Washington • More than a year ago, President Donald Trump nominated Ron Mortensen to a top post at the State Department overseeing refugee issues, with the White House heralding the Utahn’s work in the Foreign Service and efforts to bring aid to troubled regions of the world.
The nomination drew an immediate rebuke from critics – including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the Salt Lake Chamber – over Mortensen’s well-documented anti-immigration rhetoric that falsely claimed immigrants in the United States commit more crimes than citizens and his affiliation with a think tank labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Mortensen’s nomination has been stalled ever since, but never withdrawn.
The Senate took no action last year and his nomination to be assistant secretary for the State Department’s bureau over refugee and migration issues lapsed in January.
Less than two weeks later, Trump sent paperwork back to the Senate to nominate him again. Nevertheless, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would hold confirmation hearings, hasn’t put him on its schedule.
“There are no plans for Mortensen to have a hearing at this time,” said Suzanne Wrasse, a spokeswoman for the committee's chairman, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho.
To be clear, the committee has a long list of nominees awaiting action, and ambassadors likely will take precedence. But more than a year on the waitlist may also signal the controversial nomination is going nowhere.
“It is difficult to say why the committee has not scheduled a hearing in the long time that he has been before the committee,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who tracks nominations. “It does appear that he may be controversial and that might explain why the committee has not moved the nomination. The committee may have other priorities of a substantive nature and other nominees whom it believes have higher priority.”
While the White House touted Mortensen in putting his name forward, he faced a backlash that included then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., before his death. Several Democrats also said they opposed Mortensen.
Risch, the committee's chairman, typically doesn't say whether he'll support a nominee before a hearing, his spokeswoman said.
It's also unclear whether Utah Sens. Mike Lee or Mitt Romney will back Mortensen.
Lee’s office said previously that Lee met with Mortensen and “was impressed with his qualifications” and looks forward to learning more. Lee’s office did not respond this week to a question of whether that position has changed.
Romney's team pointed to an interview from when the senator was running for office last year where he told the Deseret News and KSL that he worked with Mortensen during the 2002 Winter Olympics, which Romney headed, and did a good job.
They haven’t spoken since, Romney said then, adding that what he’s read about Mortensen’s statements “gives me great concern” and he wasn’t sure whether he’d support him.
“He expressed concerns about him during the campaign last year,” Romney spokeswoman Arielle Mueller said this week. “Those concerns remain the same.”
Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, former Army Brig. Gen. David Irvine and Paul Mero, president of the Next Generation Freedom Fund, co-wrote an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune this past weekend strongly arguing that Lee and Romney should oppose Mortensen.
“His long record of maligning faith leaders, as well as his deeply disturbing close ties to the white nationalist and eugenics-founded Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), should disqualify him from this or any government job,” the three wrote. “The policies for which Mortensen and his colleagues have long advocated reflect the worst and darkest impulses of our nation, and we urge conservatives of good conscience to oppose his nomination and stand instead for our country’s proud tradition – and Christ’s call — of welcoming the stranger.”
The White House noted in announcing Mortensen's nomination that he was a career Foreign Service officer and worked with the U.S. Agency for International Development's foreign disaster program.
“He has worked on humanitarian responses that saved lives and alleviated the suffering of millions of people in Iraq, Syria, Mali, Libya, Haiti, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and many other countries in West Africa,” the White House said in a statement.
Mortensen also served in the Air Force from 1969 through 1973 during the Vietnam War, including a stint at an air base in Japan. He was a senior airman assigned to the Military Airlift Supply Squadron, the Air Force said Thursday. His discharge status is not public information, an Air Force official said.