“Your conduct, sir, is the distraction,” said Lee, speaking on Facebook live not long after Trump’s much-delayed apology video. “It’s the distraction from the very principles that will help us win in November. You yourself, sir, Mr. Trump, have stated repeatedly that the goal, the objective, has got to be to defeat Hillary Clinton in November. I couldn’t agree more. Mr. Trump, I respectfully ask you, with all due respect to step aside. Step down. Allow someone else to carry the banner of these principles.”
Lee’s video, recorded from his home in Utah, aligned him with the very small number of elected Republicans calling on Trump to quit. The first three — Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), and Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) — were fighting re-election bids that require crossover support from Democrats.
But Lee, who is cruising to re-election, has been the leading Trump critic in the red state where the nominee’s weakness is inspiring two third-party candidates to make a run at its electoral votes. Last month, Trump put Lee on a list of possible Supreme Court nominees; Lee rebuffed him, saying he preferred to stay in the Senate.
Tonight, Lee got back-up from two Republicans who'd previously endorsed Trump. Gov. Gary Herbert (R-Utah), who is also up for re-election, announced on Twitter that he could not support the top of the ticket. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in a series of interviews that he could not face his daughters and defend Trump.
“It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine,” Chaffetz told Utah’s Fox13. “That was an apology for getting caught, that was not an apology for the behavior.”
Neither Herbert nor Chaffetz suggested that Trump needed to quit the race. But according to Rick Wilson, chief strategist for the independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin, calls were going out to the Utah Republicans bailing on Trump. McMullin, a graduate of Utah's Brigham Young University, has focused on the state — and polled as high as the low teens — with the explicit goal of winning it in order to force an electoral college deadlock.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate who has also focused on Utah, responded to the Trump tape with a Facebook statement about the choice facing Republicans. (His campaign did not answer a question about outreach to Chaffetz et al.)
“I’m shocked by these revelations about Donald Trump, but is anyone really surprised?” Johnson wrote on Facebook. “It is just sad and embarrassing that a man who is now the nominee of a major party for President could display such a disgusting attitude toward women. America deserves better. Women deserve better, and our daughters deserve better.”
Utah, which has voted Republican in every presidential race since 1968, was on no one’s electoral map until Trump won the nomination. He won just 13.8 percent of the vote in the state's high turnout caucuses, running a poor third to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio). In some polls of the general election, Clinton led Trump in Utah. In August and September, when Trump inched up in polls, he led by an average of 13 points — 35 points behind Mitt Romney's 2012 margin in the state. The state’s heavily Mormon, highly college-educated voters were cool to Trump for reasons that today’s video, first revealed by the Washington Post, is likely to exacerbate.
Trump has not returned to Utah since losing the caucuses. Both Johnson and McMullin have stumped there, with McMullin telling a crowd this week that he was moved to run by “a lack of willingness of Republican leaders to stand up to Donald Trump even as he attacked people of different races and religions, people with disabilities, and anybody else who he found to be vulnerable.”
In his video, Lee did not mention McMullin, Mike Pence, or anyone else promoted by anti-Trump Republicans on Friday.
“There will be time to figure out the who,” said Lee. “Right now we’ve got to be focused on the what. And that what has to involve our greatest, our most noble principles.”