Once-secret emails from Mitt Romney's time as governor that were revealed today spurred a flurry of comments about the candidate's support for the so-called individual mandate. Yet there's another issue that's been revived: Romney's secrecy.
When Romney left the governor's office in Massachusetts, his staff erased all the emails from a computer server and bought the hard drives used to store data, so that their correspondence would stay hidden.
Or so they thought.
Tom Trimarco, Romney's administration and finance secretary, never deleted his emails. Some of them surfaced today in The Wall Street Journal, which submitted a public information request for emails involving Trimarco and officials in the administration.
The emails show that Romney was neck-deep in negotiations to get his health care bill passed, that he personally wrote op-eds about it, and that he defended the so-called individual mandate to buy health insurance, a provision in President Obama's law that has drawn criticism from Republicans.
In an interview with ABC News, Trimarco said he didn't know he was supposed to delete the emails.
"No memo ever came around advising that was an option," he said, stifling a big laugh. "So when I left, I just left, and one of my colleagues said, 'What's the matter — did yours not have a delete button?' "
One of the emails revealed is a warm note from Romney to Trimarco the night the governor signed the health bill into law. "You have made a huge difference, for me and for hundreds of thousands of people who will have healthier and happier lives," Romney wrote at 10:56 p.m. on April 12, 2006.
Trimarco, who voted for Obama in 2008 but supports Romney now, said the emails prove that Romney cared deeply about giving health care to Massachusetts residents, because "his fingerprints are all over this thing." Trimarco lamented that Obama's health care law was imposed on a national scale despite some admirable traits, but he shellacked the national GOP harder for demonizing the health mandate, a provision that he said is a Republican principle because it draws on "individual responsibility."
"I don't go to a restaurant and order the steak, say 'I need the protein; I know it's good for me,' and then say, 'Jesus, I can't really afford to pay for it,' and walk out," he said. "I understand the Republican Party on a national level has now made this a cause célèbre ... that this individual mandate makes you un-American and not a worthy Republican — and old-timers like me don't get it."
The Romney campaign declined to comment for this story. Romney's email address in the newly disclosed letters is email@example.com; two emails sent by ABC News to that address were unreturned.
Romney has defended the deletion of his staff's emails by arguing that they would be fodder for his political opponents. "There has never been an administration that has provided to the opposition research team, or to the public, electronic communications," he said in November. "So ours would have been the first administration to have done so."
John Wonderlich, the policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates for open government, criticized Romney for resorting to political reasons to hide information.
"That's the most explicit statement of Governor Romney treating public records as fundamentally campaign materials," Wonderlich said. "The way we should view public records is not through the lens of a campaign, as he did, but through the lens of a government that serves the people's interest."
Democrats circulated the Journal's story to the press today, though Wonderlich said that Obama isn't clear in the transparency struggle either. An "analogous" situation, he said, is that the White House won't disclose which cabinet secretaries and administration officials are raising money at fundraisers for Obama's super PAC, one of the entities that the president derided after the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision but that he now embraces so he can have more money to win re-election.
Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said that the only administration official to take part in a super PAC event is David Plouffe, Obama's senior adviser who was his 2008 campaign manager. Schultz declined to say which members of the administration plan on speaking at future events for the super PAC, Priorities USA Action, which was started by two of Obama's White House aides.
Thomas Patterson, a professor of politics and the press at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, predicted that Democrats could use the case of Romney's once-secret emails in which he defends the mandate as evidence that the public doesn't really know where the candidate stands because he changes his positions for political purposes.
"It adds one more bullet to that chamber for the Democrats," Patterson said. "This one is kind of nice in a way that you have something that he said directly about the individual mandate, and you have something he said directly totally opposite about the individual mandate."
Romney has vowed to "take action" on his first day as president to repeal Obama's health law. He has said that states should work out their own health care changes instead of submitting themselves to a national model.
"We're going to insist that those people who can afford to pay for themselves do so," Romney said of his efforts in Massachusetts at a GOP debate in August. "We believe in personal responsibility. And if the people aren't willing to do that, then they're going to help the government pay for them. That was our conclusion. The right answer for every state is to determine what's right for those states and not to impose Obamacare on the nation."
Trimarco said he doesn't talk with Romney regularly anymore, and that he hopes he doesn't regret championing health care while he was governor.
"I guess I get the point of the story in a political context, but I'm not associated on the politics side, because otherwise it's a, you know, a story about a governor who was involved in a major piece of legislation," Trimarco said. "Surprise, surprise."