Utah’s biggest newspaper anointed the state’s longtime Republican senator, Orrin G. Hatch, as its “Utahn of the year,” a distinction that came with a nearly full-page photo on the paper’s front page on Christmas Day.
The senator seemed to appreciate the recognition, tweeting an image of the front page and thanking the Salt Lake Tribune for “this great Christmas honor.”
But the Tribune’s distinction wasn’t exactly an honor, in the strictest sense of the word.
Along with a news article and the photo, the newspaper published a scathing editorial that took aim at the senator’s recent record, most notably his part in the Trump administration’s decision to shrink two national monuments in the state, and said that the designation was meant to anoint the Utahn who had had the most impact, “for good or for ill.”
Hatch had earned the title because of his part in the “dramatic dismantling” of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, his role in helping to pass the recent tax code overhaul, and his “utter lack of integrity that rises from his unquenchable thirst for power,” the editorial board wrote.
“Each of these actions stands to impact the lives of every Utahn, now and for years to come,” the editorial read. “Whether those Utahns approve or disapprove of those actions has little consequence in this specific recognition. Only the breadth and depth of their significance matters.”
Hatch’s retweet of the Tribune’s front page — which did not capture any part of the editorial’s text — set off a cascade of ridicule on social media from people who accused the senator of not reading it.
But Matt Whitlock, a spokesman for Hatch, said that the senator’s tweet was made in jest.
“This is at least the 4th editorial the Tribune has written in the last two years urging Hatch to retire,” Whitlock wrote on Twitter. “Might as well have a chuckle about it. On Christmas.”
He followed up with a statement that lambasted the newspaper’s “unquenchable thirst for clicks.”
“We all sincerely hope the members of the Salt Lake Tribune editorial board find joy this holiday season in something beyond baselessly attacking the service and integrity of someone who [has] given 40 years for the people of Utah,” the statement said.
Hatch, who is the Senate’s longest-serving member with 42 years of service, has long been one of the staunchest conservatives in the chamber. He was seen as one of the driving forces behind President Trump’s decision to reduce the two national monuments by about 2 million acres.
The move, which was announced early in December, drew sharp rebukes from Democrats, environmentalists, Native American tribes and others who saw a threat to ecotourism in Utah.
The Tribune was harshly critical of the senator’s support for the measures, saying that they had “no constitutional, legal or environmental logic.”
“To all appearances — appearances promoted by Hatch — this anti-environmental, anti-Native American and, yes, anti-business decommissioning of national monuments was basically a political favor the White House did for Hatch,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported. “A favor done in return for Hatch’s support of the president generally and of his tax reform plan in particular.”
As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch had a prominent role in support of the bill. He drew headlines after getting into a heated exchange with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who insisted, as many critics have, that the bill would primarily benefit the wealthy and not the middle class.
“I come from the poor people,” Hatch said in response. “And I really resent anybody saying that I’m just doing this for the rich. Give me a break.”
The Salt Lake Tribune was also critical of Hatch’s likely decision to run for reelection in 2018. At 83, he is the third-oldest member of the Senate, and he had promised that 2012 would be his last campaign, the newspaper reported.
“Clearly, it was a lie,” the Tribune said. “Once again, Hatch has moved to freeze the field to make it nigh unto impossible for any number of would-be senators to so much as mount a credible challenge. That’s not only not fair to all of those who were passed over. It is basically a theft from the Utah electorate.”
Speculation has swirled that former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would run for the seat if Hatch retired, as a potential challenge to the president's agenda.
In an interview with the Tribune, Hatch said it was “too early to say” what his 2018 plans were.
“My wife would like me to hang it up,” he said. “I have a lot of pressure to keep going, from the president right on down, my colleagues here in the Senate.”
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Juliet Eilperin reported this month that an unnamed White House official said that Trump “really likes” Hatch because the senator is supportive of his agenda, defends him on TV, praises his children and has a sense of humor.
“He appreciates his work on the Senate’s tax overhaul bill, the aide added, and is hoping the 83-year-old incumbent will run for reelection next year rather than provide an opening for Trump rival Mitt Romney,” Dawsey and Eilperin reported.
“The president, who updated Hatch personally on the process [involved in changing the two national monuments], brought him along on Monday’s trip on Air Force One and agreed to meet with leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City at Hatch’s request,”