The MAGA machine is attempting to turn President Donald Trump’s latest nemesis — Sen. Mitt Romney — into the next Hunter Biden.
Trump in recent days took a new turn in his attacks on the Utah senator, veering from assailing his character and loyalty and tossing him into the wilds of Ukraine.
Trump over the weekend retweeted several conservative personalities and stories attempting to connect the Republican senator to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and its former board member Hunter Biden, two parties at the center of Trump’s attempted quid pro quo. The allegation was featured in several far-right blog posts: A senior advisor from Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign was on Burisma’s board of directors, and that by voting to impeach Trump last week, Romney was covering for his fellow swamp crony.
While Trump’s campaign had highlighted the allegation earlier, the post-impeachment flurry of tweets was the first time that Trump himself acknowledged the theory. At one point, the president retweeted a random follower’s newfound suspicion: “Romney is covering up his part in corruption in Ukraine. This has nothing to do with truth or God. He is a desperate man. The truth will come out.”
Prior to Sunday, Trump and the GOP’s first anti-Mitt salvo centered on a familiar set of name-calling: Romney is a “failed presidential candidate” jealous that Trump won the presidency; Romney craves the attention of the liberal media; Romney, a sanctimonious do-gooder, is a coward who wears mom jeans.
The Burisma attack signaled a new front in Trump world’s attempts to punish Romney, as well as keep the Burisma narrative alive. After all, Trump’s attempted quid pro quo centered around his obsession with launching an investigation into whether Joe Biden, his ostensible rival in the 2020 election, illegally leaned on the Ukrainian government to protect his son’s board seat — a storyline Trump adamantly clung onto during his impeachment trial. Should Romney look complicit, then so much the better for explaining his vote.
“It’s a fact. Why shouldn’t they know?” Matt Wolking, the Trump campaign’s deputy communications director, said when asked why the official account retweeted a story about Romney’s adviser. He did not respond when asked whether this fact provided adequate context for Romney’s vote.
This particular anti-Romney narrative had been plucked from a story floating around far-right media for months. On September 29, 2019 — just as the impeachment saga began and shortly after the whistleblower report became public — the American Thinker, a lesser-known conservative opinion site, wrote a story highlighting the fact that Joseph Cofer Black, a former CIA agent and a national security adviser for Romney’s 2012 campaign, just so happened to be a board member of the Ukrainian energy company under scrutiny by far-right factions of the GOP.
Black’s tenure happened to begin six months after Hunter Biden left the board, a fact that writer Thomas Lifson, who called Black a “career CIA spook,” highlighted as “an odd coincidence!” Other so-called coincidences include Black’s connection to John Brennan, who replaced him as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and his stint at Blackwater. “When dealing with spooks, politicians, and big-time power politics, sometimes coincidences are not accidental,” Lifson concluded. “But of course nobody wants to be a conspiracy theorist.”
In a statement, a Romney spokesperson pointed out that Black’s connection to Romney was tenuous at best. “There were hundreds of informal policy advisers to the Romney campaign. If you were a Republican policy expert at that time, chances are you were part of that group.”
Ryan Williams, a former Romney spokesman currently with the firm Targeted Victory, pointed out that several Trump allies — including Jay Sekulow, the lawyer Trump chose to represent him during his impeachment trial — were also Romney advisers in 2012.
“It seems that some people are trying to play the political equivalent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” to attack Romney, he said. “Using this logic, Romney must also be a secret agent for the Trump Administration since both the president’s lawyer and national security adviser served as Romney campaign advisers.”
Indeed, Sekulow, was a close Romney ally and advised his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, while Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s current national security adviser, co-chaired the 2012 campaign’s international organizations work group.
Regardless, that line of attack lingered in a series of aggregated articles on conservative blogs like The Federalist, Breitbart and Big League Politics (with the apt headline “HMM”) published that month.
Just hours after Romney voted last Wednesday to remove Trump from office on one article of impeachment, however, the allegation roared back to life — first on Twitter, highlighted by the likes of former governor Mike Huckabee, commentators Sean Davis and John Cardillo, and The Daily Wire, all retweeting or re-aggregating the Federalist and Breitbart articles.
“Well this may explain a lot! Maybe there ought to be an investigation. Will Mitt’s conscience force him to ask for it?”asked Huckabee.
The focus on Black persisted into Thursday and Friday, with RedState and PJ Media running articles highlighting the connection, Charlie Kirk and Mark Levin tweeting their seeming suspicions, and Hannity guest host Dan Bongino expressing outrage on his show that a Romney “confidant” was connected to Burisma.
At one point, the attack line attempted to jump off the internet into the cable-sphere. Laura Ingraham started working that angle on her show on Wednesday night, showing a graphic of The Federalist’s headline about Black to Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“It’s a cute little coincidence, don’t you think? It’s so swampy, though — is it not swampy?” she pressed him. (“I’m not going to say that that drove his thinking,” Graham demurred, before going back to calling for an investigation into FISA warrants.)
Regardless of where the corkboard-and-pins theory flourished best, it still got in the president’s purview, and now it’s an attack that’s powerful simply because it exists.
“”You’re watching the conspiracy laundromat in action,” said GOP consultant and Trump critic Rick Wilson. “What they do is that they punch [a theory] out to [hypothetical] Twitter user @MagaKing907525462, and then it’ll get retweeted by some dipshit like Dan Bongino or John Cardillo, and then it’ll get picked up by Breitbart, and then the Federalist will pick up on it and then from the Federalist it’ll go to Fox. And then lather, rinse, repeat.”
Black’s resume is the sort that would trigger a swamp-averse reader’s allergic reaction, and is, therefore, custom-built for a Trumpian attack: a career CIA agent, the former director of the agency’s Counterterrorist Center, and a former vice chairman of the controversial security firm Blackwater. (Black did not return a request for comment.)
The strength of the nefarious Romney-Burisma connection is admittedly less potent than the one about the Biden-Burisma nexus. Black, after all, is a 70-year-old with a self-sustained career of his own and no close ties to Romney, while Hunter is the troubled scion of an immensely prominent politician — a familiar story of American nepotism that anyone can instinctively understand, though perhaps can’t fully substantiate.
By placing another Burisma pawn in play — albeit in the form of a septuagenarian civil servant unrelated to Romney — the Biden attack line remains on life support, but now has the imprimatur of a broader, swampier conspiracy that could hypothetically taint Romney, who currently faces little actual backlash for his vote.
“They’ve recognized that no matter how tangential and ephemeral the connection, they’re going to do everything they can in order to get back into this ridiculous narrative of Burisma,” Wilson said.