President Trump calls Sen. Mike Lee an ‘outstanding talent’; Lee says White House is talking to him about Supreme Court vacancy — but won’t say if it’s looking at him

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Sen. Mike Lee talks with San Juan County commissioner Phil Lyman and his wife, Jody, before Lee took the podium to talk about Utah's public lands at a forum hosted by the Sutherland Institute, June 29, 2018.

President Donald Trump on Friday praised Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who is on a list of 25 people from whom Trump said he would pick the next U.S. Supreme Court justice.

“He’s an outstanding talent,” the president told reporters. “I actually saw him on television last night, where he said he would love the job. You know, usually, they don’t say that.”

“We’ve become good friends ... very good guy, very talented, very smart,” Trump said of Lee, who once was a #NeverTrump Republican and voted for third-party candidate Evan McMullin in the 2016 election.

Lee on Friday said that the White House is now talking to him about the high court vacancy — with the announced retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy — but declined to say whether the topic is about his own possible nomination, or about others.

“That’s a private conversation,” he told reporters in Salt Lake City after a speech about public lands.

But then Lee acted a bit like a nominee.

Asked if as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee he would like to see a nominee who would reverse the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, he dodged the question.

“There is not a nominee who has ever been or would ever be selected in the modern era who would answer that question without committing malpractice.”

Lee and his brother, Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas Lee are both on Trump’s publicly released short list to replace Kennedy. The Lees are sons of Rex E. Lee, former U.S. solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan.

Mike Lee has said he would not turn down such a nomination if it comes, and would even vote to confirm himself in the Senate if needed in a close vote.

“I’m honored to be considered. I have no idea what the outcome may be. This is the president’s choice, not mine.”

Trump told reporters on Air Force One on Friday that he will announce his Supreme Court nominee on July 9. He said he has narrowed the field to about five, including two women. He said he plans to interview one or two this weekend in New Jersey. Lee’s office said he has no travel plans for New Jersey this weekend.

Lee also said Friday that he would love to see his brother nominated — in part so that he could throw hardball questions at him during a confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee.

He joked that he would probably vote for him, “but it depends on how he performed at the hearing. I would actually look forward to grilling my brother aggressively at the hearing. That part would be really fun,” including airing “any grievances I might have from our youth.”

FILE - This July 19, 2010, file photo, Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas R. Lee takes his place at the bench after being confirmed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the Matheson Courthouse, in Salt Lake City. President Donald Trump's list of candidates for the Supreme Court, posted on White House website in November 2017 includes Lee. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune, Pool, File )

The senator said he and his brother are close, and in the past worked as lawyers together on cases. “He’s as bright and capable of a lawyer, and as sharp a legal mind, as anyone I’ve worked with…. I say that not because he’s my brother, but he’s awesome and there’s no better legal talent out there.”

Lee added, “If he were chosen, it would be to the great benefit of our country.”

Just before Lee dodged the abortion question that could doom any Supreme Court nominee, he gave a fiery speech to the Sutherland Institute comparing the federal government to an uncaring feudal lord that blocks access in Utah to federal lands except for the enjoyment of the elite.

Lee said the current state of federal lands in Utah is akin to the royal forests created by English kings in Medieval times — where commoners were kicked out so noble elites could preserve forests for their own enjoyment and hunting.

Now in Utah, he said, “The federal government’s vast estate is reserved in many respects for the enjoyment of the very few upper crust elite,” whom he said worked with environmental activists to slowly force out grazing, mining, timber harvesting and other uses by local residents.

Those elites “envision a landscape dotted only with picturesque resort towns that exist for their pleasure. Destinations where they can jet in, spend a few days at a cabin, in the shops, take a few pictures of some animals, and then retreat to their elite enclaves on the coast,” he said.

He complained that the federal government did not comply with language in the law that created the state to sell federal lands for private use, as happened in eastern states. But the federal government continues to own two-thirds of Utah’s land area.

“Western states entered the union on inferior terms as tenants of a negligent and forgetful landlords,” he said.

He vowed to introduce bills to transfer many federal lands to Utah, ban presidents from declaring new national monuments in Utah without approval by Congress and the state Legislature, and to reinstate the old Homestead Act to allow individuals and groups to petition to acquire land for homes, churches, schools and other uses.

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman — who spent 10 days in jail on his conviction for leading an illegal ATV protest ride onto closed federal lands — complained to Lee in a question that residents are often now deemed criminals. Why, he asked, are federal police agencies that sometimes use strong-arm tactics not considered criminals?

Lee responded that he also questions “the quasi-militarized police” of federal land agencies. “I have yet to hear a persuasive, concise answer as to why [law enforcement on public] lands needs to be federal” instead of handled by local agencies.

Tribune Washington Bureau Chief Thomas Burr contributed to this report.

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