Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who was sharply critical of Donald Trump in 2016 and withheld his vote from Trump in the last election, admits that he “took the scenic route” to becoming a fan of the nation’s 45th leader.

But he’s certainly arrived there now, with a Friday announcement that he will co-chair Trump’s reelection effort in Utah along with former Sen. Orrin Hatch and several others. Speaking at an event in the Utah Capitol — where second lady Karen Pence also made an appearance — Lee commended those who were quicker than he to embrace the president.

“Look, some of you in this room, some of you in our state were wise enough to see where this was heading a few years ago. You were quick and astute enough to see the gift that President Trump and Vice President Pence would be to the United States of America,” the Utah Republican said. “Some of us took a little bit more time.”

Lee cast what he previously called a “protest vote” for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin in the 2016 general election. During that year’s campaign, he called for Trump to step down after release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and was critical of him for proposing a “religious test” in deciding to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

He also sided with “never Trump” delegates at the Republican National Convention, in a rowdy attempt to free pledged delegates to vote their consciences rather than being bound by results from their local primaries or caucuses. Speaking to reporters Friday, Lee said he never identified as a “never Trumper” and asserted that the convention rule-change effort was incorrectly portrayed by the media as an anti-Trump maneuver.

During his speech Friday, Lee said he was “not going to make any excuses” for his initial discomfort with Trump, but explained that he warmed to the president over time. He was unable to pinpoint the exact moment he changed his mind about Trump, instead referencing a period shortly after the 2016 elections when he and the president began to converse and develop an understanding. While the two don’t see eye to eye on every issue, the senator said they’ve found they agree more often than not.

Trump won Utah in 2016 without a majority, landing about 45% of the vote — the worst showing for a Republican presidential candidate in the state since 1992, when George H.W. Bush mustered just 41% after independent Ross Perot drained 26%.

Lee predicted in an interview that the incumbent president will perform better in Utah next year — and that the ongoing impeachment inquiry will only strengthen him.

“The Democrats have overreached on this. I think he’s been treated unfairly in the House,” Lee told reporters. “I think people throughout our state and many other places across the country will see that and people will be more sympathetic to him as a result.”

Pence also spoke at the event, which took place after she had filed paperwork to add Trump’s name to the Republican primary ballot next year.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Second lady Karen Pence gives the ballot filing paperwork to put Donald Trump on the ballet to Derek Brenchley, deputy director of elections in the Lieutenant Governor's Office for next year's primary election. Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.
Buy this image

Pence highlighted Trump’s appointment of conservative judges to the federal courts, his focus on religious rights and the nation’s low unemployment rates.

“Make no mistake about it: We are getting things done. America has the strongest economy in the history of the world,” Pence said.

Later, urging the roomful of supporters to contribute to Trump’s reelection effort, she said: “This election is about jobs, it’s about security and it’s about our liberties. We are winning under President Trump’s leadership, and to keep winning, we need four more years.”

Thomas Wright, national committeeman for the Utah GOP and a potential contender in state’s next gubernatorial contest, also spoke in glowing terms of the Trump administration during the kickoff of the president’s formal reelection bid in Utah. He credited the president for the “decimation of ISIS and just wiping them off the face of the Earth." (Analysts have said the recent death of the Islamic State’s leader in a U.S. raid will hurt the organization but will not eradicate it, The New York Times has reported.)

He also praised Trump’s judicial appointments.

“Is there any better accomplishment than Justice Gorsuch and Kavanaugh?” he said to loud applause.

In addition to Lee and Hatch, Trump’s Utah ground game will be led by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Utah Sen. President Stuart Adams, community leader Don Peay, policy leader Ron Fox and U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart — who serves on the House Intelligence Committee that is currently conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump.