Washington • President Donald Trump knows there’s one Utah senator whose vote he can’t always count on.
“Whenever I sign bills — you know, we do sign a lot of legislation that’s big and ... powerful,” Trump said earlier this month. “Everybody has to approve it. And I see [a] 99 to one [vote]. I say, ‘Don’t tell me who’s the one.’”
Because Trump already knows.
It's Mike Lee.
While Trump is angry at Sen. Mitt Romney over his lone Republican vote to convict the president of abuse of power in the Senate impeachment trial, it’s his fellow Utahn who has opposed the White House on several big votes, including passing budgets and most recently a measure to limit the president’s power to launch military action against Iran.
Lee, who has pushed for a restraint on presidential power and a return to the Constitution’s focus on Congress as the branch with authority over a wide berth of the government, is still a big Trump supporter — he’s a co-chairman of the president’s reelection committee in Utah — though he’s stuck to his positions that sometimes puts him at odds with Trump.
In fact, in key votes in the last year, Romney has cast his ballots more in line with Trump's position than Lee, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
Romney cited that statistic in explaining his guilty vote for Trump in the impeachment.
“I vote with the administration about 80% of the time,” Romney said. “And that’s probably a little more than average for senators.”
Actually, many Republican senators score higher than the 79.4% Romney received in the analysis but it's a pretty high rate for agreeing with the administration.
Lee has voted with Trump’s position 63.6% of the time this session of Congress, mainly because of the Utah senator’s votes against temporary budget bills and a few other measures dealing with congressional power over the executive branch.
That’s not likely to change the fact Trump likes Lee and seethes over Romney.
“Based on their voting history, both Romney and Lee clearly back President Trump’s policy agenda and their Republican credentials are not really in doubt even if they sometimes disagree with the president,” said Jason Perry, the head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
“Even so, the president’s comments and behavior shows he clearly favors Senator Lee over Romney,” Perry said.
That isn't expected to change.
Romney touts conservative ideals
It didn’t take long after Romney’s guilty vote against Trump — which didn’t change the outcome of the impeachment trial — for the president, his supporters and even his family to pile on Romney.
Trump called him a “disgrace” and questioned his religious moorings. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., said Romney should be expelled from the Republican Party.
Romney, for his part, pushed back, though he said he hasn’t paid much attention to the swift and serious backlash that came after the impeachment vote.
“I’m a conservative,” Romney said during an interview. “Been a Republican all my life and I’m proud of my Republican roots. My dad was a Republican as well.”
Romney’s father, the late George Romney, was governor of Michigan and a one-time contender for the GOP presidential nomination and someone the senator referenced in his decision to vote to convict Trump on one count of the impeachment.
Romney, who was elected to the Senate as essentially Sen. Orrin Hatch's hand-picked successor, noted that he is GOP through and through.
He votes with the president most of the time because “most of his domestic policies are sort of the mainstream Republican approach, which is deregulation, reducing corporate tax rate, reducing individual tax rate for middle income families.”
“That's what we've been talking about for a long time,” Romney said. “And Republican policies work.”
While some Democrats and anti-Trump voters hailed Romney as a hero for his impeachment vote — he got a standing ovation at a Democratic debate — the Utah senator says he doesn’t dislike the president and fears the plans of some of the Democratic presidential candidates.
“Our economy's doing better than almost anywhere else in the world. Republican policies work,” Romney said. “And that's why I'm a Republican.”
If Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., or Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., were the Democratic nominee, Romney said, Trump will “win in a landslide.”
But Romney isn't endorsing in the presidential contest and says he may cast his vote for his wife, Ann, as he did in 2016.
That’s a stark difference from Lee, who voted for independent Evan McMullin in the last election as a protest vote against Trump before coming around to support the president.
Trump’s favored Utah senator
As the 2016 election approached, Lee found himself in a tough spot. Three of the senators he was closest with, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, were all rumored to be interested in running for president.
Lee eventually endorsed Cruz.
“He is the only Republican candidate who can defeat Donald Trump and defeat Hillary Clinton,” he said in March 2016.
During the Republican National Convention, Lee was a leading voice to get a vote of all delegates on the rules of the nomination gathering. The goal: To allow delegates to vote how they’d like and therefore allow votes for Cruz.
Trump, of course, got the GOP nod and won the presidency. And only then did Lee come on board.
Lee, who has aspired to a seat on the Supreme Court where he once clerked, said he “took the scenic route” in supporting Trump after his 2016 protest vote against him.
“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 [Mike] Pence would be to the United States of America,” Lee said in November. “Some of us took a little bit more time.”
That's not to say that Lee is with Trump 100% of the time.
Lee vented in January about a Pentagon briefing over the the United States' assassination of a top Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliation of bombing air bases in Iraq housing American troops.
And it spurred him to vote for a Democratic-led bill to limit the president’s power to go to war against Iran without congressional support.
Lee also routinely votes against temporary budget bills, which has been Congress’ go-to for passing spending plans to keep the government running, and the senator also opposed Trump’s efforts to funnel Pentagon money to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border.
Those votes pushed down his rating on siding with Trump’s positions, though it’s not one that necessarily cost him with the president.
“A key difference is that when Senator Romney disagrees with the president it often becomes very political and makes national news,” says Perry, the Hinckley Institute director. “When Senator Lee disagrees, it is usually because of a long held constitutional or policy principle.”
In fact, when Trump was talking about how Lee sometimes doesn’t vote the way he wants, he was touting how much he actually liked him.
“Mike Lee is a brilliant guy,” Trump said during remarks taking a victory lap after his acquittal in the impeachment trial. “He’s incredible. And right at the beginning, he knew we were right ... and I appreciate it very much. You’re just fantastic.”
Trump, who at one point weighed naming Romney his secretary of state, isn’t likely to say that about Romney anytime soon — no matter how he votes going forward.