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Romney reappears to lead GOP charge against ‘phony’ Trump

March 3, 2016 at 7:32 PM EDT
Following Donald Trump’s sweeping wins on Super Tuesday, Republican leaders lit into the frontrunner from all sides in a desperate attempt to blunt his momentum. The most prominent criticism came a few hours prior to Thursday night’s debate, when former Massachusetts governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney called Trump “a phony” who is “playing the American public for suckers.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of the biggest names in Republican politics took on Donald Trump with growing fervor today.

In Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney injected himself into the middle of the GOP race, just ahead of tonight’s candidate debate.

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), 2012 Republican Presidential Nominee: If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With that, the party’s 2012 nominee for president joined the campaign to stop Trump from becoming this year’s standard-bearer.

MITT ROMNEY: Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark. He claimed that he had spoken clearly and boldly against going into Iraq.

Wrong. He spoke in favor of invading Iraq. He said he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9/11.

Wrong. He saw no such thing. He imagined it. He’s not of the temperament of the kind of stable, thoughtful person we need as a leader. His imagination must not be married to real power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Romney charged, Trump is a phony and fraud who’s taking advantage of the people who support him.

MITT ROMNEY: He’s playing the American public for suckers. He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney started by saying he is not joining the race. Instead, he said he’d vote for whomever has the best chance of beating Trump. It was a stark departure from four years ago, when candidate Romney welcomed the billionaire’s backing.

MITT ROMNEY: It means a great deal to me to have the endorsement of Mr. Trump.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Within hours today, Trump answered at a campaign stop in Maine.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: Look, Mitt is a failed candidate. He failed. I backed Mitt Romney. I backed him. You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, Mitt, drop to your knees. He would have dropped to his knees. He was begging.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The candidate offered a lengthy personal critique of Romney, blasting his losing effort in 2012.

DONALD TRUMP: He’s a choke artist. He’s an absolute — and I started hitting him so hard. In fact, people say, why did you hit him so hard? Because we cannot take another loss. We can’t take another loss. And Mitt is indeed a choke artist. He choked, and he choked like I have never seen anyone choke.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other Republican elders are weighing in as well. Senator John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee, said in a statement: “I would also echo the many concerns about Mr. Trump’s uninformed and indeed dangerous statements on national security issues.”

And some 70-plus Republican experts on foreign policy issued a press release pledging to oppose the front-runner.

But one of Trump’s former rivals and newest supporters, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, dismissed the criticism. He noted he’s telling Trump not to bolt the party if he’s denied the nomination.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), New Jersey: I have urged him not to do that, because I don’t think that’s constructive — a constructive way to go about it, and he knows that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of this just hours before Trump and his remaining rivals, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich, face off again in a FOX News debate in Detroit.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, underdog Bernie Sanders in Lansing, Michigan, took new aim today at Hillary Clinton and her stance on trade.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-D), Democratic Presidential Candidate: She has supported NAFTA. I opposed NAFTA. She supported permanent normal trade relations with China. I vigorously opposed PNTR with China. She supported permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam. I opposed that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Clinton stayed off the trail today, but The Washington Post reported a new turn in the FBI investigation of her handling of e-mail as secretary of state. It said Bryan Pagliano, a former State Department staffer who set up her private server, has been granted federal immunity for his cooperation.

Clinton has acknowledged that it was a mistake to use a private server, but has insisted nothing she received or sent was classified at the time.

We will dig further into today’s Republican fireworks after the news summary.