Mitt Romney on Friday told reporters he has not been a leader of the “Never Trump” movement among Republicans, a statement that contradicted strongly critical remarks made on the 2016 campaign trail and in the years since.

The former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee is running for Senate in Utah. On Friday, he attended a rally in a suburb of Phoenix in support of the GOP senatorial candidate in Arizona, Martha McSally.

Asked, “You led the Never Trump movement, what happened with that?” a smiling Romney said: “I don’t think that was the case.

“President Trump was not the person I wanted to become the nominee of our party but he’s president now.

“The policies he’s promoted have been pretty effective and I support a lot of those policies. When there’s a place where I disagree I point that out.”

In March 2016, Romney opened fire on the then Republican frontrunner when he told a crowd in Salt Lake City: “If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”

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That jarred with what he added on Friday night in Arizona: “Right now we’re in a place where we’re going to say, ‘Are we going to be guided by conservative principles or are we going to take a sharp turn left?’ And conservative principles work and that’s why I think people are going to get behind Martha McSally and Republicans across the country.”

Asked if he would support investigations into Trump if he reaches the Senate, Romney smiled and walked away.

Trump smiled and walked away from Romney during his presidential transition, when he dangled the role of secretary of state in front of his rival before choosing the oil executive Rex Tillerson in what many saw as a deliberate humiliation.

Romney subsequently criticised Trump over his equivocal response to the white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his support for the far-right judge Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate election.

In his Salt Lake City speech in March 2016, Romney also called Trump a “phony” and a “fraud” and questioned his business acumen. He kept up his opposition in the months that followed, saying Trump’s effect on the Republican party was “breaking my heart”.

In response, Trump said Romney “choked like a dog” when running for the nomination in 2008 and the presidency in 2012. In the latter year, the billionaire said, Romney begged for his endorsement.

“I could have said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees’,” Trump said. “He would have dropped to his knees.”

This year, with Democrats favoured to take the House, Republicans hope a favourable set of Senate contests will help them keep control of the upper chamber.

Utah is a deep-red state which Trump won comfortably in 2016, although an independent anti-Trump conservative, Evan McMullin, won 21% of the vote. Romney has a clear lead this year, against the Democrat Jenny Wilson.

McSally is in a much tighter contest, against Kyrsten Sinema. Neither she nor Romney mentioned Trump in their remarks to the Phoenix rally.

In May, Romney revealed who he voted for in 2016. It wasn’t Trump. Nor was it Hillary Clinton. Instead, the former nominee cast a write-in vote for his wife, Ann.

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