For Romney, gay aide's exit creates storm
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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 Barack Obama's record on national security.
But political strategist Richard Grenell, who had set up the call and was hired to oversee such communications, was conspicuously absent, or so everyone thought. It turned out he was 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 policy aide Alex Wong, "the campaign has requested that you not speak on this call." Mr. Wong added, "It's best to lay low for now."
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 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 GOP credentials, had become entangled in the unforgiving churn of election-year politics, leading to his resignation Tuesday.
Romney aides insist they did everything they could to keep Mr. Grenell from resigning. In the end, they said, he chafed at the limits 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 focused instead on quieting a political storm clouding Mr. Romney's message and his appeal to a crucial constituency.
"It's not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay," one GOP campaign adviser 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 had an impressive resume. He had served as a U.S. spokesman at the United Nations under four ambassadors during the Bush administration.
Rich Williamson, a senior diplomat under several Republican presidents, and former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton had both urged his appointment.
In early 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 was gay. "It could be an issue," he volunteered.
"It's not an issue for us," Mr. Fehrnstrom replied firmly.
Within days, though, stories about Mr. Grenell's Twitter feed surfaced, prompting him to delete more than 800 posts.
He apologized for what he called "hurtful" comments, but the campaign privately dismissed the issue as trivial.
At the same time another, more troubling, protest that was harder to ignore was taking shape among some Christian conservatives: Mr. Romney had betrayed them by hiring a gay man and an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage.
The day after Mr. Grenell was hired, Bryan Fischer, a Romney critic with the American Family Association, told 1,300 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, likening Mr. Grenell's hiring to the appointment of gay judges to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
As critiques from conservatives intensified, Mr. Grenell pressed senior aides to let him speak about national security issues on behalf of the campaign, arguing that the best way for Mr. Romney to soothe ire over his appointment would be to let him do his job: defend his boss and take swipes at Mr. Obama.
But Romney advisers balked, saying the best way to get beyond the controversy was for Mr. Grenell to lower his profile until it blew over.
Yet foreign policy debates, the kind Mr. Grenell was eager to wade into, kept sprouting up on the campaign trail. He kept pressing for a chance to jump in, but each time was rebuffed.
But the final straw, for Mr. Grenell, was the April 26 conference call. After being told not to speak, he felt deeply undermined, worrying that it would erode his credibility with journalists who had expected to hear from him, friends said.
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?"
Last 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. "We were shocked," one of these callers 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."
First Published May 3, 2012 12:00 am