It was supposed to be Mitt Romney’s flawless world stage debut. Instead, the Republican presidential candidate spent the start of his overseas trip fending off a furor over his London Olympics comments and scrutiny of a fundraiser with bankers linked to the Libor rate-fixing scandal.
“There’s a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we’re ready,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told 80,000 cheering people gathered at Hyde Park for the arrival of the Olympic torch last night. “Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are!”
Romney worked to put the controversy behind him today, scheduling an interview at Olympic Park to quell the storm of criticism over his comment that the city appeared to be unprepared to host the games.
“After being here a couple of days, it looks to me like London’s ready,” he told NBC’s “Today” program. “What they’ve done that I find so impressive is they took the venues and put them right in the city.”
Romney’s critical remarks about the Olympics, also to NBC, overshadowed the former Massachusetts governor’s meetings in London yesterday with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and other top British political leaders, carefully choreographed by campaign aides to boost his foreign-policy credentials.
In the July 25 NBC interview, Romney described reports of difficulties recruiting enough security staff for the games, which begin today, as “disconcerting” and said, “It’s hard to know just how well it will turn out.”
‘Middle of Nowhere’
When British reporters called Cameron’s attention to those comments at a news conference in the Olympic Park, he offered a sharp retort, saying London is hosting the games in one of the “busiest, most active” cities in the world.
“Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” Cameron said, a remark interpreted by the American media as a reference to the 2002 winter games organized by Romney in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A few hours later, the two men exchanged pleasantries about the Olympic torch relay in the White Room at Cameron’s office in 10 Downing Street, a salon traditionally used to greet foreign leaders, which now overlooks the Olympic beach-volleyball court.
“I’m very delighted with the prospects of a highly successful Olympic Games,” Romney told reporters after the meeting, in an effort to end the controversy.
‘Mitt the Twit’
While Romney’s refined remarks satisfied Johnson, who told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program in an interview this morning that Romney has been “fulsome now in his praise,” they didn’t stop a slew of jeering headlines in the British press.
“Mitt falls at the first hurdle,” wrote the Guardian, while the Sun, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, headlined its story “Mitt the Twit.”
“Mitt Romney is perhaps the only politician who could start a trip that was supposed to be a charm offensive by being utterly devoid of charm and mildly offensive,” wrote the Daily Telegraph in a commentary.
Democrats quickly seized on the gaffe, with the national party creating a Twitter hash-tag called #RomneyShambles to collect all the negative comments. And White House press secretary Jay Carney kicked off his regular reporters’ briefing with an announcement that President Barack Obama had been briefed on security at the games and “has the utmost confidence” in the U.K.’s ability to manage them.
Romney backers said the wave of negative press didn’t concern the campaign. “We’re not worried about overseas headlines; we’re worried about voters back here at home in America,” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told reporters on a conference call.
London is the first leg of a three-country trip by Romney intended to show voters at home that though he has little diplomatic experience, he could be a credible commander in chief.
In meetings with Cameron and other leaders, Romney stressed the “special relationship” between the two countries. He cited “our commitment to common values, our commitment to peace in the world and our desire to see a stronger and growing economy,” at a joint press appearance with Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party.
Even the scripted meetings prompted some criticism, after Romney volunteered to reporters that he had met with officials from MI6. His admission broke with the British protocol of keeping meetings with the Secret Intelligence Service secret.
Romney refused to elaborate on his discussions or his positions on the diplomatic and military issues facing the two countries.
“I don’t want to refer to any comments made by leaders nor do I want to describe foreign-policy positions I might have on foreign soil,” he told reporters outside 10 Downing Street.
Romney policy adviser Lanhee Chen told reporters that economic topics dominated the meetings, with Romney and British leaders analyzing the potential impacts of Europe’s debt crisis. Cameron quizzed Romney on the U.S. so-called fiscal cliff of expiring tax rates and automatic spending cuts set to kick in after the election, unless Congress takes action.
The leaders also discussed foreign affairs, in conversations focused on the escalating conflict in Syria, threat of a nuclear Iran and the Middle East peace process, the aide told reporters.
It’s common for American candidates to visit the U.K. during their presidential campaigns. President Barack Obama stopped over shortly before formally accepting his party’s presidential nomination in 2008. Romney met with British officials during a July 2011 trip to London.
This time the former head of Boston-based Bain Capital LLC arrived in the midst of a recession in Britain and a European debt crisis.
The U.K. economy shrank the most since 2009 in the second quarter, increasing pressure on Cameron to abandon Britain’s austerity program, the largest since World War II. Britain’s government blames the euro-area turmoil for pushing the country into the first double-dip recession since the 1970s.
Romney’s evening fundraiser with American bankers, including executives from Barclays Plc, the first bank to admit that its employees were involved with manipulating the London interbank offered rate, a global benchmark, drew criticism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Co-hosts for the events included Patrick Durkin, a Washington-based lobbyist for Barclays; Eric Varvel, the chief executive officer of Credit Suisse Group AG’s investment bank; Dwight Poler, a managing director at Bain Capital Europe; Raj Bhattacharyya, a managing director at Deutsche Bank AG; and Whitfield Hines, a managing director at HSBC Holdings Plc.
The fundraising events were scheduled to also be hosted by former Barclays CEO Robert Diamond, who resigned on July 3 amid political pressure over the Libor scandal. He dropped his fundraising role soon after.
That didn’t stop 11 members of the British House of Commons from putting forward a parliamentary motion demanding that the bank stop working to raise money for Romney and concentrate on repairing trust in the financial system.
Romney was cautious about discussing his policies or criticizing Obama in remarks before the donors, who paid $2,500 apiece to hear Romney speak at a reception. Those who donated at least $25,000 were also invited to a private dinner with the candidate. The event raised at least $2 million, according to campaign fundraiser Spencer Zwick.
Romney did take a dig at Obama.
“I’m looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again,” he told the 250 donors gathered under the crystal chandeliers of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Obama’s decision soon after he took office to ship a bust of the British World War II leader previously displayed in the White House back to the U.K. prompted attacks from Republicans.
Later this week, Romney will travel to Israel and Poland for meetings with local leaders, policy speeches and visits to historical sites.