Since his first campaign in 2010, Sen. Mike Lee has carefully cultivated a reputation as a very serious expert on the Constitution, the Founding Fathers and the law. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito both while Alito was a federal appeals judge and after he was elevated to the high court. Lee has authored five books — his latest on the Supreme Court.
And recently, the senior senator from Utah has taken his prolific writing to social media, particularly to Twitter with his @BasedMikeLee personal account.
The creation of the account appears to coincide with his speech last July at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Florida. One of the first people he followed was right-wing commentator Benny Johnson, who then boosted Lee’s brand-new account to his 1.4 million followers.
“How fast can @BasedMikeLee get to 1,000 followers?” Johnson tweeted.
Lee responded to Johnson, in language uncharacteristic of a man who’s quick to pull a Constitution from his pocket
“This account is no cap — bussin, forreal forreal,” Lee wrote.
When The Salt Lake Tribune first broke the story of Lee’s ownership of the account last summer, many had a hard time believing it was really Lee behind the uncharacteristic comments. Many still do.
Amanda Carpenter, a columnist for The Bulwark and former communications advisor to Sens. Ted Cruz and Jim DeMint, says Lee’s online efforts are puzzling.
“I find it weird, confusing and damaging to his credibility as a serious Senator and constitutional scholar,” Carpenter said.
Mike Murphy, longtime Republican political media consultant and co-host of the Hacks on Tap podcast, said he couldn’t fathom why Lee is acting this way online.
“God, I have no idea,” Murphy said, wondering if his online handle was some inside joke.
“I guess ‘Ineffective Mike Lee’ was taken,” Murphy said. “I would have told him nobody understands what the hell he’s doing with a name like that.”
According to an analysis of Lee’s account conducted for The Tribune by TrackMyHashtag.com, Lee’s usage exploded following his 2022 reelection win over independent candidate Evan McMullin. Lee has posted 1,642 times from the day he opened the account, July 24, 2022, until March 30, 2023. Nearly all of those personal posts — 95% — have come after the election.
While Lee’s official U.S. Senate and campaign accounts are typical for a politician — used to publish statements and promote what he’s doing in Washington — he has morphed into a kind of “reply guy” on his personal platform. More than half of Lee’s posts are replies to other users. Lee posts, on average, just over twice per day, but he replies to posts made by others almost twice as much.
Lee did not respond to an interview request.
On the account, Lee follows a mishmash of Republican politicians, friends, allies, conservative media outlets, pundits, journalists and random right-wing users.
Lee occasionally gets into a back-and-forth with other users. Utahn Marie Rodriguez, who goes by the name @Utah_Sailor, tangled with Lee over the Respect for Marriage Act, which gives federal protections to same-sex marriages. Lee felt the legislation, passed by Congress last year, did not do enough to protect religious liberty.
“It seemed to me he used his ‘based’ account to say things his ‘senator’ account couldn’t or shouldn’t,” Rodriquez, who Lee has since blocked, said. “It is very much an ego booster for him, looking to get atta boys from supporters and weeding out detractors.”
Mike Lee vs. U.S. foreign policy
One of Lee’s favorite social media hobby horses is the plight of Ridge Alkonis, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, who is currently serving a three-year sentence in a Japanese prison after pleading guilty to negligent driving that resulted in the deaths of two Japanese citizens. Within 24 hours of opening the account, Lee began tweeting about Alkonis, posting nine times within 90 minutes.
In all, Lee posted two dozen times in 2022 about Lt. Alkonis, most centering on his quest to include an amendment into the year-end omnibus spending bill to continue paying Alkonis’ salary while he is in prison. That effort was successful, but Lee ultimately voted against the spending package.
On January 9, Lee’s tone changed as he started tweeting at Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to release Alkonis. In February, Lee stepped up his rhetoric, threatening Kishida to release Alknois by the end of the month or he would push to have the U.S. reconsider keeping American personnel in the country.
As the arbitrary deadline of Feb. 28 grew closer, Lee, who’s not on any committees that deal with foreign policy or the military, ramped up his threats, culminating with a 14-tweet rampage that ended with his account temporarily suspended for impersonation.
Lee’s efforts have led to a resolution passed by the Utah Legislature encouraging Congress to review the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Japan and refer the Alkonis case to the “Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.” But since Republicans are in the minority in the Senate, neither is likely to be a priority.
That’s not the only time Lee has ventured into the foreign policy arena on his account, frequently criticizing American aid to Ukraine.
Lee’s most-liked and most re-tweeted post highlighted a Daily Mail story about a report from journalist Seymour Hersh that claimed the United States was responsible for a June 2022 attack on the Nord Stream Pipeline. The post has so far received nearly 55,000 likes and 18,000 retweets.
“I’m troubled that I can’t immediately rule out the suggestion that the U.S. blew up Nord Stream,” Lee wrote. “I checked with a bunch of Senate colleagues. Among those I’ve asked, none were ever briefed on this. If it turns out to be true, we’ve got a huge problem.”
Lee posted a thread about Hersh’s article when it was first published.
Almost a month after Lee’s tweet, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials say there was no U.S. involvement in the incident and that intelligence reports suggest a pro-Ukrainian group carried out the attack.
And on the same day Lee’s account was suspended, he retweeted a short video where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to push for American troops to join the fight against the Russian invasion. Lee deleted the tweet after he was informed Zelensky’s comments were taken out of context.
The right-wing culture war
Lee has also not hesitated to use his account to jump on whatever viral content is making waves in the right-wing social media sphere.
In January, he posted a long thread about an undercover video by Project Veritas that purported to show an executive for Pfizer “bragging about COVID gain-of-function research.” Many of the claims made in the video are unverified, according to FactCheck.org.
In March, Lee shared a video showing a brawl among a group of mostly Black teenagers at a mall in San Francisco, connecting it to the frequent Republican claim that Democrats want to take guns away from Americans.
“President Biden: we will NOT be disarmed,” Lee said, adding the group in the video are “without civilization” and should be charged with attempted murder.
“This deeply troubling episode is yet another example showing why we can’t turn our backs on the Second Amendment,” Lee wrote.
Semafor’s Dave Weigel points out the clip was originally posted by far-right personality Stew Peters who said the video was proof of a “war on Whites” and that parents should be “packin’ HEAT!” — a more amped up version of Lee’s remarks.
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie took note of Lee’s tweet, declaring it “weird” that he promoted “straight bloodlust.”
“Like, a bunch of middle schoolers brawling? obviously bad. but to respond to that with ‘this is why we need the second amendment’ is incredibly disturbing,” Bouie added on Twitter.
Before establishing the @BasedMikeLee account, Lee was known to use his personal Facebook account to post content that could be considered out of character. In 2020, he repeatedly called for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to sell KSL.com because, in his opinion, it was insufficiently conservative.
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