After President Donald Trump signed proclamations Monday drastically diminishing the scale of national monuments in Utah, he handed off the pen to a senator who still seems a most unlikely ally.
“I’ve served under many presidents — seven to be exact — but none is like the man we have in the White House today. When you talk, this president listens,” Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch said Monday in introducing Trump at Utah’s state Capitol in Salt Lake City.
The longtime Republican lawmaker said that when he met with Trump at the White House in January shortly after he was sworn in, the president asked what could be done to help Utah. Hatch suggested he curtail the Obama administration’s action creating the Bears Ears National Monument under the Antiquities Act.
“Without hesitation, he looked at me, looked me squarely in the eye, and said, ‘We’ll fix it,’” Hatch recalled. “Boy, is he coming through here today.”
Watch: Hatch Asks Finance Committee to ‘Talk Like Gentlemen’
For as much as Trump wants to drain the proverbial swamp of career politicians and enact congressional term limits, he also wants the 83-year-old Senate president pro tempore to seek an eighth term next year.
White House aides often note the president is constantly calling Republican members — something lawmakers back up — typically with grins and tales of late-night calls.
Trump’s relationship with Hatch is no different. The duo were in close touch as Senate Republicans for months crafted and then last week passed a sweeping tax overhaul bill.
They shared a brief embrace and private words behind the presidential podium after that introduction at Monday’s ceremony, and Trump warmly said he has gotten to know Hatch “well” during his first 10 months in office.
White House officials declined to comment on their relationship, though Trump shined a light on it during his remarks in Salt Lake City.
Hatch had said his current term would be his last when he ran for re-election in 2012. But after finding himself in the middle of more policy debates on Capitol Hill, whether on taxes, health insurance or national monuments, the Utah Republican has said he might reconsider and run for another term.
“You are a true fighter, Orrin,” Trump said. “You meet people who you thought were fighters — but they’re not so good at fighting. He’s a fighter. We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come.”
Hatch would be up for re-election next year, and sources close to him have consistently said to expect a decision around the end of the year.
If re-elected, Hatch would have two years remaining as the top Republican on the Finance Committee, under the Senate GOP conference’s internal rules. He has suggested that might be an incentive to run again.
In the immediate term, Hatch has plenty on his plate. He will be the Senate negotiator in the conference with the House on overhauling the tax code, an effort for which he drew praise from Trump on Monday.
“I want to especially thank you for the tremendous work in ushering massive tax cuts and reform through the Senate. Just happened, and we have a final step to go. And I predict we’re going to be very successful,” Trump said. “We’re talking about massive, massive tax cuts.”
And on completion, the tax code overhaul will inevitably require a number of technical corrections that will keep Hatch and his committee busy.
Hatch also finds himself in the middle of the debate over reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Unlike the particularly partisan tax reconciliation effort, the Utah lawmaker already drafted and moved through the Finance Committee a bipartisan reauthorization bill with ranking Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon.
If Hatch opts not to run next year, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney might seek the seat. Asked about that prospect Monday, Trump said, “He’s a good man. Mitt’s a good man.”
Steve Bannon, the former senior White House adviser and Trump strategist who has returned to Breitbart News, is reportedly mulling his own endorsement of Hatch to help thwart a Romney candidacy.
That Hatch hit the campaign trail with Donald Trump Jr. last year, including visits to Mormon communities in Arizona, is not lost on the president or his loyal advisers.
Romney has been preparing to run for the seat if Hatch retires. The former Massachusetts governor currently lives in Utah. He was the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a major party’s presidential nominee.
And Romney has a jagged history with Trump.
Last year, as Trump zeroed in on the GOP nomination for the presidency, Romney came out strongly against him in a blistering speech.
“Dishonesty is Donald Trump’s hallmark,” he said on March 3, 2016. “His imagination must not be married to real power.”
“There’s plenty of evidence that Mr. Trump is a con man and a fake,” Romney said.
Regardless, Romney met with Trump during the transition and was, at least on the surface, a candidate to be secretary of State before Trump tapped Rex Tillerson for the post.
And last month, Romney said there was no place for Roy Moore in Republican politics, calling for the Alabama GOP Senate nominee to step aside in light of reports he made sexual advances toward underage girls when he was in his 30s. “Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections,” Romney tweeted. Moore has denied the allegations.
Trump reiterated his support for Moore on Monday, brushing aside the allegations of sexual misconduct.
Romney then had this to say on Twitter: “Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”
On the Moore allegations, Hatch first said he “hoped it’s not true.” He later said if they were true, Moore should drop out.
Just how much sway Trump has over Utah voters is an open question as well. In the 2016 election, he carried the overwhelmingly Republican state with just 45 percent of the vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 27 percent. Independent candidate Evan McMullin, a Mormon, onetime Capitol Hill staffer and former CIA officer who ran as a strident critic of Trump, took 21 percent of the vote.
Jason Dick and John T. Bennett contributed to this report.