Orrin Hatch Retirement Opens Door For Trump Critic Mitt Romney In Senate

Updated | The retirement of Utah Republican Orrin Hatch after four decades in the Senate opens the door to a possible run by Mitt Romney, the two-time White House hopeful who's been a sharp critic of President Donald Trump. 

Romney, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, has deep roots—and an address —in Utah, where members of the Mormon Church have an abiding influence over the state's politics and elections. 

Hatch's announcement rejuvenated already lively talk of a possible Romney return to the political arena.

Romney famously met with Trump after the 2016 presidential election for a "wonderful" dinner while under consideration for a cabinet position, but mostly, the establishment Republican has been a staunch critic of the president.

"Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He's playing the American public for suckers," Romney seethed in a fiery speech at the University of Utah in March, 2016.

Romney, who sought the GOP nomination in 2008 and got it in 2012, also laid into Trump during that speech for "the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third-grade theatrics."

During the tumultuous special election for Senate in Alabama, Romney also took sides against Trump and his endorsement of the highly controversial Roy Moore.

A spokeswoman for Romney didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on his plans vis a vis Hatch's retirement announcement, and it is unclear if he is interested in succeeding the elder statesman in the upper chamber.

In a statement on Facebook, Romney said only, "I join the people of Utah in thanking my friend, Senator Orrin Hatch for his more than forty years of service to our great state and nation."

He added that "as chairman of the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees and as the longest-serving Republican Senator in U.S. history, Senator Hatch has represented the interests of Utah with distinction and honor," and offered the legislator and his wife the best on behalf of the Romney family.

Romney has long been rumored to be at least interested in getting involved in the event of a Hatch departure. Late last year, reports tracked his conversations with supporters, donors and advisors from former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and conservative pundit Bill Kristol, who openly told Politico he hoped Romney would run if Hatch retired. 

"He'd be a great senator, and a great voice to have in Washington," Kristol told Newsweek shortly after Hatch's announcement.

Hatch said in a video address Tuesday that although he had been proud to fight on behalf of his fellow Utahns, "Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves, and for me, that time is soon approaching."

The longtime senator memorably gave thanks for being honored as "Utahn of the Year" by the state's biggest newspaper, the Salt Lake Tribune

It wasn't that much of an honor, though: An editorial accompanying the recognition said, among other things, "It would be good for Utah if Hatch, having finally caught the Great White Whale of tax reform, were to call it a career. If he doesn’t, the voters should end it for him."

No matter who will replace Hatch, his decision to retire has broader implications, given his chairmanship of the important Finance committee and his seniority on other committees.

It will also likely be hard to top Hatch's effusive praise for Trump.

When Republicans gathered at the White House late last month to celebrate the passage of their major tax reform package, the Utah lawmaker enthused that Americans could be witnessing the greatest presidency "ever" and called it "one of the great privileges of my life to stand here on the White House lawn with the president of the United States, who I love and appreciate so much."

This article has been updated to add detail on Romney's potential interest in running for Senate, his statement on Hatch's retirement, Hatch's comments on Trump and a remark from Bill Kristol.