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Mike Lee’s Golden Rule

“He’s tasted the wine and he wants more and he loves power and thinks that means sticking with Donald Trump now, regardless of what he represents.”
October 18, 2022
Mike Lee’s Golden Rule
(Composite / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Beseeching Mitt Romney for help—on Tucker Carlson’s show of all places—would have been unthinkable to Sen. Mike Lee, even recently. Yet there he was last week, demeaning himself before Fox viewers who loathe Romney, begging not only for Romney’s endorsement, but adding “you can get your entire family to donate to me.”

Over the last six years, Donald Trump has ruined many Republican political careers. Lee is now scrambling to avoid becoming another of them. The two-term senator knows exactly why his campaign is in trouble and what led to his humiliation on Fox News.

Lee isn’t in trouble because of (just) Democratic voters. His re-election is teetering because of Republican voters who are disgusted by his full embrace of Trump—including his attempts to help Trump overturn the 2020 election. These machinations created space for former CIA officer Evan McMullin to run as an independent after convincing the Utah Democratic Party not to put anyone on the ballot this year. McMullin has, improbably, energized a coalition of moderate Republicans, unaffiliated voters, and Democrats behind his candidacy. Mitt Romney has chosen not to endorse either candidate, saying they are both friends.

And now the race is a dead heat.

Lee is still the favorite to win. He’s the incumbent and a Republican running in a deep-red state against an independent who’s never won a statewide election. He should be running away with this thing. But the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics polls—the gold standard in Utah—found McMullin in a tight race with Lee, who was up five points and three points among likely voters in their last two polls. A Hill Research poll has McMullin ahead of Lee, 46 percent to 42 percent among active voters—when a comparable survey by the same firm had McMullin trailing Lee by 13 points in June. Meanwhile, respondents’ unfavorable view of Lee has grown, from 44 percent in June to 52 percent now.

This is the first competitive Senate race in Utah in nearly 50 years, the last one being in 1976, when Orrin Hatch defeated incumbent Frank Moss. It didn’t have to be this way. Lee easily could have been senator for life. But the combination of his Trump brown-nosing and his disconnect from his constituents—he has passed very few bills and has opposed popular bipartisan bills—have made him vulnerable.

There’s a great deal of irony in Lee’s supplication before Tucker’s throne. For starters, he chose to make his appeal to Romney while kneeling in front of a guy who frequently attacks Romney. Maybe not the best way to win friends and influence people.

But also, Lee himself has a record of refusing to endorse. He didn’t endorse Sen. Orrin Hatch for re-election in 2012 and he didn’t endorse Romney in 2018.

Call it Mike Lee’s Golden Rule: Demand from others what you would never do unto them.

When Michael Shumway Lee was sworn in on January 3, 2011, the 39-year-old became the youngest member of the upper chamber. Two of his guests at his swearing-in ceremony were Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. It was a show of force designed to illustrate that Lee—from Utah royalty and a Mormon political dynasty—is an insider.

Lee’s father, Rex E. Lee, was Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, the founding dean of Brigham Young University’s law school, and president of BYU. Lee’s brother, Thomas, was, until June of this year, a Utah Supreme Court justice who once clerked for Clarence Thomas. Mike Lee himself clerked twice for Samuel Alito. And Alito, in turn, once worked under Lee’s father, Rex, in the solicitor general’s office.

Rex Lee, who died in 1996, was the first cousin of Rep. Mo Udall and his brother Rep. Stewart Udall, who also served as secretary of the interior. Young Mike Lee, while serving as a Senate page, would stop by congressman Udall’s office. He went on to serve in the Senate with his second cousins and Democratic Senators Mark Udall and Tom Udall. One of Lee’s best friends growing up was Josh Reid, the son of Harry Reid, then a congressman. The Lees and the Reids were Mormons who worshiped in the same ward of the LDS church. Harry Reid was the Lee family’s “home teacher.”

Lee worked hard to stand out, like his father and brother. And stand out he did. From Eagle Scout, to BYU student body president, to law review, to assistant U.S. attorney, to general counsel to former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Along the way Lee wrote three books on the nation’s founding and has become known—at least by the debauched standards of elected pols—as a “constitutional scholar.”

Lee is an unlikely sycophant, because he was born to his post. But also, because in 2016 Lee was the model of courage against Donald Trump. He refused to endorse Trump and waged a doomed campaign to replace Trump as nominee (with Sen. Ted Cruz) at the Republican National Convention. He then became the first senator (and was joined by only three other GOP congressmen at the time) to immediately disavow Trump upon the release of the Access Hollywood tape, calling on Trump to “step aside.” While Lee didn’t say publicly whom he wanted to replace Trump on the ticket, he said in the video, filmed in his house, that the party had to prioritize “our greatest, our most noble principles.”

In 2016, Lee voted for Evan McMullin for president, joining the 20 percent of Utah voters who supported a third party that year.

Trump’s election changed the equation.

Having spent his life on the inside track, Lee decided he couldn’t let a gameshow host and aspiring dictator knock him off course.

Unlike Ben Sasse and Tim Scott, who tried to accommodate Trump by mostly pretending the president didn’t exist, Lee went to work building relationships with the Trumps. He started with Ivanka and Jared Kushner and was so successful in sucking up to the Boss Man that he made his way (along with his brother) onto Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court justices. Lee didn’t lay low and he didn’t seem conflicted. Lee’s only defiance of Trump came in 2019 when the president declared a national emergency at the border and Lee became one of eleven GOP senators to oppose Trump’s plan to spend $3.6 billion of military funds to build a border wall.

Other than that, Lee was as solidly pro-Trump as Marjorie Taylor Greene. He voted to acquit Trump in both impeachments. And he wasn’t a reluctant “no.” In the first trial, he said that he didn’t think what Trump had done was wrong. He called the second trial unconstitutional and a “farce.” He even tried to help Trump game out the coup. Not even MTG was so useful.

Lee’s base in Utah loves that he finally got on board—the Utah state party apparatus has gone mega-MAGA. Numerous Republicans told me in interviews that Lee was “a rock star at the convention” and noted that neither Romney or Gov. Spencer Cox could show up at any party gathering now, because they are not sufficiently Trumpy.

But Republican officialdom in Utah does not represent a clear majority of the Utah electorate. Not only do half of Utah voters identify as Democrats or independents, but a majority Mormon population clouds the picture. Most Mormons will vote Republican no matter what, but Trump’s Muslim ban and anti-immigrant rhetoric was deeply unpopular among many members of the Church of Latter-day Saints, who are committed to the defense of religious liberty and whose pro-immigration perspective comes from a strong relationship with Spanish-speaking nations where they often serve as missionaries.

So while Trump improved his 2016 margin in Utah from 46-27 to 58-38 four years later, Mitt Romney remains more popular with Utahns than Trump. A Deseret News poll from May found 51 percent of Utah voters said Romney best represented their political and policy preferences compared to 37 for Trump (12 percent chose neither).

On the ground, the anti-Lee movement is largely invisible. Democrats are a solid minority in the state and within the LDS community, his critics remain quiet because they assume that everyone around them will be voting Republican. “I see them every Sunday and every Wednesday night at church activities so I’m not going to put up a wall between us over this,” one LDS member told me.

Yet, as another Republican told me, not having a Mike Lee sign on your lawn is a statement in itself.

Neither of Lee’s primary challengers—former state legislator Becky Edwards nor businesswoman Ally Isom—have endorsed him. One former GOP state delegate who voted for Lee in the past but will not support him this year said that Lee has become a different person than the man he helped elect in 2010. “It feels like he has sold out. In this culture the word integrity still means a lot. For many of us Mike Lee has crossed the line,” he said.

Another lifelong Republican active in the caucus process said “He’s become the Bob Bennett of our state. He was voted in because Bob Bennett was too arrogant and not listening and now he’s become the senior senator who is too arrogant and not listening.” Trump has revealed him, this voter said. “He’s tasted the wine and he wants more and he loves power and thinks that means sticking with Donald Trump now, regardless of what he represents.”

Apart from his attachment to Trump, Lee has created other liabilities for himself. Utah voters are not fond of his grandstanding—Lee was the only senator to vote against the creation of museums for women and Latinos, for insurance benefits for patients with ALS, and for the establishment of a national historic site in Colorado at a Japanese internment camp.

Joining Rand Paul in 2017, Lee became one of only two senators to oppose sanctions against Russia and he has voted multiple times against aid to Ukraine. Lee has advocated for two-term limits for senators and he supported a Constitutional amendment to enact them. When he ran in 2010 many voters, and later staff, assumed Lee would serve two terms, yet he has said he won’t self-limit until those laws are passed.

Lee’s own Golden Rule again.

Lee’s biggest political mistake came on October 28, 2020, when he appeared with Trump at a campaign rally in Arizona. In an effort to flatter the Dear Leader, Lee compared Trump to a selfless and courageous figure in the Book of Mormon.

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

There was backlash against Lee’s religious malapropism. Lee apologized in a Facebook post, insisting he had not suggested that “people should seek to emulate President Trump in the same way they might pattern their lives after Captain Moroni.” But even in apology he doubled down on Trump:

Translating Captain Moroni’s language into Donald Trump’s, he has relentlessly tried to “drain the swamp”—for example, by avoiding new wars while winding down existing ones, reducing federal regulations, relieving the federal tax burden on working families, and reforming the criminal-justice system.

A simple “That was a bad comparison, I’m sorry,” would have sufficed.

Less than a month later, as the networks were calling the election for Joe Biden, Lee began putting his expertise as a “constitutional scholar” to work for Trump. He texted White House chief of staff Mark Meadows with various ideas about how to keep Trump’s path to power open. Throughout November and December 2020, Lee discussed possibilities, including audits in swing states, and alternate slates of electors, in which Biden’s victory might be reversed.

As January 6, 2021 approached, Lee’s texts became pleading. On January 3, he wrote: “Everything changes, of course, if the swing states submit competing slates of electors pursuant to state law.” Soon after he wrote another, nearly identical text, to Meadows stating “again, all of this could change if the states in question certified Trump electors pursuant to state law.”

Woven into several of Lee’s texts are caveats about playing by the rules. He warned Meadows, for example, “this will end badly for the president unless we have the Constitution on our side.” At another point Lee noted that plans to object to certification from Josh Hawley and “my friend” Ted Cruz, would “not inure to the benefit of the president,” even if doing so “could help people like Ted and Josh.” Translation: All of these other guys are in it for themselves but I’m selflessly trying to help Trump. In one text that gained notoriety, Lee cloyingly complained to Meadows that he had been working on the plan “14 hours a day.”

Lee was careful to cover himself with plausible deniability, but his intention was clear to anyone with eyes to read his texts: He sought to convince Meadows, and therefore Trump, that no one was more eager to overturn the election than he was. On January 4, 2021, Lee wanted the record to reflect he had been “calling state legislators for hours today, and am going to spend hours doing the same tomorrow,” so he could find “something from state legislatures to make this legitimate and to have any hope of winning.”

Despite all of his efforts, Lee voted to certify the election on January 6. In his speech on the Senate floor after the attack on the Capitol, Lee emphatically insisted that the Constitution restricts the role of Congress in certifying presidential elections.

“Our job is to open and count, open and count, that’s all it is,” he repeated several times, his pocket Constitution in hand. But he also noted, after describing how vigorously he had worked for months to ascertain what was underway in what he continuously referred to as “the contested states,” that “I didn’t initially declare my position because I didn’t yet have one.”

Which, of course, was untrue. The constitutional scholar had an opinion all along, which was that none of this could pass constitutional muster. But he didn’t share that opinion with the public. Lee knew throughout that no evidence of actual fraud had surfaced in any state, and that no credible “alternate” slate of electors was coming either. But if he was never going to be onboard to overturn the will of the voters himself, Lee clearly wanted Trump to believe that he was onboard with searching for a loophole or weakness that could be exploited in order for someone else to overturn the will of the voters and keep Trump in power.

Always looking out for his own viability, Lee understood that he had wronged Trump by voting to certify Biden’s election. So he paid public penance as soon as he could while plans were underway for his third Senate campaign. Most notably, Lee has never disavowed what Trump did before or after the 2020 election—or what Trump did on January 6th. Just weeks after the insurrection, Lee said of Trump on Fox News, “Everyone makes mistakes” and “everyone’s entitled to a mulligan once in a while.”

Weeks after the second impeachment there was a fundraiser for Lee at Mar-a-Lago, and while Trump wasn’t in attendance, the MAGA sideshow acts Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert were among the invitees.

Lee went on to oppose the formation of an independent January 6th commission and was one of several GOP senators who sent a letter to the Department of Justice expressing concerns over the treatment of the January 6th insurrectionists.

When CNN released Lee’s texts with Meadows this April, Lee must have understood how indefensible they were—which is why it took him nearly a week to come up with a way to explain them.

His explanation was to lie.

“I encouraged the Trump campaign, and the president himself, to acknowledge that he’d accept whatever the outcome of the Electoral College was,” he said. This sentiment is precisely the opposite of what his texts showed.

At their debate on Monday night, when Evan McMullin challenged Lee with multiple facts about his complicity in the Big Lie narrative and his betrayal of his oath to the Constitution, Lee was simultaneously squirming and indignant. Without countering any of the details he accused McMullin of lying, demanded an apology, and even said “How dare you, sir?”

It was red meat for the base, who Lee trusts will love it.

Lee seems to think lying about January 6th is working for him, which is why he’s been at it for nearly two years.

In Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book Peril, the authors recount that Lee was “shocked” by the John Eastman memo he received January 2, 2021 titled “7 states have transmitted dual slates of electors to the President of the Senate.” The book quotes Lee claiming “he heard nothing about alternative slates of electors.” Lee’s texts prove that this is a concept he had been discussing for at least a month.

This past summer, when asked on Firing Line by Margaret Hoover about January 6th, Lee said that Trump “got some very bad advice about the Constitution that day.” And poor Trump, who got bad advice, apparently also deserves Lee’s vote next time around. When Hoover pressed him on whether that would prevent Lee from supporting Trump for president in the future, Lee couldn’t say no. Pausing in visible discomfort he said, “I would love to hear, sometime, his side of this, his explanation for all of this.”

Donald Trump’s explanation is that January 6th was his largest crowd ever, that there was a lot of love there, the rioters were very fine people, and that Mike Pence deserved their wanting to hang him. Lee knows all of that because Donald Trump has said it, multiple times, to anyone who will listen.

Mike Lee will probably win his third term. He’ll still be in favor of term limits for senators not named Mike Lee. He’ll keep demanding the endorsement of others while withholding his own. He’ll keep waving his pocket Constitution while sowing doubt about elections and perhaps plotting to overturn the next one. He’ll boast of his reverence for the rule of law while giving mulligans to his sugar daddy. He’ll do one thing—like voting for Evan McMullin—and then complain about anyone else who dares do the same.

That’s because Mike Lee holds to one simple Golden Rule. And he’ll keep on doing it until Utah voters hold him accountable.

Correction, October 18, 2022, 9:10 a.m.: The article originally stated that “Becky Lee” was one of Mike Lee’s primary opponents. The primary opponent was “Becky Edwards,” not Becky Lee. The text has been changed accordingly.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.