Orrin Hatch
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

There was a time in the 1990s when I considered Sen. Orrin Hatch a serious legislator. I certainly didn’t agree with him on much, but at a time when the Republican Party seemed to have gone mad with a malignant form of Clinton Derangement Syndrome, Sen. Hatch appeared to be more interested in public policy than waging partisan holy war. In 1997, he teamed up with Ted Kennedy to enact the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a decision that drew heavy criticism from many of his colleagues.

When the time came, though, Hatch voted to remove Bill Clinton from office for both perjury and obstruction of justice, thereby designating the president’s lies about ill-advised office trysts with an intern as a high crime. If I had been paying closer attention to politics then, I might never have credited Hatch with a serious or upright nature at all.

You can see how nakedly partisan he is today by his dismissal of President Trump’s campaign finance-related felonies.

Retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch defended President Donald Trump on Monday, saying he doesn’t believe he committed any crimes.

The Utah Republican told CNN’s Manu Raju that he didn’t have any concerns about allegations that Trump directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to pay hush money to two women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs.

“No because I don’t think he was involved in crimes but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws; if you want to you can blow it way out of proportion you can do a lot of things,” Hatch said, according to a Raja tweet.

Hatch said the Democrats would do anything to hurt the president.

When told the federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York were making the allegations, Hatch said, “OK but I don’t care; all I can say is he’s doing a good job as president.”

Raju also tweeted that Hatch told him, “President Trump before he became president that’s another world. Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead. … And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”

For people too young to remember, the Democrats also brushed aside the president’s lies about his infidelity by accusing Republicans of blowing things out of proportion and looking for anything they could find to hurt Bill Clinton. The Democrats also pointed to the strong economy and insisted that Clinton was doing an otherwise good job. Those arguments did not hold any water with Orrin Hatch at the time.

But it’s not the predictable double standard and hypocrisy that is most bothersome here. What’s really troubling is how Hatch has transformed himself into a huge defender of Donald Trump at a time when it makes little moral or political sense for him.

He didn’t initially support Trump’s presidential bid; he originally backed Jeb Bush and then shifted his support to Marco Rubio. When the Access Hollywood tape came out, Hatch was blistering in his criticism, even if he refused to rescind his endorsement. Like many Mormons, Hatch has been a critic of Trump’s immigration policies and anti-Muslim bias. Yet since Trump has come into office, Hatch has been one of his strongest and most vocal supporters.

The most curious aspect of this is that there is no clear self-interested motive. On Wednesday, Hatch will deliver his farewell address in the Senate. He is retiring as the longest-serving Republican senator in the nation’s history. He was sworn in on January 3, 1977, while Gerald Ford was still in the Oval Office.

Hatch doesn’t have to face the electorate again, so he’s not pandering to Trump’s base for that reason. He’s not going to need the president’s support for any legislation, so that can’t be it. The people of Utah strongly support the Republican Party, but they don’t really like Donald Trump very much, so it’s doubtful that Hatch is worried about how his friends back home will treat him. Hatch clearly isn’t sucking up to Trump for posterity’s sake, since he can foresee that Trump’s presidency is entering choppy waters and probably won’t end well. In any case, the literate class that writes history could not possibly despise Trump more, so betting on getting credit for sticking with this president cannot reasonably be a motive for Hatch. In general, Hatch is an establishment man, and Trump is an anti-establishment president.

There are many Republican senators who refrain from defending this president, and they certainly don’t say things like “this [could be] the greatest presidency that we’ve seen, not only in generations, but maybe ever,” as Hatch did after Trump’s unpopular tax cut was signed into law.

So, I don’t know why Hatch is still defending Trump. I do know, however, that it ultimately doesn’t matter. His replacement, Mitt Romney, is far more likely to vote to convict the president in an impeachment trial.  In fact, he’s already written the speech.

Of course, Romney subsequently applied for a job in Trump’s administration and has tempered his criticism to assure that he could win Hatch’s seat in the Senate. But that speech from March 3, 2016, gives us a window into what he really thinks.

Romney used the address, a targeted critique of Donald Trump, to declare that the candidate’s promises were “worthless”, describe him as a “fraud”, and claim that “he’s playing the American public for suckers: he gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.”

I don’t actually see Romney as an improvement on Hatch, as I consider Romney the single most dishonest presidential candidate (until Trump) in the history of our country. But I do not anticipate that Romney will enter the Senate intent on protecting Trump. He thinks Trump is a “worthless fraud” with no morals, and who just demonstrated in the midterms that he is an albatross for the Republican Party.

Hatch can say his goodbyes on Wednesday and defend Trump on television if he wants to. We don’t really need to care what he thinks or says anymore. He can sit at home and polish his Presidential Medal of Freedom, because that’s the only award that a harsh posterity won’t take away.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com