May 2, 2012
Romney Team May Have Stirred Storm Over Gay Aide
By MICHAEL BARBARO, HELENE COOPER and ASHLEY PARKER
It was the biggest moment yet for Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team: a conference call last Thursday, dialed into by dozens of news outlets from around the globe, to dissect and denounce President’s Obama record on national security.
But Richard Grenell, the political strategist who had set up the call and was specifically hired to oversee such communications, was conspicuously absent, or so everyone thought.
It turned out he was at home in Los Angeles, listening in, but stone silent and seething. A few minutes earlier, a senior Romney aide had delivered an unexpected directive, according to several people involved in the call.
“Ric,” said Alex Wong, a policy aide, “the campaign has requested that you not speak on this call.” Mr. Wong added, “It’s best to lay low for now.”
For Mr. Grenell, the message was clear: he had become radioactive.
It was the climax of an unexpectedly messy and public dispute over the role and reputation of Mr. Grenell, a gay foreign policy expert known for his support of same-sex marriage, his testy relationship with the news media and his acerbic Twitter postings on everything from Rachel Maddow’s femininity to how Callista Gingrich “snaps on” her hair.
From his hiring three weeks ago, which prompted an outcry from some Christian conservatives, it became clear that the appointment of Mr. Grenell, a former Bush administration official with seemingly pristine Republican credentials, had become entangled in the unforgiving churn of election-year politics, leading to his resignation on Tuesday and the Republican candidate’s first public misstep since effectively clinching the nomination.
On one level, Mr. Grenell’s short-lived and rocky tenure as Mr. Romney’s foreign policy spokesman is the story of how halting attempts by the campaign to manage its relationship with the most conservative quarter of the Republican Party left an aide feeling badly marginalized and ostracized.
But according to interviews with more than a dozen aides and advisers, it is also about how a fast-growing campaign, operating under the sharp glare of a general election, failed to spot the potential hazards of a high-profile appointment.
Aides to Mr. Romney insist they did everything they could to keep Mr. Grenell from resigning, sending the campaign’s highest-level officials to try to persuade him that they valued his expertise and that the matter would soon die down. In the end, they said, he chafed at the limitations of a disciplined presidential campaign.
But those close to Mr. Grenell, known as Ric, insist that when he had sought forceful support from those who had entrusted him with a major role, the campaign seemed to be focused, instead, on quieting a political storm that could detract from Mr. Romney’s message and his appeal to a crucial constituency.
“It’s not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay,” one Republican adviser to the campaign said. “They believed this was a nonissue. But they didn’t want to confront the religious right.” Like many interviewed, this adviser insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Mr. Grenell, a 45-year-old with a sharp wit, had joined the Romney campaign in April with sterling recommendations from Bush-era foreign policy figures, and an impressive résumé. He had served as a United States spokesman at the United Nations under four ambassadors during the Bush administration.
Rich Williamson, a senior diplomat under several Republican presidents, and John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations, had both urged his appointment.
In mid-April, Mr. Grenell sailed through an interview with Eric Fehrnstrom, Mr. Romney’s senior adviser, and Gail Gitcho, his communications director.
But before he left the Romney headquarters, he felt compelled to say that he is gay. “It could be an issue,” he volunteered.
“It’s not an issue for us,” Mr. Fehrnstrom replied firmly.
The campaign called around to Mr. Grenell’s colleagues, seeking references, but as the warm reviews flowed in, a campaign known for its no-stone-unturned meticulousness overlooked his electronic footprints: namely, dozens of cutting Twitter postings. One swipe at Newt Gingrich’s weight, for example, went like this: “I wonder if newt has investments in Lipitor.”
Mr. Grenell trumpeted his new position in a message to friends on April 19. He signed the note, “My next adventure.” He made preparations to move from Los Angeles.
Within days, stories about Mr. Grenell’s Twitter feed surfaced, prompting him to delete more than 800 posts. Mr. Grenell apologized for what he called “hurtful” comments, but the campaign privately dismissed the issue.
At the same time another, more troubling, protest that was harder to ignore was taking shape among some Christian conservatives: Mr. Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage, had betrayed them by hiring a gay man and an outspoken supporter of the cause.
The day after Mr. Grenell was hired, Bryan Fischer, a Romney critic with the American Family Association, told nearly 1,400 followers on Twitter: “If personnel is policy, his message to the pro-family community: drop dead.” The next day, the conservative Daily Caller published an online column that summed up the anger of the Christian right, linking Mr. Grenell’s hiring to the appointment of gay judges to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
As the critiques from conservatives intensified, Mr. Grenell pressed senior aides to allow him to speak about national security issues, arguing that the best way to soothe the ire over his appointment would be to let him do his job: defend his boss and take swipes at President Obama.
But Mr. Romney’s advisers balked at the idea of his taking a public role, saying that the best way to get beyond the controversy was for Mr. Grenell to lower his profile until it blew over. A big worry: that reporters would ask Mr. Grenell about his Twitter feed or sexuality, turning him rather than Mr. Romney’s foreign policy into the story.
And with Mr. Grenell not scheduled to start work officially until May 1, the advisers argued that there was no rush to push him into the spotlight.
Andrea Saul, a campaign spokeswoman, issued a statement of support for Mr. Grenell on April 24. But it made no mention of the attacks on his sexuality: “We hired Ric Grenell because he was the best qualified person for the job and has extensive experience representing the U.S. Mission to the U.N.”
Yet foreign policy debates, the kind that Mr. Grenell was eager to wade into, kept sprouting up on the campaign trail, and he kept pressing for a chance to jump in. Each time, he was rebuffed. He was, friends said, a spokesman with no voice.
Romney advisers attribute at least some of Mr. Grenell’s frustration to the inevitable complications of starting a new job within a large, competitive and rigid organization filled with big egos.
But the final straw, for Mr. Grenell, was the conference call on April 26. After being told not to speak, he felt deeply undermined, worrying it would erode his credibility with journalists who had expected to hear from him, friends said. One, R. Clarke Cooper, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, called it a missed opportunity.
“If one wanted to look at how it could have been done differently, they could have gotten Ric off the bench and onto the field,” he said. “There’s been a lot going on this week on foreign policy, with Syria, Hillary Clinton in China, Obama in Afghanistan. There’s a lot happening where Ric could have been present.”
The day after the call, complaints from the religious right picked up steam. In the National Review on April 27, Matthew J. Franck wrote: “Whatever fine record he compiled in the Bush administration, Grenell is more passionate about same-sex marriage than anything else.”
“So here’s a thought experiment,” he continued. “Suppose Barack Obama comes out — as Grenell wishes he would — in favor of same-sex marriage in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. How fast and how publicly will Richard Grenell decamp from Romney to Obama?”
Over the past weekend, Mr. Grenell sent word to Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fehrnstrom that his position was untenable. He planned to resign.
At least six top aides and advisers called Mr. Grenell, asking him to reconsider, among them Mr. Fehrnstrom, Mr. Bolton, Mr. Williamson and the campaign’s manager, Matt Rhoades.
Several of them said they were baffled. They felt the storm had largely passed. “We were shocked,” one caller said. “We could not persuade him to stay.”
Several gay leaders said the campaign failed to grasp the message it had sent to him when it told him to lie low. “Clearly, the Romney campaign thought if they could put him in a box for a while it would go away,” said Christopher Barron, a founder of GOProud, a gay Republican group in Washington. “It is an unforced error on their part.”
He added, “It doesn’t bode well for the Romney campaign going forward if they couldn’t stand up to the most outrageous attacks about him being gay.”
Ms. Gitcho, of the campaign, disputed that characterization. Mr. Romney, she said, “has condemned voices of intolerance within the party. We tried to persuade Mr. Grenell to stay on, and we were disappointed that he chose to resign.”
Jim Talent, a former senator from Missouri who is a campaign adviser, called the episode a loss for the Romney campaign.
“People with the kind of expertise that Ric has don’t grow on tree,” he said. “It’s a real setback for us, I think.”
Jeff Zeleny and Richard A. Oppel Jr. contributed reporting from Washington.