When President Donald Trump walked off Air Force One on Monday, Sen. Orrin Hatch was by his side.
They toured the LDS Church’s Welfare Square together, and the Republican senator introduced Trump at a rally at the Utah Capitol, where the president signed proclamations dismantling the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Hatch showered praise on the president, calling him a “master deal-maker” and “wildly successful billionaire.” Trump, in turn, described Hatch as a “true fighter” who did “tremendous” work ushering a major tax bill through the Senate.
Then Trump nudged Utah’s seven-term senator to run again in 2018.
“We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come,” Trump said.
The whole trip lasted only a few hours, and then Hatch took the return flight to Washington, D.C., on Air Force One. When he landed, he talked to reporters, acknowledging the president’s encouragement, but saying he hadn’t yet made a decision on his political future.
“We’ll have to see. I’ve got a lot of pressure to run, a lot of pressure not to ... from my wife,” Hatch said with a laugh. “He knows I’ve been a very faithful supporter and I really do believe he’s the one who can turn this mess around. And I have a lot of regard for him. I think he knows that and actually would like to keep one of his best allies there if he can.”
Hatch told Utah voters in 2012 that his current term would be his last, but has since walked back that pledge by saying at this time he intends to run for an eighth term and that a final decision is forthcoming.
Trump, while in Utah, was also asked by reporters if his encouragement of Hatch was a message to Mitt Romney — rumored to be eyeing Hatch’s seat — to stay out of the race. The president paused to compliment the former Massachusetts governor and two-time presidential candidate.
“He’s a good man,” Trump said. “Mitt’s a good man.”
The president’s comments came one day after a report in Politico suggested that Trump is working behind the scenes to keep Hatch in the Senate. Politico reporter Alex Isenstadt wrote Sunday that the effort is meant to both retain an ally in the Senate while blocking a potential critic, Romney, from gaining the seat.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who ran for president in 2008 and 2012, was a vocal critic of Trump’s 2016 campaign and has continued to express opposition to policies and actions by the Trump administration. He is a popular figure in Utah, with recent polling showing he would likely win a Senate race if he chooses to run.
Polling also suggests that Hatch’s popularity is waning among Utahns.
If Hatch does seek another term, he’ll begin the campaign with a pair of hard-fought victories. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch was instrumental in developing the GOP tax bill that recently passed the Senate and appears likely to reach the president’s desk in some form.
Hatch also lobbied hard for reconsideration of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments, which began shortly after the president’s January inauguration.
“When you talk, this president listens,” Hatch said. “I learned this during his first week on the job.”
A group of Utah politicians launched a campaign last month aimed at recruiting Romney to run for Hatch’s seat. Sources close to Romney have said he prefers Hatch to retire to avoid a primary fight, but the Politico report included statements that Romney’s team is increasingly frustrated with Hatch’s ambivalence on the subject of re-election.
Some of Romney’s political advisers recently visited Utah to scout out office space for a potential campaign headquarters.
“Romney himself has expressed frustration with the ongoing uncertainty about Hatch’s plans, said three Republicans who’ve spoken with him recently,” Politico reported. “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.”
In a Saturday tweet, Romney congratulated Hatch on his “big week” of tax reform, monument revisions and a presidential visit.
But on Monday, shortly after Trump left Utah, Romney tweeted that it would be a “stain” on the Republican Party if Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore wins next week’s special election. Romney’s comments are the latest example of division with Trump, who early Monday tweeted his endorsement of Moore, who is accused of pursuing relationships with and assaulting underage girls.
“No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity,” Romney wrote.
Unlike Romney, Hatch defended Trump’s endorsement of Moore, telling reporters Monday, “I don’t think he had any choice but to do that... That’s the only Republican we can get down there.”
Monday’s visit by Trump continued a recent string of complimentary exchanges between Hatch and the president. After Trump drew backlash for retweeting a series of videos that many perceived as anti-Muslim, Hatch stated that Trump is one of the best presidents he has served under.
“He’s not afraid to make decisions,” Hatch said during an interview broadcast by MSNBC. “He’s not afraid to take on the big mouths around here.”
Trump thanked Hatch for those remarks and later credited the Utah Republican for the Senate’s successful passage of the GOP tax bill.
The United Utah Party — a nascent coalition of moderate liberals and conservatives that formed this year — issued a statement Monday encouraging Romney to run for Senate on its ticket.
By running as a third-party candidate, United Utah Chairman Richard Davis said, Romney would win the seat without having to fight Hatch for the Republican nomination.
“Governor Romney does not belong in today’s Republican Party—the Party of Trump,” Davis said. “In the United Utah Party, he can be as moderate as he really is.”
A representative for Romney could not be reached for comment.