President Trump tried to talk longtime Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch out of possible retirement Monday during a trip to Utah, hoping to hold onto a powerful political ally and block a Senate bid by former GOP presidential nominee and occasional Trump critic Mitt Romney.
The 83-year-old Mr. Hatch, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who’s expected by many in the GOP to retire in 2018, received a personal plea from the president before a hometown audience of thousands at the start of a speech in Salt Lake City.
“We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Hatch, calling him a “fighter” and “a very special person.”
Mr. Hatch returned the praise, calling the president “one of the best I’ve served under” in his nearly 41 years in office.
“None is like the man we have in the White House now,” Mr. Hatch told the crowd as he introduced Mr. Trump.
Asked by reporters after their flight on Air Force One if he personally lobbied Mr. Hatch to run for reelection, the president said simply, “Yes.”
Mr. Romney, 70, a former governor of Massachusetts and resident of Utah, wants to run for the Senate seat, and Mr. Hatch has said he’d be happy to be succeeded by him. But the president and former adviser Steve Bannon view Mr. Romney as an elitist who’s been less than supportive of Mr. Trump.
When reporters asked Mr. Trump if he was sending a message to Mr. Romney that he doesn’t want him to run for Mr. Hatch’s seat, the president paused and said obliquely, “He’s a good man, Mitt’s a good man.”
Mr. Bannon, who is waging a campaign to promote Trump nationalist-style candidates in 2018, has told people close to him that he’s considering an endorsement of Mr. Hatch.
“Willard M. Romney is a globalist of the highest order whose sole purpose in life now is to undermine President Trump and the Republican Party,” said a source close to Mr. Bannon who requested anonymity. “He’s a professional loser who has serious trouble winning elections, and would be a disaster for the party if he were to run.”
The Bannon confidant said Mr. Hatch “is actually a champion of much of the Trump agenda, including tax reform.”
But the White House and Mr. Bannon know that Mr. Romney, who is a Mormon, is more popular in Utah than Mr. Trump, who received only 45 percent of the state’s vote in 2016. Former independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin of Utah tweeted Monday, “Hatch may need Bannon, but Utah doesn’t.”
Mr. Trump had once considered Mr. Romney for secretary of state, but rejected him for a position in the administration. Mr. Romney was harshly critical of Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign and has periodically criticized him in office on issues such as pulling out of the Paris climate accord, his policy on refugees and for blaming “both sides” in a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
It’s not clear who else Mr. Bannon might try to recruit in Utah to run against Mr. Romney in a GOP primary. Boyd Matheson, former chief of staff to Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, recently announced he would not run for Senate.
Both Mr. Hatch and Mr. Romney belong to the 16-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the senator accompanied the president on a tour of the church complex at Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, where Mr. Trump met with church leaders.
Elder Henry Eyring told the president that they have “an obligation to God” to look out for people.
“I know so many people that are in your church,” Mr. Trump told the Mormon leaders. “The job you’ve done is beyond anything you could think of — 180 countries, taking care of people the way you take of people, and the respect that you have all over the world.”
Outside the complex, onlookers included one person holding a “Run Mitt, Run” sign. Another held a sign proclaiming “Hatch another plan.”
Mr. Hatch has delayed any announcement on his midterm plans until after Congress completes the tax-cut legislation, which is expected to happen this month. The president told the crowd in Salt Lake City that he and Congress are preparing to give Americans “a giant present for Christmas.”
He told Mr. Hatch, “I want to especially thank you for the tremendous work in ushering massive tax cuts and reform through the Senate. We have a final step to go, and I predict we’re going to be very successful.”
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