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Romney Courts Trump’s Dollars, but Shuns His Message

Perhaps Mitt Romney thought that Donald J. Trump would tone down his conspiracy theories about President Obama’s birth ahead of Tuesday night’s joint appearance at a glam fund-raiser in Las Vegas.

Donlad Trump endorses Mitt Romney on February 2, 2012.
Getty Images | Ethan Miller
Donlad Trump endorses Mitt Romney on February 2, 2012.

If so, he was very wrong.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday ditched all of the rules of presidential surrogacy and once again eagerly embraced the discredited “birther” movement by declaring on CNBC that “there are some major questions here that the press doesn’t want to cover.”

“Nothing’s changed my mind,” Mr. Trump said, reaffirming his doubts about the president’s Hawaiian birth certificate. “I walk down the street and people are screaming, ‘Please don’t give that up.’”

In a heartbeat, Mr. Trump once again offered himself as the latest object lesson for modern presidential campaigns as they chase big dollars. Mr. Trump’s willingness to open his wallet appears to outweigh any embarrassment Mr. Romney might feel from being associated with his comments.

During a brief conversation with reporters on Monday, before Mr. Trump’s latest comments, Mr. Romney sought to compartmentalize Mr. Trump’s fund-raising prowess as separate and apart from his conspiratorial accusations.

“You know, I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” Mr. Romney said. “But I need to get 50.1 percent or more, and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”

Aides to Mr. Romney have said he does not question the president’s birth. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior aide to the campaign, told CNN over the weekend that “Mitt Romney accepts that President Obama was born in the United States.”

But Mr. Romney has shown no willingness to distance himself from Mr. Trump, a fact Mr. Obama’s campaign has seized upon. In a Web video released Tuesday morning, the president’s campaign accuses Mr. Romney of being unwilling to stand up to “voices of extremism.”

The video notes moments from the 2008 presidential campaign when Senator John McCain of Arizona corrected extreme voices he encountered at town-hall-style meetings.

“Whey won’t Mitt Romney do the same?” the video asks as it plays snippets of Mr. Trump questioning the president’s birthplace.


Mr. Romney is by no means the first presidential candidate to have donors go dangerously off-message. Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, a Democrat, was the latest example of an Obama surrogate doing so.

Chairman and President of the Trump Organization, Donald Trump, speaks to several GOP women's group at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino April 28, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Getty Images
Chairman and President of the Trump Organization, Donald Trump, speaks to several GOP women's group at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino April 28, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

But perhaps a better example is Bill Maher, the liberal comedian who has called the Mormon religion a “cult” and has used raw and offensive language in describing Republican politicians he doesn’t like.

Mr. Obama has distanced himself from Mr. Maher’s comments and David Axelrod, a senior adviser, canceled an appearance on Mr. Maher’s show. And Mr. Obama has not held a joint fund-raiser with the comedian.

But a “super PAC” backing Mr. Obama, Priorities USA Action, has declined to give back the $1 million donation it received from Mr. Maher even though Bill Burton, a co-founder of the group, called his language “vulgar and inappropriate.”

For Mr. Romney, it may be about the money as well. Neither side wants to leave any cash on the table in a campaign where total spending may exceed $2 billion before it’s all over. But it also may be as much about not wanting to alienate a small but vocal constituency — very conservative voters who don’t believe that Mr. Obama’s presidency is legitimate.

The doubts about Mr. Obama’s birthplace — and its impact on whether he can legitimately be president — have been thoroughly discredited by mainstream news organizations and rejected by politicians of both parties.

But there remain pockets of enthusiasm for the narrative that Mr. Obama should never have been allowed to be president. It’s possible that Mr. Romney does not want to alienate those voters by throwing Mr. Trump overboard.

Instead, the two men will gather Tuesday night at Mr. Trump’s Las Vegas hotel to raise money for the Romney campaign.

Though the campaign privately maintains an attitude of quiet exasperation and good-natured eye-rolling toward Mr. Trump, it is publicly loath to criticize him. After all, he is a prolific fund-raiser and a willing surrogate who can marshal both top-dollar and small-money donors. (The campaign is raffling off a fantasy day with Mr. Trump, for instance, where the bidding starts at $3.)

But not everyone is so forgiving. Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist, said he was at a loss to explain why Mr. Romney continues to stand by Mr. Trump.

“I think who Romney stands with says a lot about what he’ll stand for,” Mr. McKinnon wrote in an e-mail. “Associating with Trump seems to only reinforce the narrative on Romney that Team Obama wants to push. Which is that Romney is an out-of-touch rich guy without any real core, which means he’ll associate with anyone if he thinks it will further his ambition.”

Though Mr. Trump may bring in money, Mr. McKinnon said he believed that Mr. Romney might gain even more by denouncing the mogul’s comments, just as Bill Clinton was able to erase some doubts about his candidacy by criticizing the rapper Sister Souljah during the 1992 campaign.

“I’ve always thought Romney would gain a lot more mileage by stiff-arming Trump,” Mr. McKinnon wrote.

The relationship between the buttoned-up former governor of Massachusetts and the man who sometimes refers to himself in the third-person as “The Donald,” however, has never been an easy or obvious one.

There was the September meeting in Midtown Manhattan, where Mr. Romney went to kiss Mr. Trump’s proverbial ring, and where Romney aides took great pains to sneak the candidate past the assembled press to assure that no photographs of the two men together would surface.

There was Mr. Trump’s official endorsement of Mr. Romney a few months later in Las Vegas, an event shrouded in so much secrecy and last-minute scrambling that several news organizations — including The New York Times — first reported that Mr. Trump would be endorsing Newt Gingrich.

“There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life,” Mr. Romney said at the time, during an appearance with Mr. Trump that lasted less than seven minutes and included no questions. “This is one of them.” (The news conference, behind a gold-plated podium, at times seemed particularly uncomfortable, with Mr. Romney’s wife, Ann, flushing red and seeming to alternate between near-laughter and true pain.)

And, because Mr. Trump has proved himself a diligent fund-raiser, there was also Mrs. Romney’s birthday party, notable not only for its $600,000 haul, according to a Trump spokesman, but for its campy cake — designed by Buddy Valastro, the star of Bravo’s “Cake Boss” — that featured an edible replica of Ann Romney sitting astride a horse.

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