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Profiles in Courage and Cowardice

They’re both from Utah. Both Republican. Both LDS. But Mitt Romney has shown courage and moral clarity that Mike Lee has lacked.
January 8, 2021
Profiles in Courage and Cowardice
Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney talk as they walk into the Senate chamber for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump on January 30, 2020 (Drew Angerer / Getty)

The mob attack on the U.S. Capitol made crystal clear even to the most obtuse observers the despicable, anti-democratic nature of the Trump project to dispute the 2020 election. It was a mix of blatant lies, bogus lawsuits by nutty lawyers, grubby fundraising emails, the strong-arming of state officials—and, ultimately, demagogic incitement.

And it was not a surprise.

Anyone watching Donald Trump over the last five and a half years could not claim with honesty that any part of Trump’s post-election effort has been out of character—including his instigatory rant that turned his rally into a riot.

Which is why so many of the condemnations of Trump by Republicans and conservatives who worked for him, or supported him from Congress, or made excuses for him in the media, ring so hollow. These this-is-the-last-straw statements are welcome, of course—but they are long overdue and look cynical, calculated, and careerist.

Take the example of Mike Lee, the senior senator from Utah. Lee was never as much of a Trump sycophant as some of his Senate colleagues—he never reached the level of hypocritical unctuousness of Lindsey Graham, or the level of oleaginous self-abasement of Ted Cruz, or the level of mindless zombism of Martha McSally. He lucked out, in a sense, by not having to run for re-election as long as Trump was president. But Sen. Lee’s cowardly pattern of Trumpist accommodationism has stood in sorry contrast to the moral and political seriousness of Sen. Mitt Romney, his fellow Utahn, Republican, and Latter-day Saint.

Romney was the first Republican senator to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on the day that the race was called for them. He was an early critic of Donald Trump, and despite a brief window of giving Trump the benefit of doubt after his 2016 victory, and his acceptance of Trump’s unexpected endorsement during the 2018 Senate race, Romney has since the death of John McCain become the de facto leader of the Republicans who see Trump for the dangerous, egomaniacal fraud that he is. Romney was the sole Republican in either chamber to vote against Donald Trump during Trump’s (first?) impeachment and trial—indeed, the only senator in American history to vote for the conviction of a president of his own party. In doing so, Romney says he found guidance from the Constitution and strength and inspiration in his faith. He has long been harassed and attacked by conservative commentators and Republican voters, and the volume and intensity of these attacks have only increased in the weeks since he congratulated Biden and Harris.

On Wednesday night, hours after the invasion of the Capitol, Romney spoke during the Senate deliberations over Electoral College votes, opening his remarks with a richly deserved criticism of Donald Trump:

We gather today due to a selfish man’s injured pride and the outrage of his supporters whom he has deliberately misinformed for the past two months and stirred to action this very morning. What happened here today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States. Those who choose to continue to support his dangerous gambit by objecting to the results of a legitimate, democratic election will forever be seen as being complicit in an unprecedented attack against our democracy. They will be remembered for their role in this shameful episode in American history. That will be their legacy.

Romney continued:

The objectors have claimed they are doing so on behalf of the voters. Have an audit, they say, to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen. Please! No Congressional-led audit will ever convince those voters, particularly when the President will continue to claim that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth. That is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.

Romney was angry, rightfully so. Earlier that day, as the Senate was evacuating, he reportedly yelled at Ted Cruz, who has been a cheerleader of bogus fraud allegations to serve himself, “This is what you’ve gotten, guys!

Then there is Mike Lee. Lee was a Never Trumper in 2016. After the leaking of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, Lee released a video condemning Trump. (Shot from close up and informally from his home, its aesthetic presaged the countless COVID-era videos by members of Congress.) Lee said that if anybody spoke to the women of his family like Trump, he “wouldn’t hire that person,” nor would he want to “be associated with that person,” let alone “hiring that person to be the leader of the free world.” Lee talked about “principles that have animated this country” as needed to “will help us win in November.” Then he raised his voice and talked directly to Trump, who had said the Access Hollywood tape was a mere distraction: “With all due respect, sir, you, sir, are the distraction; your conduct, sir, is the distraction; it’s the distraction from the very principles that will help us win in November.” Lee called on Trump to drop out of the race and allow somebody who embraces American principles to run on the Republican ticket because Republicans shouldn’t have to “settle” for lower principles only to beat Hillary Clinton.

It’s a fine, short speech—smart and eloquent and clear and sharp. But Lee was never again as critical of Trump, despite the long parade of subsequent horrors. In the four-plus years since Lee released that video, what we know of Donald Trump has changed only for the worse.

The Mike Lee who took a principled stand against Trump turned into an enabler who had only praise for Trump. During the Trump impeachment trial, Lee not only voted to acquit Trump but did so by evading the substance of the charges against him and instead on the basis of an inapposite, rambling argument about the administrative state. In 2020, Lee endorsed Trump for re-election. During a rally in October, Lee compared Donald Trump with Captain Moroni from the Book of Mormon—a bizarre comparison, since Captain Moroni was a selfless and righteous and courageous military commander, hardly the sort of traits one associates with Donald Trump.

Following the election, Lee waited until December 15—after the Electoral College vote—before acknowledging—not congratulating, mind you—Biden and Harris’s victory:

Our election process took a major step today when presidential electors met in their respective states and cast 306 electoral votes for former Vice President Joe Biden—more than the 270 electoral votes he needs to become president-elect.

But he still left some caveats, based upon lies:

Concerns regarding fraud and irregularities in this election remain active in multiple states, and those concerns need to be addressed by Congress and state and local officials throughout the country. But absent new information that could give rise to a judicial or legislative determination altering the impact of today’s electoral-college votes, Joe Biden will become president of the United States on January 20, 2021.

On Wednesday night, Lee also gave a speech. He condemned the mob, but he didn’t mention Donald Trump and his Republican colleagues in Congress, including his buddy Ted Cruz, who incited that mob. Instead, he had this to say:

This simply isn’t how our federal system is supposed to work. That is to say, if you have concerns with the way that an election in the presidential race was handled in your state, the appropriate response is to approach your state legislatures, first and foremost. These protests—hearing from those who have raised concerns—they should have been focused on their state capitals, not their nation’s capital, because our role is narrow, our role is defined, our role is limited.

In other words, as with his lame justification for his impeachment vote, Lee evaded the substance and focused only on process. And in so doing, he as much as told the mob that invaded the Capitol that it was just in the wrong building in the wrong city, and should have been importuning the state legislatures (and perhaps rioting) in the statehouses.

How pathetic, timid, and foolish this looks alongside Mitt Romney’s statement calling for telling the truth—that there was no factual basis for protests.

During his speech on Wednesday night, Mike Lee was waving a pocket Constitution in the air to talk about how our federal system works. But our constitutional system can break down if the offices it creates are not filled by men and women of good character. The Mike Lee of 2016 was right: Republicans—and Americans—should not settle for men and women of low character and poor judgment. Utahans and Americans deserve fewer Mike Lees and more Mitt Romneys.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.