LONDON – Mitt Romney had intended to start his foreign trip on a high note, but his message of statesmanship and friendship between nations was quickly drowned out by a British media frenzy over a remark he made about some early glitches in the handling of the Olympic Games that officially open here today.
The presumed Republican nominee spent Thursday in a round of meetings with current and former British leaders, but he was met with questions from the British and American media about his comment to “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams that some of the early Olympic reports had been “disconcerting.”
“The stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials, that obviously is not something which is encouraging,” Romney told Williams.
Never mind that Romney has, for the most part, talked glowingly of the Olympic events in London and the imaginative approach that leaders have taken here: He was greeted Thursday with a front page opinion headline in one of London’s morning papers taking issue with what was framed as his guile.
Before meeting Romney in the afternoon, Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to push back against the suggestion that anything was awry, saying England would “show the whole world, not just that we come together as a United Kingdom, but also, we’re extremely good at welcoming people from across the world.”
Without specifically being asked about Romney’s comments, he volunteered that England was holding the Olympic Games “in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. … Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.” (The British media seized on that comment as a reference to Salt Lake City, where Romney headed the Winter Olympics in 2002.)
By mid-afternoon, as the Olympic torch arrived in Hyde Park, London Mayor Boris Johnson was using Romney as a prop, whipping up the crowd by yelling: “I hear there is a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we are ready. … Are we ready?” “Yes!” the crowd yelled back.
At Romney’s afternoon news conference – which ran live on Fox News in the U.S. – two of the three questions posed to Romney were about his “disconcerting” comments. As he had earlier in the morning after a meeting with Labor Party leader Ed Miliband, Romney softened his tone.
Romney said everything that he had seen about the London Olympics showed “imagination and forethought and a lot of organization,” and said he expected the Games “to be highly successful.”
But Romney also caused a stir with his attendance at a fundraiser with banking executives tainted by a British interest rate-fixing scandal. And he inadvertently disclosed that he held a secret meeting with the head of Britain’s intelligence service.
The more critical remarks took hold, in part, because Romney has been so painstakingly careful not to criticize President Barack Obama or his policies while overseas that he has made no other news. After meeting with Cameron, the Republican candidate was so cautious in his responses that he declined even to restate his own position when asked whether the U.S. and Europe should get more directly involved in Syria.
After a day of meetings and an interview with CNN, Romney headed to a fundraiser at the Mandarin Oriental hotel that raised more than $2 million. It attracted employees of Barclays, which has been in the spotlight after becoming the first bank to admit its employees were involved in manipulating a key interest rate index.
Last month, U.S. and British agencies fined Barclays a total of $453 million. Chief executive Bob Diamond resigned. Diamond was to have been a host of Romney’s fundraiser. He dropped out of the event but sent a check for $2,500.
So have 82 others who listed their employer as Barclays or Barclays Capital on Federal Election Commission records.