Mike Lee vs. Mike Lee

Perhaps you read an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune the other day, written by “Sen. Mike Lee’s campaign.” In it, the campaign touts Sen. Lee’s earned “reputation as a principled conservative,” listing his extensive legal credentials, legislative accomplishments and advocacy for limited government and fiscal responsibility. In closing, the op-ed says “his work is motivated by a deep reverence for our nation and the values that make it great.”

One problem: this op-ed was written about the Mike Lee that Utahns elected in 2016, not the candidate running in 2022.

Independent Evan McMullin (left) shakes hands with 2022 version of Sen. Mike Lee at Utah’s U.S. Senate debate, Oct. 17, 2022.
Image: Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Lee often touts his connection to President Reagan, as his late father, Rex E. Lee, was Reagan’s solicitor general. (What would Reagan think about Lee’s opposition to aid for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia? Probably not pleasant thoughts.)  

By most accounts, Sen. Lee once was a “principled conservative,” a “Reagan conservative.” In 2016, Lee was one of the Republicans who refused to endorse Trump, saying Trump “scares me to death.” In a June 2016 interview with Newsmax’s Steve Malzberg, Lee said he didn’t know if he could even vote for Trump, let alone endorse him. Lee took issue with Trump’s “religious intolerance” and Trump’s false claim that Ted Cruz’s father assassinated President Kennedy. Malzberg downplayed Lee’s concerns, with a moral equivalency with which we’re all too familiar, saying Hillary Clinton posed a greater threat than Trump’s lie about JFK. So Lee pushed back. He said he wanted “some assurances that he [Trump] is going to be a vigorous defender of the U.S. Constitution, that he is not going to be an autocrat. That he is not going to be an authoritarian. That he is not something who is going to abuse a document that I have sworn an oath to uphold and protect and defend. I’m sorry, sir, but that is not an unreasonable demand.

A month later, Lee launched a (failed) campaign to replace Trump with Ted Cruz at the GOP nominee at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Lee also called on Trump to bow out of the 2016 race after the Access Hollywood tape surfaced. Lee denounced Trump’s comments as “vulgar,” telling Americans it was “time to stop settling. It’s time to expect more” “in matters of great principle and from our candidates for President of the United States.”

“As Republicans, as conservatives, we have succeeded precisely to the degree that we have abided by certain principles, principles that have animated this country and fostered the development of the greatest civilization the world has ever known… Mr. Trump has acknowledged this and identified the series of events tonight as a mere distraction. Well with all due respect, sir, you sir, are the distraction. Your conduct, sir, is the distraction.”

SPOILER: Lee did not vote for Trump in 2016. He voted for – wait for it – Evan McMullin.

Mike Lee of 2022 now bears the ignominy of not merely standing by silently as Trump lied about the election, but actively participating in and perpetrating the lie. Lee urged Trump to hire crackpot lawyer Sidney Powell and texted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows that there were “a group of ready and loyal advocates who will go to bat for [Trump].”

But perhaps the most baffling and egregious departure from 2016 Mike Lee – the author of “Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America’s Founding Document” – is how he wielded his constitutional law expertise as a weapon against democracy, even as he waved a pocket Constitution as a prop.

In their October 17 debate, Evan McMullin said, “Sen. Lee, who called himself a constitutional conservative and who swore an oath to the Constitution, betrayed the Constitution in an effort to overturn the will of the people by recruiting fake electors to topple American democracy. It was one of the most egregious betrayals of the American republic in its history.” (Lee denies any intention of trying to install fake electors.)

Mike Lee of 2016 would almost certainly have decried the grotesque attempt to undermine the Constitution and will of the people. He would have railed against the January 6th insurrection. Sadly, that Mike Lee is no longer with us. Instead, the man who wouldn’t endorse Trump in 2016 Trump deserved “a mulligan” for his effort to overturn the election and incite the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Evan McMullin
Image: Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Evan McMullin summed it up: “The 14 generations of Americans who have sacrificed for this grand experiment and freedom, they trusted you, we trusted you. And with that trust, and with your knowledge of the Constitution, Sen. Lee, you sought to find a weakness in our system… Sen. Lee, it is a betrayal of the American republic. You were there to stand up for our Constitution, but when the barbarians we’re at the gate, you were happy to let them in.

Mike Lee used to advocate for two-term limits for U.S. senators, and he’s served his 12 years. As Lee said, “It’s time for us to expect more. There’s no need for us to settle. Let’s move forward.” Utahns, take a cue from 2016 Mike Lee: vote for Evan McMullin.