In the summer of 2016, I was standing about two feet behind Utah Sen. Mike Lee in Cleveland’s professional basketball arena as he bellowed “Point of order!” demanding to have the opportunity to make a last-ditch effort to stop the nomination of Donald Trump.
Three months later, Lee hastily recorded a now-deleted Facebook video after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced where Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women, calling on him to step down and let someone else run. “You are the distraction,” Lee said in the recording. “Your conduct, sir, is the distraction.”
Weeks later, Lee voted for third-party anti-Trump candidate Evan McMullin, the senator admitted after the election.
Somewhere along the line, things changed.
Lee was the Utah co-chair of Trump’s re-election bid and traveled to Arizona for an election-eve rally where he compared Trump to The Book of Mormon hero Captain Moroni. In the days leading up to the sacking of the U.S. Capitol by Trump loyalists (where one man dressed as Captain Moroni), the Utah senator consulted with Trump’s legal team about potential paths to ignore the election results and install Trump for another term.
Late last week, Trump repaid the favor, in a way, offering Lee his “Complete and Total Endorsement” for re-election. The former president’s endorsement specifically targeted McMullin, the man Lee had once thought was more fit to hold the presidency than Trump.
Lee, whose campaign appears to have been taken by surprise, must be thinking: Thanks for nothing.
Because, frankly, it’s hard to imagine a more inconsequential presidential endorsement. I don’t have hard data on this, but it’s reasonable to assume that die-hard Trump followers were already voting for Lee. If anything, the endorsement is more likely to drive voters repulsed by Trump to one of his Republican opponents — Ally Isom or Becky Edwards — or even McMullin.
The most telling sign of how worthless the Trump endorsement is to Lee: Since the former president sent the statement on (appropriately) April Fools Day, Lee’s campaign hasn’t mentioned it. At all.
Unlike Sarah Palin’s new campaign to run for Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee’s Senate re-election team didn’t send an email blast touting Trump’s blessing. On Lee’s social media, it’s crickets — although they have Tweeted about endorsements from state senators, a county commissioner, a mayor and a business owner since then.
McMullin’s campaign, in stark contrast, jumped on the opportunity, calling it “the endorsement of a wicked man who tried to dismantle our republic and stay in power against the people’s will. Lee sacrificed his honor and values to serve him at the expense of Utah and our nation. I will not.”
Clearly, the calculus on both sides was that there is no upside to trying to run with the twice-impeached, two-time popular vote loser on your back.
That’s because Trump’s praise once again highlights the lingering questions surrounding Lee’s involvement in one of the darkest chapters of American history, the plot to try to overturn a democratic election.
Lee says Trump’s attorney gave him a memo detailing the scheme and dismissed it after talking to various officials, while Trump’s lawyer invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination when a House committee asked about his discussions with Lee.
It renews attention on a call that Trump made to Lee during the Jan. 6 riot, when Trump allegedly thought he was calling Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville. The weird thing is, the call is one of who-knows-how-many that came during a seven-hour gap in the White House call logs.
Generally, it calls into question how Lee could go from trying to do everything in his power to stop Trump’s nomination, to demanding he drop out because he was unfit, to receiving his “Complete and Total Endorsement.” It paints a picture of a senator who is now a creature of Washington, compromised by his own ambition.
Most importantly, it accomplishes something that McMullin’s campaign could’ve spent months and millions trying to do: It frames the race as Trump and Lee versus McMullin and Mitt Romney — who Trump also trashes in the endorsement.
The notion that Trump cares about Utah is comical. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if he’s helping (or hurting) Mike Lee’s campaign. He cares about himself and nothing else.
Last week, stories ran that Trump-endorsed candidates were struggling in Georgia, partly because he backed them. I suspect Trump, grasping to remain relevant, saw in Lee a senator who — statistically, speaking — should win re-election.
So Trump grabbed hold. If we’re lucky, he’ll hold on tight and drag them both into the political abyss.