Former President Donald Trump endorsed Utah Sen. Mike Lee on Friday while taking shots at one of his challengers — including calling him an unflattering name — and Sen. Mitt Romney.

The endorsement comes as independent Senate candidate Evan McMullin launched a new digital ad campaign attacking Lee over his role in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.

Lee has done an “outstanding” job for the “wonderful” people of Utah, Trump said in a statement. He called the two-term incumbent Republican “top of the line.”

“There is no greater voice for our Military, our Vets, Law and Order, or Second Amendment, which is under total siege,” he said. “He loves his State, and is by far the superior Senator there — not even a contest!”

Romney, R-Utah, often criticized Trump’s character, and twice voted to remove him from office in Senate impeachment trials.

Trump said Lee is running against “Evan ‘McMuffin’ McMullin, a man that doesn’t represent the standards and policies” of Utahns. Trump has previously called McMullin that name.

“All you have to do is read the ads about McMuffin in the last campaign to know what he stands for,” Trump said. “He is laughed at by all, and would be a disaster for the state — and you can’t have two such Senators like that at one time.”

The other senator, presumably, is Romney.

McMullin ran an anti-Trump campaign for president as an independent in 2016. Lee voted for McMullin before embracing Trump after he took office.

Evan McMullin talks about his campaign to challenge GOP Sen. Mike Lee as an independent for the Senate.
Evan McMullin talks about his campaign to challenge Mike Lee as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In response to Trump’s endorsement of Lee, McMullin tweeted, “Senator Mike Lee — once a constitutional conservative — now has the endorsement of a wicked man who tried to dismantle our republic and stay in power against the people’s will. Lee sacrificed his honor and values to serve him at the expense of Utah and our nation. I will not.”

Lee faces challenges within his party for the Republican nomination and would not face McMullin until the general election. Romney has declined to get involved in the race and has not endorsed a candidate.

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In his new ad, McMullin calls for Lee to “come clean” about the full extent of his involvement as a bipartisan House committee continues its investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.

“Sen. Mike Lee advised Trump’s legal challenges to overturn our election,” the ad says.

“He was one of only two senators who was in on this scheme — receiving the plan four days before the Jan. 6th insurrection. But instead of speaking up to defend our country, Sen. Lee kept quiet about the plan to sabotage our democracy.”

The Lee campaign called the ad a “reckless disregard for the truth.”

“Lying about political opponents won’t endear him to Utah voters,” said Lee campaign spokesman Matt Lusty.

Lee has explained his involvement in several forums and interviews, including with the Deseret News, and in a lengthy story in UTPOL Underground written by Sam Benson, who writes for the Deseret News and Politico.

Lee did encourage Trump and his lawyers to explore the legal avenues afforded him to ensure a fair election, including the law for recounts, audits or related litigation. The senator talked to lawyers on both sides of the issue and did his own investigation into their claims and arguments.

In the end, Lee concluded that Congress’ only role was to open and count states’ electoral votes, something he said he had previously explained to Trump, his White House staff, his campaign team and his lawyers. Lee did not object to certifying the Electoral College votes.

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“It’s disgusting that the McMullin campaign is so desperate for attention that it speaks with reckless disregard for the truth,” Lusty said, adding that it has become routine for McMullin’s campaign. “But make no mistake, this approach is not what Utah wants.”

Lee, he said, has always “boldly” protected the Constitution and is helping Utahns address their concerns about out-of-control inflation, soaring housing costs and skyrocketing prices at the gas pump.

“Evan McMullin endorsed President Biden,” Lusty said. “It’s understandable why he might want to avoid those issues, all of which have been exacerbated by this administration’s policies.”

McMullin campaign spokeswoman Kelsey Koenen Witt said Lee can’t deny publicly available facts about his involvement.

“He cannot have it both ways. He advised Trump’s spurious lawsuits to overturn the election, knew about a broader plan in advance, and then voted against a bipartisan committee to investigate it after,” she said.

Koenen Witt said a leader must stand apart on principle, and Lee did not. “He chose instead to put his own personal ambitions first,” she said.

Lee did receive the memo McMullin references in the ad.

The Jan. 2 missive from John Eastman, a conservative legal scholar and member of Trump’s legal team, titled, “January 6 scenario,” claimed seven states had submitted dueling slates of presidential electors.

The memo claimed that Vice President Mike Pence could hand the election to Trump because seven states had submitted to Congress electoral votes split between Trump and Biden. Pence could simply set those states aside on Jan. 6 and count only electors from the remaining states, it claimed.

Lee, from his own calls to state election officials and others, knew that was false, and he regarded the memo as ludicrous.

“I don’t know whether some fifth grader hacked into their account and created a dummy document and they sent this to me by accident, but this is a lost cause,” he told Benson. “It was just ridiculous.”

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At a Jan. 4 rally in Georgia, Trump expressed his displeasure with Lee.

Days earlier, Lee circulated a statement from Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, among Senate colleagues opposing proposals for Congress to reject the certification of electoral votes on Jan. 6.

“Where’s Mike Lee? Where is he? I’m a little angry at you, but that’s all right,” Trump said.

The McMullin campaign points out that under questioning about his communications with Lee by a lawyer for the Jan. 6 committee, Eastman invoked his Fifth Amendment right to not answer. Eastman sued the committee to keep his emails private, claiming attorney-client privilege. A federal judge this week ordered him to turn over 101 emails between Trump and others in his administration.

McMullin, who ran for president as an independent in 2016, also called attention to new details made public this week from the investigative committee that highlighted a seven-hour gap in phone calls from the official White House call logs on Jan. 6, noting that Lee talked to Trump on the phone during that time period.

About the phone call, Lee said Trump had misdialed and was trying to reach Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Lee found Tuberville and handed his cellphone to him on the Senate floor. Trump was apparently pressing Tuberville to raise objections to the election results in order to buy time.

Lee retrieved his phone as police started escorting senators from the chamber to escape encroaching rioters.

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll last month found in a three-way race in the general election, 43% of Utahns would vote for Lee and 19% for McMullin, though a quarter of voters were undecided. Democrat Kael Weston received 11% in the survey. Lee must win a primary election before he could face McMullin in November.

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