Opinion: On Trump’s indictment, Mitt Romney retains a moral compass. Mike Lee disrespects the rule of law.

The contrast between Romney’s and Lee’s responses to the indictment evidences the deep division within the Republican Party.

(Mark Schiefelbein | The Associated Press) Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks with members of the media as he walks Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, at the Capitol in Washington.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is frequently on the right side of history. He courageously opposed President Donald J. Trump’s alleged criminality; Trump’s violations of his presidential oath while in office; his disregard for the norms that are basic to the integrity and preservation of our democratic republic; and his undermining of our nation’s international credibility and claim to global democratic leadership.

In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, Utah’s junior senator departed from his principled defense of our nation’s constitutional order. Romney argued that President Joe Biden “‘made an enormous error” by not pardoning Trump when federal charges were brought against him in the classified documents case.’” Romney justified his claim by asserting that Biden, by pardoning Trump, would have made himself “the big guy and [Trump] the little guy.” Romney’s argument is uncharacteristically based on sheer political calculation. It represents a marked departure from the integral course that ensured his influence within the Trump-dominated GOP would be vastly diminished.

Unlike the majority of GOP senators and representatives, Romney has not joined the chorus of conservative politicians who echo Trump’s claim that federal investigators and Department of Justice officials are engaged in a witch hunt. He has not asserted that the legal system has been weaponized against Trump and his conservative allies.

Romney’s response to Trump’s indictment in the government documents case indicates that he, unlike many others in his party, retains a moral compass: “Mr. Trump brought these charges upon himself by not only taking classified documents but by refusing to return them when given numerous opportunities to do so. These allegations, if proven, would be consistent with his other actions offensive to the national interest, such as withholding defensive weapons from Ukraine for political reasons and failing to defend the Capitol from violent attack and insurrection.”

Romney understood that the indictment was not a despotic power grab on the part of Biden’s administration. The charges against Trump were serious. The threat to national security was real.

Later it became evident that Trump had not only refused to comply with the government’s repeated requests for the return of the documents. He had kept them in unsecured locations, had discussed them with individuals who had no security clearances and had engaged in a cover-up.

The contrast between Romney’s and Sen. Mike Lee’s responses to the indictment evidences the deep division within the Republican Party. Lee claimed: “The Biden administration’s actions can only be compared to the oppressive tactics routinely seen in [banana republics]…It is an affront to our country’s glorious 246-year legacy of independence from tyranny, for the president of the United States to leverage the machinery of justice against a political rival. Such an act of absolute disrespect [is] fundamentally at odds with American democratic values.”

Unfortunately it is Lee’s response that resounds in the GOP’s defense of Trump to this very day.

Lee engaged in a blatant false equivalency. Biden did not send his loyalists to snatch Trump from his home in the dead of night and then execute or imprison him. Biden respected the separation of powers by refusing to interfere in the Department of Justice investigation or in the decisions of Attorney General Merrick Garland and Special Prosecutor Jack Smith. All proceedings, including the Mar-a-Lago search, have been in accord with the rule of law.

Trump is presumed innocent until proven guilty. He was arraigned in a court presided over by Federal Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump-friendly judge whom the former president himself appointed. Trump has mounted a vigorous legal defense directed by experienced and expert lawyers.

Romney’s remarks concerning a pardon for Trump are inconsistent with his initial response to the classified documents indictment. Lee’s initial response and subsequent efforts on Trump’s behalf are far more consequential. They telegraph the MAGA-Republican Party’s disrespect for the rule of law.

Andrew Bjelland

Andrew Bjelland, PhD, professor emeritus of philosophy at Seattle University, taught political philosophy, jurisprudence, medical ethics and logic. He held the Pigott-McCone Chair in Humanities. He resides in Salt Lake City.

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your insight to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.