Conservative pundit Bill Kristol treads carefully in Utah political minefield

Trump critic takes minor shots at president in Utah visit and mostly stays out of Utah controversies — but he does call Mitt Romney ‘senator.’<br>

Some fascinating subplots emerged in political battles between Republicans when the Sutherland Institute, Utah’s conservative think tank, invited Bill Kristol to keynote its Friday night gala.

After all, the prominent conservative commentator and editor has called President Donald Trump “loathsome,” “a con man” and “a charlatan and demagogue.” Trump has fired back, calling Kristol “a loser” and “a dummy.”

Meanwhile, Sutherland President Boyd Matheson is mentioned as a candidate whom Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, might personally fund to challenge Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, as part of a strategy to elect more Trump devotees to the Senate.

Kristol decided to sidestep those controversies Friday — mostly.

“It’s been such a nice day in Salt Lake City with almost no mention of Donald Trump, I’m going to try to keep it that way,” he said in an interview before his speech at the think tank’s annual gala at the Grand America hotel.

He took a couple of snipes at Trump in his speech anyway. He said the president’s administration has made liberals rethink some of their traditional stands. “Maybe they don’t want unlimited power in the executive.”

Kristol said he gave a backhanded compliment in a speech at Harvard to its law school for its long argument that the Constitution is a living document. He said it should be pleased that someone is now in the White House who also believes it “should be adapted — to everything he wants.”

Kristol also took a shot at Bannon in an interview.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Conservative pundit Bill Kristol, right, listens as Utah Senator Mike Lee carries on a conversation at his table at the Sutherland Institute's Annual Gala, Friday, November 3, 2017. Later, Kristol would deliver the keynote presentation.

“There will be a lot of fights and a lot of [GOP] primaries in 2018, and I hope Bannon loses them all,” he said. But this year, Bannon helped the outspoken and controversial Roy Moore to win a Republican Senate primary in Alabama as part of his strategy to elect stronger Trump supporters.

Kristol said Bannon “has his view of where the party should go. He’s entitled to fight for it. I don’t begrudge him trying to recruit candidates and raise money to articulate his views. I differ with him pretty strongly.”

When Kristol, editor at large of the The Weekly Standard, was asked about press mentions of Bannon possibly targeting Hatch — perhaps with Sutherland’s Matheson — Kristol said, “States should be left to select their own candidates, so I’m not going to get in the middle of the Utah stuff.”

He did add that he is “a fan of the Sutherland Institute, to the degree that I have observed it from afar.”

And he said, “I have no problem with people meeting” with Bannon. Politico has reported that Matheson met with Bannon in Washington, and with other conservative leaders, as he explores a possible run for Hatch’s Senate seat next year.

During his speech, Kristol may have revealed his hopes for who should win Hatch’s seat next year. He said he met two of his favorite politicians in the crowd: “Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Mitt Romney.” Amid laughs about declaring Romney a senator, he said with a smile, “Sorry, that was a slip.”

Kristol said he wanted to use his speech at the Sutherland gala to “talk a little bit about conservatism, which is at a little bit of a rocky and contentious state. I want to cheer people up” by arguing that conservative principles are still sound and needed.

He said ideals such as “free markets, strong defense, a civil society and limited government” are sound principles.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Conservative pundit Bill Kristol, left, chats with other guests prior to delivering the keynote presentation at the Sutherland Institute's Annual Gala, Friday, November 3, 2017.

“They need to be refreshed, but it doesn’t mean you need to get rid of them,” he said. “I think conservatives have been right about most things, but not everything.”

He said in his speech, “We need to rethink some aspects. … You can’t Xerox the old playbook and think the same policy that worked in 1985 will still work today.”

He added that America must still help lead the world toward free markets and liberty. “A world with American leadership is a better world,” he said.