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Park City • Once among the fiercest and most ardent critics of Donald Trump, Republicans Mitt Romney, John McCain and Lindsey Graham found places Friday to praise, advise and foster cautious hope for the president.
And that was only Day Two of a weekendlong retreat hosted by Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, in Utah's Deer Valley.
At the annual invitation-only E2 Summit, the three men separately, though back to back, addressed an audience of some 200 Republican supporters, high-profile politicians and business leaders. They delved into global relationships. They championed health care and tax reform. They skipped around mention of fired FBI Director James Comey, who took center stage in national politics Thursday with his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The three offered much the same policy views, though Romney, more than the two senators, seemed to finely pick through the minutiae in search of areas to compliment the president. His praise was general and more about the administration than Trump.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who once called Trump a "phony" and a "fraud," applauded the president for recognizing "Syria is a complex mess" and making "encouraging comments about NATO." The two also agree, he said, on "a lot of domestic policy."
Romney started one phrase in the negative, but almost immediately corrected: "I think he's wrong on … actually I think he's right on China to not have come down and labeled China a currency manipulator right out of the bat."
The only criticism Romney provided was on the "theater of Washington" that has surrounded Trump's time in office and the White House.
"The areas of concerns were more of a personal nature and a personality nature that gave us heartburn," he said.
Romney was, at one point, vetted by Trump as a possible secretary of state. Though he acknowledged he would have taken the position if offered and was encouraged to by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Romney said Friday that he and the president are "miles apart" on how the United States should handle interests abroad.
"It's not that suddenly I had a different view at that point of the president or the things that I had felt about him in the past," he explained. "But instead, I was very concerned about the fact that we saw things very differently on the foreign policy front with regards to Russia, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, China almost across the board."
Trump ultimately chose former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Romney called that "a very good choice." And that's where Graham and McCain found their praise for the president: in his staff. Both senators commended Trump's appointments of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
McCain, R-Ariz., added that Trump continues to learn and correct his mistakes. He cautioned, though, that the president should more carefully choose his words, given the profile of the office he holds.
"It's one thing when a candidate says something," McCain said. "It's something else when the president of the United States says it. It has a highly different effect."
Graham, R-S.C., faced Trump in last year's primary and the two had a tense relationship. Trump publicly announced Graham's cell number, setting off a torrent of calls and messages sent to the senator.
Though he voted for independent candidate and Provo native Evan McMullin in the 2016 election joking Friday that he "wouldn't know him if he walked in the door, but I hear he's from Utah" Graham said he's warming up to Trump and has trusted him with his new phone number. Most of the audience laughed. A few cringed.
When the president has his mind set, Graham added, he can be difficult to work with. But when he's open and seeks out new perspectives, that's when meaningful policy is made.
"We can pull it off. We can get taxes cut. We can do infrastructure. We can do things that are good for this country, and President Trump can still be a consequential president," Graham said. "But if he doesn't adjust the way he's behaving and he doesn't let people help him, he's going to lose the last best chance the Republican Party has to change America this session."
Each attempt by the three speakers the only events open to the press to talk about the summit's theme of global security circled back to the president. It seemed Trump was the topic no one could steer clear of.
McCain said attention has been diverted from tax reform because of turmoil in the administration. Graham brought up Syria and veered into Trump's "little bit of leadership in the face of pure evil" there. Mention of the GOP health-care bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act led to a discussion about how the congressional majority has differed under Trump than former President Barack Obama.
And nowhere was Trump more front and center than in discussion about Russia.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential election foreign aggression that Romney said Trump should have called out as "outrageous," requested an FBI investigation and then moved on.
"Instead, when you attack it as fake news and those things," he said, "you draw more and more attention."
All three politicians favored sanctions on Russia in response to the election interference, though all said there was no evidence to suggest the meddling had swayed the outcome of the election. Romney advised symbolically punching Russian President Vladimir Putin "in the nose" to prevent further incidents. McCain turned to name-calling.
"I have no doubt that this guy is very good at his job," the senator said of Putin. "That doesn't change the fact that he is a thug and a murderer."
When McCain was asked by the moderator about Comey's firing which Trump acknowledged was done with the Russia investigation on his mind and the "confusion, given your line of questioning" during Thursday's Senate hearing, the Arizona senator evaded the direct question and instead talked about the threat to American democracy posed by the Russians.
In the only marked departure from Trump, when prompted to list influential leaders, Romney named Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. And without mentioning the president, he responded to a question about what "makes America great" a partial quote of Trump's campaign slogan with "our goodness, combined with our strength."
The Experts and Enthusiasts Summit has been co-organized by Romney, who now lives in Utah, and Solamere Capital, a firm led by Romney's son, Tagg, and his 2012 campaign finance director, Spencer Zwick. This year, attendees included House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz; former Vice President Joe Biden accepted an invitation to speak Friday evening in a session closed to news media.
In the past attendees and speakers have included presidential hopefuls, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
The current president is also invited each year, meaning Trump likely declined the offer.