SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Wednesday he "probably would" be running for another term had President Donald Trump's tax cut not passed in Congress and stopped short of endorsing Mitt Romney as his successor.
The senator, who announced Tuesday he would retire when his seventh term is up at the end of the year, called Trump "a real man's man" for not raising any concerns about a possible run by Romney, one of the president's toughest critics.
"I've always taken this job as a gift from God, as something I have to do. So I didn't want to leave without feeling it was the right thing to do," Hatch said in an interview with the Deseret News.
What made up his mind was the passage of the tax bill just before Christmas, he said, bristling at suggestions he was playing political games by not making a decision sooner.
"It would have simply shortchanged Utahns to make an announcement that would have sidelined me from this debate," Hatch said. "It is very hard for me to imagine anyone suggesting I should have made myself a lame duck."
Hatch said as Senate Finance Committee chairman, he "rammed" the tax bill through Congress, where it passed without Democratic support. "Is it perfect? No. But it's a lot better than anyone thought it would be."
If the bill had failed, the senator said he might have run again for the office he was first elected to in 1976.
"I probably would because that was the single most important bill in the last 30 years," Hatch said, calling facing another re-election campaign "a tough hypothetical. I'm glad that I really don't have to entertain that."
He did acknowledge considering serving just the first two years of another six-year term. Hatch could have remained as chairman of the powerful finance committee through 2020 under Senate rules.
"It was an option that was suggested to me," the senator said. "If I had run again and would have got elected, I would have tried to do the whole six years. But that certainly would have been an option."
There was plenty of pressure from the president and others in Washington, D.C., for Hatch to stay in office.
Trump made a point of saying he hoped Hatch "will continue to serve your state and your country in the Senate for a very long time to come" during a speech in the Utah Capitol rotunda last month.
"The president is very close to me. I'm very close to him," Hatch said. "I wouldn't say he begged me to stay, but came close to that. He wanted me there because he knows I've been totally supportive in almost every way."
Unlike Hatch, Romney has repeatedly been critical of Trump, labeling him a fraud and a phony in a widely covered University of Utah speech during the 2016 Republican primary.
That's earned him the wrath of Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who is targeting Trump's Republican opponents in the upcoming congressional races.
Bannon accused Romney of hiding behind his LDS faith to avoid serving in Vietnam after Romney said the Alabama Senate candidate backed by Trump, Roy Moore, would be a stain on the GOP and nation because of sexual misconduct allegations.
Romney has not yet said he's a candidate for the Utah Senate seat, but is believed to be putting together a campaign and is expected to make his intentions known soon. Hatch said he doesn't know what Romney will do.
"If he runs, he'll have an incredible amount of support," Hatch said. "Normally, I think I would want to back him. It all depends on who else runs, too. I have a lot of friends out there."
A number of Republicans have expressed interest in the race or been talked about as possible candidates, including Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Gov. Gary Herbert, but few Republicans are likely to take on Romney.
I've always taken this job as a gift from God, as something I have to do. So I didn't want to leave without feeling it was the right thing to do.
–Sen. Orrin Hatch
He said Romney, who is 70 and "has a very interesting and good life," could decide he doesn't want "all the vicissitudes you have to put up with if you're a United States senator."
Hatch said he hopes Romney will run.
"We've spoken about it throughout the year, and I've said that I hoped he will — or would, if I hung them up. But that announcement is going to be his and his alone to make," the senator said.
Romney earned praise from Hatch for how he handled the wait. The senator said Romney wasn't interested in challenging him in a GOP primary had he decided to run again.
"He made it clear to me he would not do that. He was perfect throughout the whole thing. He always said he would support me, even up until the end," Hatch said. "Mitt is a man of his word."
Former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who resigned his seat in Congress last year and is a Fox News contributor, said on the cable network Wednesday that not only will Romney run, he will win.
Romney is "one of the most beloved figures" in Utah, Chaffetz, said. "He's going to win and I think he'll actually be a good senator. It's the relationship with President Trump that's going to be fun to watch."
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Hatch downplayed the friction between Romney and Trump.
"I think Mitt will speak out when he needs to, but on agenda, I think we're all on the same page, even Bannon," the senator said. He said he doesn't expect Bannon to get involved in the Utah race.
"I don't. He's an interesting guy," Hatch said, citing Bannon's loyalty to the president. "I think he knows his brand here doesn't do as well in Utah as maybe it will do in some other races in the country."
The president apparently isn't worried about a Sen. Romney, Hatch said.
"He's a real man's man. He didn't raise any concerns about that," he said. "People make a lot of the tensions between Mitt and President Trump, but on policy, we all agree on the most important things."
Romney may well end up being a Trump supporter, Hatch said.
"All I can say is I love both of them. They're both really good people and each of them has much that he's given to this country."