President Trump’s trip to Utah Monday was ostensibly about eliminating national monument status for two Utah landmarks. But most speculate that the real reason for the trip was a subtle effort to block Mitt Romney from reentering politics.
Romney has made noise about a potential run for Senator Orrin Hatch’s seat, should the longtime Utah senator choose not to seek reelection next year.
Monday’s presidential visit seemed to turn into a full-on lobbying effort to get Hatch to stay put. Or perhaps more to the point, to get Romney to stay far away from Washington. And Romney was all too happy to hit back with a tweet that made it clear he’s not about to be shoved aside.
The rising tensions are indeed another chapter in a long-simmering feud that began more than two years ago when Trump entered the presidential race.
But this latest round is less about the past than it is a preview of what it could look like should Romney run and win a Senate seat from his new home state of Utah next year. A Senator Romney wouldn’t just be a force in Washington on policy matters but also would probably serve as the counterweight trying to block Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.
The battle lines between the two have been drawn for a while. When Trump first entered the presidential race, he announced that one reason why Republicans should back him is that he wouldn’t “choke” like he claimed Romney did at the end of the 2012 race. And unlike Romney — the consummate establishment candidate — Trump promised to run against the establishment and to drain the swamp.
Romney held most of his fire until he delivered what was a perfectly timed rebuttal in the height of the presidential primary season. In a speech, Romney called Trump “a con man, a fake” among other personal insults. But the main point of Romney’s speech was this: Trump was not a conservative, he had no serious policy proposals, and he would be a disaster as the Republican nominee.
On the last point, Romney was wrong. Trump won.
The rift that’s grown inside the Republican Party in the year since is now a rift whose extremes are perfectly represented by Romney and Trump.
No wonder Trump is trying to do all he can to prevent Romney from getting a bigger platform.
Currently, Romney isn’t running for the Senate, but he and his aides have signaled interest in a candidacy should 87-year-old Republican incumbent Orrin Hatch decide not to seek reelection. Hatch has said he will make a decision by the end of the year.
When Trump traveled to Utah on Monday, he took Hatch along with him on Air Force One. Once they landed, he told Hatch in front of the assembled crowd at the Utah State House: “We hope you will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come.”
When Trump was asked by a reporter whether this comment was meant as a subtle dig at the idea of a Romney return to politics, Trump would say only this: “Mitt’s a good man.”
The Associated Press then cited an unnamed White House aide saying Trump sees Romney as a “potential thorn in his side in the Senate.”
Trump is probably right. The president already has several Republicans in the Senate he doesn’t trust or get along with. He has been in fights this year alone with Mitch McConnell, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker.
But Romney is different from this pack for two reasons. His name recognition is much higher, as is his fund-raising ability. Add to that the fact that while others, like Corker and Flake, only seem willing to hit Trump as they leave politics, Romney is hammering the president at the very moment he tries to enter the fray.
In the end, taking on Trump could be one of the biggest campaign promises Romney would make as a candidate. And if elected to the Senate, he would have a platform to keep that promise. And that would be a very big problem for a president who could use an ally, not another enemy, on Capitol Hill.
Stopping Romney from even running for a Senate seat isn’t just personal. It’s a shrewd political tactic. But of course it’s not up to either of them, or even to the people of Utah. This one is Orrin Hatch’s call.James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp