Mitt Romney leaves after meeting with then-President-elect Donald Trump at the clubhouse of Trump National Golf Club on Nov. 19, 2016. | Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump is going all out to persuade seven-term Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch to seek reelection — a push aimed in no small part at keeping the president’s longtime nemesis, Mitt Romney, out of the Senate.
Romney has been preparing to run for Hatch’s seat on the long-held assumption that the 83-year-old would retire. Yet Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator in history, is now refusing to rule out another campaign — a circumstance Romney’s infuriated inner circle blames squarely on the president. Their suspicions are warranted: Trump has sounded off to friends about how he doesn’t like the idea of a Senator Romney.
The president’s mostly behind-the-scenes campaign to sway Hatch will burst into public view on Monday, when he arrives in Salt Lake City to hold a well-choreographed event designed to showcase his affection for the powerful Senate Finance Committee chairman.
Trump’s appearance is ostensibly official in purpose: He will announce his decision to reduce the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments, a cause that Hatch has championed. But it’s also undeniably political: To use the trappings of presidential power to get a veteran lawmaker to rethink his long anticipated plans to leave the Senate.
Trump is slated to ride with Hatch both ways on Air Force One — a total of roughly nine hours round-trip. After descending from the plane together, the two will meet with Mormon leaders and then head to the state capitol for the signing of the executive order, according to three White House officials. Hatch will introduce Trump, who in turn is expected to lavish praise on the senator. After the order is signed, Hatch is expected to receive the president’s pen.
The public display of affection isn’t just about blocking Romney, senior administration officials say. Trump has felt loyal to Hatch since the senator defended him in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape episode late in the 2016 campaign. Hatch stuck by Trump even as other members of Utah’s Republican delegation withdrew their support.
More recently, Hatch has played a key role in moving Trump’s prized tax reform bill through the Senate.
Trump aides say the president’s bond with Hatch began long before Romney emerged as a potential successor. Hatch visited Trump in the Oval Office during the first week of his presidency for a lengthy discussion about the then-vacant Supreme Court seat and Utah’s national monuments.
Yet people close to Romney are convinced that Trump’s main motivation is to keep the 2012 GOP presidential nominee out of the Senate. Romney himself has expressed frustration with the ongoing uncertainty about Hatch’s plans, said three Republicans who’ve spoken with him recently. The former Massachusetts governor has pointed out that it was Hatch who urged him to consider running in the first place, but now appears to be wavering on whether to step aside.
“Hatch is a known entity for Trump and has been really good for the president for the most part,” said Kirk Jowers, a friend of Romney who formerly served as the chairman and general counsel of his political action committee. “He knows for a fact he’s not going to get that with Romney. I don’t know that he knows what he’s going to get with Romney, but it’s not going to be what he’s got with Hatch.”
Indeed, there’s widespread concern within the White House that Romney in the Senate could make Trump’s life difficult. During the 2016 campaign, the former Massachusetts governor emerged as the de-facto leader of the GOP establishment’s “Never Trump” campaign, delivering a nationally-watched speech in which he blasted candidate Trump as a “phony, a fraud” and implored the party to stop him.
Hatch, by contrast, went all-in for Trump in Utah, where Trump received just 46 percent of the vote but still carried the state because of a third-party candidate. Before the election, the senator also campaigned for Trump in four states, hitting the trail with the candidate’s son, Donald Trump Jr. While many Republicans air their issues with Trump publicly, Hatch has usually chosen to telegraph his concerns in private discussions with the president.
“I’ll just put it this way. Sen. Hatch was one of the leading voices for the president during the entire campaign,” said Don Peay, a Trump family friend who led his Utah campaign. “Hatch clearly was a strong supporter of Trump from the beginning,” said Peay, who helped to organize Monday’s event.
Trump’s push to get Hatch to run for an eighth term has taken place in furtive phone calls and West Wing visits. In early October, the senator called the president to invite him to Utah to announce his monument plan, said one person briefed on the discussion.
Near the end of the call, the president conveyed a request. “Orrin,” he said, “I really hope you will consider running again.”
Hatch told Trump he hadn’t made up his mind.
Their mutual endearment has at time been public. When Hatch was asked last week by reporters about Trump’s decision to retweet several anti-Muslim videos, the senator said he wasn’t “aware” of the firestorm — and then praised Trump.
“I’ll say this for ya.’ He’s been one of the best presidents I’ve served under, and the reason is he’s not afraid to make decisions. He’s not afraid to take on the big boss around here,” Hatch said.
Trump responded by tweeting out a video of the remark. “Thank you @SenOrrinHatch,” he added. “Let’s continue MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Romney’s post-election relationship with Trump has been far more … complicated.
During the transition, Trump considered appointing Romney as secretary of state. Trump was expecting not to like Romney but was surprised by how well they gelled during the interview process, something he told aides repeatedly at the time. Trump ultimately decided against Romney.
As the year wore on, the former governor praised the new president for some of his personnel choices. But he also made his differences known.
During an appearance in Park City, Utah, in June, Romney told a group of prominent Republican donors that Trump’s White House was too consumed by palace intrigue. He also offered an implicit critique of the president’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, growing emotional as he outlined the country’s humanitarian responsibilities overseas.
Then, in August, Romney struck again — this time to implore the president to apologize for equating white supremacists who sowed violence in Charlottesville, Va. with their counter-protesters.
“Mr. President,” Romney wrote in a Facebook message, “act now for the good of the country.”
Romney has been making the rounds in Utah amid speculation that Hatch is nearing retirement, huddling with an array of Republican figures including state House Speaker Greg Hughes. Romney has told people that while he wouldn’t be reflexively anti-Trump as a senator, he would be more than willing to let his criticisms be known.
Some Trump allies contend that Utah would be better served by having a presidential loyalist in the seat.
“I think he could be a great ally of the president but, as you well know, they’re very different people and have very different personalities,” said Hughes, who recently met with Romney in his office in the state capitol. “Sen. Hatch,” he added, “understands the president very well.”
Asked who the president would rather have in the seat, Hughes, who was once mentioned as a candidate for a position in the Trump administration, said he had little doubt: “I think the president enjoys having a strong ally.”
Romney, for his part, won’t be at Monday event. He was invited but, several people close to him said, will be out of town.
Over the weekend, Romney wrote a tweet that underscored his respect for Hatch but also, perhaps, hinted at a belief that the senator had now accomplished what he needed to before moving on.
“A very big week for Utah’s own Senator @OrrinHatch,” he wrote, “with tax reform, Bears Ears reversion, and a presidential visit.”