WASHINGTON — For the first time since taking office, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office this week to discuss trade, China and national security.
Wednesday's lunch meeting was arranged by Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., a staunch ally of the president, "to discuss issues important to our nation," his spokesman said.
In an interview, Romney offered more detail on the 90-minute discussion that focused on international trade, primarily China.
"I'm probably more of a hawk on China than the president," Romney said. "I think we have to hold China's feet to the fire."
Their meeting took place the same day the Commerce Department announced the U.S. trade deficit surged nearly 19 percent in December, pushing last year's trade imbalance to a decadelong-high $621 billion. The gap with China on goods widened to an all-time record of $419.2 billion.
Border security also came up between the three leaders, including the president's emergency declaration that is expected to be rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate when they vote on it before March 15. Romney is among a few GOP senators who have not disclosed how they will vote on a joint resolution that rejects Trump's national emergency declaration as a way to secure funding for a promised wall along the Mexico border.
Trump is expected to veto the resolution if it passes.
"You really can't say how you're going to vote on something until you know precisely what will come," Romney said. "But, I have studied this at some length and spoken with a number of people about it and I've made my decision, pending what the final bill looks like that comes to the Senate floor."
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said senators were still looking into whether the joint disapproval resolution can be amended.
Among the amendments being discussed is a proposal by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that would put a time limit on future national emergencies and require a simple majority vote by Congress to extend them beyond a 30-day or a 60-day period, the Hill reported.
A spokesman for Lee said, “He is in talks with colleagues on how to best secure a vote to make real substantive changes to the (National Emergencies Act).”
While Romney isn't announcing his decision, he has expressed concerns about setting a precedent for future presidents to set aside what Congress has approved and get funding by declaring a national emergency.
"And that's the question. Do you want the president of the United States not to be a balancing power equal with Congress, but a superior power?" he said at a town hall meeting in Price, Utah, on Feb. 23.
Romney said he agrees with Trump on the need to beef up border security, but he said there are other sources of funding the administration can tap into that exceed the $5.7 billion the president wants for a border wall without declaring a national emergency.
On trade, Romney said he agrees with Trump's trade policy toward China. "They've moved from currency manipulation to intellectual property theft as their vehicle to combat us economically," he said. "I think the president's absolutely right to want to apply tariffs to them and to threaten higher tariffs if they walk away from a reasonable deal."
But he said he told the president that he disagrees with placing tariffs on steel and aluminum. "I said I think they're counterproductive for American industry — that you got that one wrong. But I think you got China right," Romney said.
The former GOP presidential candidate said the meeting was cordial and productive. "He said, 'Look, give me a call anytime with praise or with criticism,' and it's like, fine, I'll take you up on that, Mr. President," Romney said.
The meeting included a visit by Danny Burch, an American hostage who was rescued in an armed raid after being held captive for 18 months in Yemen, The New York Times reported. A photo of the visit by Burch showed Vice President Mike Pence and other White House aides in the Oval Office.
Graham invited Romney to the meeting so the junior senator from Utah could share his views on China and national security. It came more than two months after Graham blasted Romney for an op-ed published in The Washington Post two days before being sworn in that said the president had not "risen to the mantle of the office."74 comments on this story
Graham, once a vocal critic and now a staunch ally of the president, told Fox News Radio that Trump doesn't need more critics, but more people who "will help him make good decisions."
"So I’m hoping that Mitt will sit down with the president privately, share his concerns with the president about whatever drives his thinking but also commit to the president that I want you to be successful and I’m here to help you," Graham said. "If he will do that he can be a very effective senator."
Contributing: Associated Press