PARK CITY — Mitt Romney said Friday at his annual political retreat he has "high hopes" for what President Donald Trump can accomplish, but he suggested the GOP leader could have avoided the controversy over his administration's Russian ties.
"No group of Republicans is going to agree on all issues, but we're not as far apart as I had feared early on," Romney said. "But I think it would be helpful if the theater of the White House, the administration, were to be reduced."
Instead of attacking news reports about Russian meddling in the presidential election as fake, if Trump had called the interference outrageous and ordered sanctions and an FBI investigation, "it would have been gone," Romney said.
The tone Romney took during his presentation at this year's E2 Summit for business leaders held at the Stein Ericksen resort was very different from a year ago, when he became emotional talking about the prospect of a Trump presidency.
Last year, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee's voice broke as he told the business leaders — many of whom financially backed his White House bid — that he wouldn't campaign against Trump, but "seeing this is breaking my heart for the party."
Romney was one of Trump's most vocal critics during the 2016 GOP primaries, labeling the billionaire businessman a fraud and a phony in a widely covered speech at the University of Utah.
He said Friday he would have accepted an offer from Trump to serve as secretary of state and was encouraged by Trump's Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President George W. Bush, and others to serve in that role.
Although Romney said he and Trump held very different views on handling Russia and most other hot spots when they discussed the post after the November 2016 election, he appeared to take it as a good sign he was being considered.
"I didn't believe for a minute I could tell him what to do on those things, but I thought that kind of openness was encouraging," Romney said. "If he was willing to have me, I would be anxious to serve because I love this country."
The job went to Rex Tillerson, the former head of Exxon Mobil, a "standup person" not afraid to express his views openly to the president, Romney said, noting he sees Trump as having moderated his views on foreign policy since taking office.
Even during the presidential campaign, Romney told the more than 200 people crowded into a conference room to hear from him that most of them agreed with a lot of Trump's domestic policies during the campaign.
"The areas of concern were more of a personal nature, a personality nature, that gave us heartburn," the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City who now calls Utah home said.
Romney's "high hopes" for Trump center around fulfilling campaign promises such as replacing the Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax code and rebuilding the nation's infrastructure.
Romney declined to discuss the meaning of Trump's campaign pledge to "Make America Great Again," but he said a nation needs to be both strong and good. He said the best leaders are good people who care about those around them.
"I'm optimistic about the future," Romney said. "But gosh, I think it is essential that we remain as individuals, as families, as businesses and as a country a good and noble people."
Two Republican senators who have repeatedly raised concerns about Trump, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain, also spoke at the retreat.
Graham, who was among the crowded field of GOP presidential hopefuls defeated by Trump, said he ended up voting for independent candidate Evan McMullin "even though I wouldn't know him if he walked through the door."
Now, though, Graham said he is talking with Trump and wants to help his presidency. He said Trump still has a "consequential presidency" by accomplishing his domestic agenda but has to be careful with foreign policy.
Graham and McCain said they plan to propose sanctions against Russia for its election interference. McCain, who called Russia leader Vladimir Putin a "thug" and a "murderer," said Trump is learning and has a strong national security team.
McCain said he doesn't know enough to say whether Trump or fired FBI director James Comey were lying about their discussions related to the investigation of the administration's Russian ties.
But the 2008 Republican nominee for president said it was "very disappointing" that Comey testified he leaked information about his notes on those discussions to the media.
Friday's opening presentation at this year's E2 Summit, from Trump's head of the American Manufacturing Council, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, reportedly focused on the president's plan to create new jobs.
"Regardless of where you stand with Donald Trump personally, if they were to actually do that, I think it would be a massive accomplishment," said Spencer Zwick, who raised some $1 billion for Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.
Jobs are the "defining moment" for the administration, Zwick, now finance chairman of U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan's political action committee and a partner in retreat sponsor Solamere Capital, told the Deseret News in an interview.
Zwick said he believes that the administration's plans for the nation's workforce, said to include retraining workers at the state and national levels, will go forward despite the escalating investigations into the administration's alleged ties to Russia.
"The media is talking a lot about that, but at some point you have to say we have a judicial process and there's nothing we can do about it," Zwick said. "It would be a real shame if we stopped everything."
With the GOP controlling the White House and Congress, Zwick said "now is the time to get some stuff done. Now is the time to get some wins on the board. I think you're going to see some wins."
Zwick said Rep. Ryan, R-Wis., who will be addressing the summit that ends Saturday, has made it clear that he "learned a lot of valuable lessons" during the as-yet-unresolved Republican effort to replace the Affordable Care Act.
It's "not one you'd necessarily want to repeat, but a very good process to understand we are now the party in control. We have the majority," he said. "It's no longer about being the opposition party. It's about actually getting stuff done. I think it's taken some members some time to figure that out."
Matt Waldrip, E2's executive director, said Liveris had a "hopeful" message that he hopes continues through the retreat. Waldrip said there is a focus on global security this year, in addition to the future of American leadership.
"Everyone in that room is an employer, so to hear hopeful messages about things that are happening in the workforce is really great," he told reporters after the opening presentation
Romney was expected to be joined on stage later Friday by a Democrat, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden has sparked speculation he could run for president in 2020 with the recent creation of a new political action committee.
Friday started for some of the participants with an early morning hike led by a fast-moving Romney in mountains still patched with snow.