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Book excerpt: "Romney: A Reckoning" by McKay Coppins


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In "Romney: A Reckoning," a new biography of Republican Senator Mitt Romney (to be published October 24 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a division of Paramount Global), author and Atlantic writer McKay Coppins recounts Romney's career, building on voluminous interviews and hundreds of pages of diary entries, emails and text messages.

In the excerpt below, Coppins describes how the peaceful transfer of power was interrupted on January 6, 2021, the day Romney was determined to speak out against President Trump's lies about his election loss.

Read an excerpt below, and don't miss Norah O'Donnell's interview with Mitt Romney on "CBS News Sunday Morning" October 22!

"Romney: A Reckoning" by McKay Coppins

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For most of his life, he has nursed a morbid fascination with his own death, suspecting that it might assert itself one day suddenly and violently.

He controls what he can, of course. He wears his seat belt, and diligently applies sunscreen, and stays away from secondhand smoke. For thirty years, he followed his doctor's recipe for longevity with monastic dedication—the lean meats, the low-dose aspirin, the daily thirty-minute sessions on the stationary bike, heartbeat at 140 or higher or it doesn't count. Then, one day, his doctor informed him that "low fat" was an anachronism now, that it was sugar he needed to avoid, and the revelation felt like a betrayal. How many months—or, heaven forbid, years—had he lost to what he thought was a harmless ice cream habit?

He would live to 120 if he could. "So much is going to happen!" he says when asked about this peculiar desire. "I want to be around to see it." But some part of him has always doubted he'll get anywhere close.

He has never really interrogated the cause of this preoccupation. There was the accident, yes, but it's more than that. Premonitions of death seem to follow him. Once, years ago, he boarded an airplane for a business trip to London and a flight attendant whom he'd never met saw him, gasped, and rushed from the cabin in horror. When she was asked what had so upset her, she confessed that she'd dreamt the night before about a man who looked like him—exactly like him—getting shot and killed at a rally in Hyde Park. He didn't know how to respond, other than to laugh and put it out of his mind. But when a few days later he happened to find himself on the park's edge and saw a crowd forming, he made a point not to linger.

All of which is to say there is something familiar about the unnerving sensation that Mitt Romney is feeling late on the afternoon of January 2, 2021.

It begins with a text message from Angus King, the junior senator from Maine: "Could you give me a call when you get a chance? Important."

He calls, and King informs him of a conversation he's just had with a high-ranking Pentagon official. They've been tracking online chatter from right-wing extremists who appear to be planning something bad on the day of Donald Trump's upcoming rally in Washington, D.C. The president has been telling them the election was stolen; now they're coming to steal it back. There's talk of gun smuggling, of bombs and arson, of targeting the traitors in Congress who are responsible for this travesty. Romney's name has been popping up in some frightening corners of the internet, which is why King needed to talk to him. He isn't sure Romney will be safe.

Romney hangs up and immediately begins typing out a text to Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Mitch has been indulgent of Trump's deranged behavior over the last four years, but he's not crazy. Mitch knows the election wasn't stolen, that his guy lost fair and square. He sees the posturing by Republican politicians for what it is. He'll want to know about this, Romney thinks. He'll want to protect his colleagues, and himself.

Romney sends his text: "In case you have not heard this, I just got a call from Angus King who said that he had spoken with a senior official at the Pentagon who reports that they are seeing very disturbing social media traffic regarding the protests planned on the 6th. There are calls to burn down your home, Mitch; to smuggle guns into DC, and to storm the Capitol. I hope that sufficient security plans are in place, but I am concerned that the instigator—the President—is the one who commands the reinforcements the DC and Capitol police might require."

McConnell never responds.

Ann doesn't want him to return to D.C. Romney's wife all but begs him to stay in Utah until the election is certified and the protest has passed. "Don't go back," she keeps saying. "Don't go back on January sixth." She has a bad feeling about all of this. She is worried something terrible might happen to him.

He assures her that he won't be in any physical danger, but says he'll take extra precautions all the same. He won't walk to the grocery store like he usually does, or pick up his dry cleaning. Plus, he reasons, "If I get shot, you can move on to a younger, more athletic husband." He, on the other hand, will be stuck attending "everlasting church" in the sky. Ann is not amused.

"This is too important," he finally tells her. "This is the certifying of the election. This is the peaceful transfer of power." Moments like this were the whole reason he came out of a very comfortable retirement to serve in the Senate.

"I'll be careful," he tells her, "but I've really got to go."

The truth is that he has a bad feeling, too. But he's also feeling something else, something that Romney—a walking amalgam of prep school manners and Mormon niceness and the practiced cool of the private equity set—has spent his life learning to control: anger. He is angry at the president for lying to so many Americans; angry at his Republican colleagues for cynically going along with the ploy. He is angry that the United States Senate, supposedly the world's greatest deliberative body, will be reduced to a pathetic spectacle of antidemocratic theater as lawmakers cast self-serving votes to overturn a presidential election. He wants to be there to tell them how wrong they are, how harmful this whole charade is to America's system of government. He has been working on his speech for days, and he is determined to deliver it—not angrily, but with conviction—on the floor of the Senate. Staying home is not an option.

Early on the morning of January 6, Romney slides into the back of an SUV and begins the short commute to his Senate office, with a Capitol Police car in tow. He appreciates the escort, but as he looks out the window at the streets of D.C. he can't help but question its utility. If somebody wants to shoot me, he thinks, what good is it with these guys in a car behind you?

He tries to go about his morning as usual. He has a meeting with Arizona senator Mark Kelly, and another with the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He goes to the basement of the Rayburn Building to receive his second dose of the COVID vaccine. But he's struggling to concentrate on his schedule.

Two miles away, at the White House Ellipse, thousands of angry people are gathering for a "Save America Rally." Trump is tweeting about widespread voting "irregularities" and "fraud" and calling on his vice president to block the certification of the electoral votes: "All Mike Pence has to do is send them back to the States, AND WE WIN. Do it Mike, this is a time for extreme courage!"

When Romney encounters a gaggle of reporters, he labors to contain his anger. "I'm confident we'll proceed as the Constitution demands and tell our supporters the truth, whether or not they want to hear it," he says.

In fact, he is not confident of this at all. He knows what Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and the rest are planning to do, and he knows there's no dissuading them because he's tried. So, at 1:00 p.m., when Romney takes his seat in the chamber where the electoral college votes are to be counted, he's not surprised when Cruz and Congressman Paul Gosar formally object to certifying Arizona's election result. The joint session is adjourned, and Romney follows the rest of the senators to their own smaller chamber to debate the objection.

The Senate chamber is a cloistered place, with no television monitors or electronic devices, and strict rules that keep outsiders off the floor, so Romney doesn't know exactly what's happening outside. He doesn't know that the president has just directed his supporters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue—"We're going to the Capitol!" He doesn't know that pipe bombs have been discovered outside both parties' nearby headquarters. He doesn't know that Capitol Police are scrambling to evacuate the Library of Congress, or that rioters are crashing into police barricades outside the Capitol, or that officers are beginning to realize they're outmanned and won't be able to hold the line much longer.

Once the senators are seated, Cruz rises—his brow furrowed, his voice suffused with grave concern—and launches into a deeply cynical speech casting his own decision to perpetuate Trump's election lies as an act of patriotism. "Nearly half the country believes the 2020 election was rigged," he explains. "Even if you do not share that conviction, it is the responsibility, I believe, of this office to acknowledge that is a profound threat to this country."

At 2:08 p.m., Romney's phone buzzes with a text message from his aide Chris Marroletti, who's been communicating with Capitol Police: "Protestors [sic] getting closer. High intensity out there." He suggests Romney might want to move to his "hideaway," a little windowless room that the senator sometimes uses to rest during late-night votes.

Romney looks around the chamber. The hideaway is a few hundred yards and two flights of stairs away. He doesn't want to leave if he doesn't have to. He'll stay put, he decides, unless the protesters get inside the building.

A minute later, Romney's phone buzzes again.

"They're on the west front, overcame barriers."

Adrenaline surging, Romney stands and makes his way to the back of the chamber, where he pushes open the heavy, bronze-embroidered doors. He's expecting the usual crowd of reporters and staff aides, but nobody is there. A strange, unsettling quiet has engulfed the deserted corridor. He turns left and starts down the hall toward his hideaway, when suddenly he sees a Capitol Police officer sprinting toward him at full speed.

"Go back in!" the officer booms without breaking stride. "You're safer inside the chamber."

Romney turns around and starts to run.

He gets back in time to hear the gavel drop and see several men— Secret Service agents, presumably—rush into the chamber without explanation and pull the vice president out. Then, all at once, the room turns over to chaos: A man in a neon sash is bellowing from the middle of the Senate floor about a security breach. Officials are scampering around the room in a panic, slamming doors shut and barking at senators to move farther inside until they can be evacuated.

Something about the volatility of the moment causes Romney to lose his grip, and he finally vents the raw, primal anger he's been trying to contain. He turns to Hawley, who's huddled with some of his right- wing colleagues, and starts to yell.

Later, Romney will struggle to recall the exact wording of his rebuke. Sometimes he'll remember shouting, "You're the reason this is happening!" Other times, it will be something more terse: "You did this." At least one reporter in the chamber will recount seeing the senator  throw up his hands in a fit of fury as he roared, "This is what you've gotten, guys!"

Whatever the words, the sentiment is the same: this violence, this crisis, this assault on democracy—this is your fault.

What Romney doesn't pause to consider in this moment is an uncomfortable question: Is any of it my fault, too?

From "Romney: A Reckoning" by McKay Coppins. Copyright © 2023 by McKay Coppins. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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"Romney: A Reckoning" by McKay Coppins

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  • "Romney: A Reckoning" by McKay Coppins (Scribner), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, to be published October 24
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