocalyptic scenario would play out where Democrats would, you know, pass the Green New Deal and Medicare for All and turn Puerto Rico and D.C. into states so that they could engineer a permanent Senate majority. And it was basically a explicitly partisan argument that had nothing to do with Trump or the things he was accused of and entirely about protecting Republican power.

DAVIES: Right. So never mind the need for getting real information because, you remember, there were administration witnesses who hadn't told their part of the story. Never mind that. Never mind the constitutional obligation to take it seriously. The the patriotic thing to do is to be sure Republicans hold the Senate. Yeah. You know, as the 2020 election approached, what role did Mitt Romney see for himself, if any, in heading off another Trump win?

COPPINS: By 2020, Romney had voted to convict Trump, as the only Republican to do so, and had essentially become a pariah in his party. He was a villain in the conservative media. Fox News would, you know, routinely beat up on him in the - in primetime shows. He actually, you know, often couldn't go out into public without conservatives coming up to berate him. You know, people would yell, traitor, at him from car windows and confront him at airports. And he knew that, at this point, he had relatively little sway in the Republican Party. You know, four years earlier, he thought that he could maybe still steer the party in the right direction. Even two years earlier, when he had first entered the Senate, he had hope that he could, you know, forge a new path for Republicans. By 2020, he was pretty convinced that this was Donald Trump's party now, he was not going to have a lot of influence. And so he decided to lay low. You know, as you'll recall, this is the beginning of the pandemic. He spent a lot of time alone in his house and in his office trying to work on legislation, to little avail. And, you know, he felt politically homeless at that point. He didn't feel like he could vote for a Democrat, but he certainly knew he wasn't going to support Donald Trump's reelection.

DAVIES: You know, you got all this information from Mitt Romney, all these interviews and personal journals and emails and such, but you didn't just rely on that. You're a reporter, you went and checked with others to verify their accuracy or get more context and perspective. One of the agreements that you made with him in the project was that he would get to read the manuscript before it was published, but you would decide what goes in. I assume he read it. What did he think?

COPPINS: He did. And, you know, he - (laughter) I'll give you my view. I think he, at first when he read it, was surprised and maybe a little worried by how much he had told me over the course of the two years.

DAVIES: I can imagine that.

COPPINS: There were a few moments after he had read it where he expressed some concern about, you know, whether certain relationships would survive or how he would be a pariah in the Senate. But I will give him credit for this - at the end of the day, he really didn't demand that I take anything out that was, you know, important. There were a couple of things that, you know, he made the case weren't quite in the right context. And upon my, you know, further reporting on my own part, I agreed with him. But in terms of the core story, he sort of decided to let it speak for itself. And I think that he deserves credit for that.

DAVIES: You know, looking at all of the, you know, mass dysfunction that we see and bitter partisanship everywhere, you know, like in the battle over who's going to be speaker of the House, what do you think you'll be writing about in the future?

COPPINS: I mean, I can only hope that I'm not writing the same story over and over again. But I will say, one of the discouraging things about being a political journalist right now is that it feels on some level like it's the same story just replaying over and over again. I mean, I first started covering politics during the summer of 2010, the rise of the Tea Party, and I remember thinking this was something new and novel. And all these kind of right-wing populist figures with no political experience were coming to Congress, and what would that look like?

And over the next couple of years, we saw a lot of dysfunction. We saw a lot of, you know, supposedly unprecedented moments in American politics. And it seems like that dysfunction has just replayed over and over and over again. And I don't know how the cycle of partisanship breaks, this kind of destructive cycle of polarization and, you know, negative partisanship. But it does feel like, if I'm being kind of pessimistic, this is what I'm going to be writing about indefinitely, as long as I'm covering politics, because I don't - I haven't seen the way out yet. The fever has not broken.

DAVIES: Well, McKay Coppins, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

COPPINS: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

DAVIES: McKay Coppins is a staff writer for The Atlantic covering politics, religion and the media. His new book is "Romney: A Reckoning." On tomorrow's show, writer Scott Eyman talks about an American movie star who was the subject of a 1,900-page FBI file, prevented from returning to the country, scandalized for his affairs with young women, and was applauded and criticized for his satire of Adolf Hitler. Eyman's new book is "Charlie Chaplin Vs. America: When Art, Sex, And Politics Collided." I hope you can join us.

To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY'S "REACTIONARY TANGO")

DAVIES: We're closing with music by jazz composer, arranger and pianist Carla Bley, who died last week due to complications of brain cancer. She was 87. In a story commemorating Bley's 80th birthday, NPR's Joel Rose wrote that Bley was one of the few women to have exerted a consistent influence on the male-dominated world of modern jazz for half a century.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY'S "REACTIONARY TANGO")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Thea Chaloner and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARLA BLEY'S "REACTIONARY TANGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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