Grappling with governing: Sen. Mike Lee’s view of Trump from ‘unelectable’ to ‘Captain Moroni’

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Editor’s note: Daily Universe reporters examined how Utah’s congressional delegation responded not only to the Capitol breach on Jan. 6 but the shift in the Republican Party over the last four years in a series of stories.

Donald Trump stands with Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) in Salt Lake City in December 2017. The president interviewed Mr. Lee for the Supreme Court vacancy, according the senator’s office. (RICK BOWMER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Four Daily Universe reporters had Utah Senator Mike Lee on speaker phone on Oct. 19, 2016 as they drove back to their hotel after the final presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada. They asked him about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“I think he is unelectable and I think he needs to step aside,” Lee said.

Fast forward almost exactly four years. Lee made an appearance at the Latinos for Trump rally in Arizona on Oct. 28, 2020.

“To my Mormon friends — think of him as Captain Moroni,” Lee said to the crowd, pointing to Trump at his right. “He seeks not power but to pull it down; he seeks not the praise of the world or of the fake news.”

The following is a timeline of Lee’s statements regarding Trump’s presidency and policies from late 2015 to the present.

November 2015 – “Speechless”

Early in the campaign trail, Lee had multiple close colleagues bidding for the Republican presidential nomination, including Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham.

When asked in jest by a Politico interviewer if he would endorse “future president Donald Trump,” Lee did not have a response.

“Speechless Senator, it happens once in a while,” he said as the audience laughed.

June 2016 – “I have concerns”

NewsMaxTV host Steve Malzberg interviewed Lee about why he hadn’t endorsed Trump after Ted Cruz withdrew from the race, making Trump the clear Republican nominee.

“We can get into the fact that he accused my best friend’s father of conspiring to kill JFK. We can go through the fact that he’s made some statements that some have identified correctly as religiously intolerant. We can get into the fact that he is wildly unpopular in my state, in part because my state consists of people who are members of a religious minority church,” Lee said.

“Don’t sit here and tell me that I have no reason to be concerned about Donald Trump.”

October 2016 – “Step down”

Lee reached a breaking point in October 2016, when a 2005 video was leaked, recording Trump making derogatory comments about women with Access Hollywood host Billy Bush.

Lee posted a response video in which he called on Trump to step down from the nomination, calling his conduct “distracting.”

“It’s occurred to me on countless occasions today that if anyone spoke to my wife or my daughter or my mother or any of my five sisters the way Mr. Trump has spoken to women, I wouldn’t hire that person. I wouldn’t hire that person, wouldn’t want to be associated with that person. And I certainly don’t think I’d feel comfortable hiring that person to be the leader of the free world,” Lee said.

“The fact is, we have been asked to settle on matters of great principle with our candidate for President of the United States,” Lee said. “It’s for precisely that reason, Mr. Trump, that I respectfully ask you, with all due respect, to step aside. Step down. Allow someone else to carry the banner of these principles.”

October 2016 – “Frightening beyond my ability to describe”

It was later that same month that Daily Universe reporters had a phone call with Lee, and he expressed his disapproval of Trump’s assertions that he was behind in the polls because the election process was rigged.

“I think it’s frightening beyond my ability to describe,” Lee said. “It’s almost an anticipated repudiation of the outcome of the election. … It delegitimizes the entire process in a way that is really dangerous.”

November 2017 – “I would not say no (to Supreme Court job)”

The White House released Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees on Nov. 17, 2017, and Lee was on that list.

Lee’s office reported that Trump interviewed Lee the following June for the Supreme Court vacancy position created by the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“At a town hall meeting last week, Lee said that if he were asked to consider the job, ‘I would not say no,'” the Deseret News reported on July 3, 2018.

April 2019 – Will you support Trump in 2020? “Yes”

Lee spoke with CBS News on April 23, 2019 about potential impeachment proceedings due to findings in the Mueller Report about Trump’s involvement in Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election.

“I don’t believe we’re dealing with impeachable conduct here,” Lee said.

When asked if Lee would support Trump in the 2020 election, he said, “yes.”

February 2020 – voted against impeachment, “It’s not even wrong”

Lee spoke on the Senate floor on Feb. 5, 2020 to explain why he would vote to acquit Trump on both articles of impeachment.

According to PBS NewsHour, “Lee said Trump did withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine as he tried to get the country to investigate Burisma, but said it wasn’t ‘criminal. It certainly isn’t impeachable. It’s not even wrong.'”

August 2020 – “I got to know him”

“He is going to say things from time to time that are ideal, and other things that are not ideal,” Lee said about the president in an interview with FOX13 on Aug. 25, 2020.

Lee acknowledged that while Trump says some controversial things, “he’s not out there fanning the flames just for the sake of making people mad.”

He also said they have developed a good working relationship during Trump’s first term. “While this is not a president I expected to like, I’ve gotten to know him since then,” Lee said.

October 2020 – “Captain Moroni”

Lee posted a video of his appearance at the Latinos for Trump rally in Arizona on Oct. 28, 2020.

“To my Mormon friends, think of him as Captain Moroni,” Lee said. “He seeks not power, but to pull it down. He seeks not the praise of the world or of the fake news. He seeks the well-being and peace of the American people.”

January 2021 – “Mike Lee is here, but I’m a little angry at him today”

At a rally for GOP candidates in the Georgia Senate run-off election on Jan. 4, Trump said, “Mike Lee is here, too. But I’m a little angry at him today.”

The Deseret News reported that this anger came as a result of Lee not expressing intentions to join the group of more than 100 members of Congress determined to #StoptheSteal, Trump’s campaign to decertify the states’ Electoral College votes.

January 2021 – “That’s it. That’s all there is.”

Lee spoke on the Senate floor during Congress’s certification of the states’ electoral votes. He did not join the eight senators who voted not to certify the votes.

“Our role is very defined,” he said. “Our job is to open and then count. Open and then count. That’s it. That is all there is.”

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