Asked if he was trying to send a message to Romney that he doesn't want him to make a bid for Hatch's seat, which the senator has held since 1977, Trump said Romney's "a good man. Mitt's a good man".
Hatch, meanwhile, has become Trump's favorite senator of late, with the president making a Monday trip to Salt Lake City at Hatch's request.
The moral of the story: Trump may be maneuvering against Romney; but, in truth, Hatch is vulnerable to just about any Republican primary challenger. In Utah, Bannon is willing to put aside his war with McConnell and embrace Hatch if it means blocking Romney, a traditional Republican who has the gravitas to rally considerable opposition to Trump from the Right. Romney has been public about his disagreements with Trump and is a key figure in the Never Trump movement, while Hatch was an early supporter of Trump during the 2016 campaign and has since defended Trump's presidency. Trump reportedly denied Romney a cabinet post position after a post-election meeting in Trump Towers when the two attempted to mend fences.
"You meet fighters and you meet people that you thought were fighters but they're not so good at fighting", Trump said. And on Thursday, Hatch in a press release said the president accepted his invitation to come to Utah and that the president told him on a phone call last month "I'm approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin".
A spokesman for Hatch says the senator plans to announce a final decision by the end of the year.More news: Paul Pogba starts vs. CSKA Moscow; David De Gea, Ibrahimovic rested
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But the senator's office insists it's not to block former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney from getting into the race.
As a GOP Senate leader and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hatch has worked "exceptionally" well with the president, Whitlock said.
"If Steve had a choice between Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney, he would pick Hatch 10 times out of 10", the source said. "Yet Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator in history, is now refusing to rule out another campaign - a circumstance Romney's infuriated inner circle blames squarely on the president". However, he's also criticized Trump enough to get under his skin; Romney called on Trump to stay in the Paris climate agreement, blasted his response to the violence in Charlottesville, and undermined Trump's response to the Roy Moore scandal.
Hatch, the president pro tem of the Senate, recently tweeted that Trump is the best president he has served under in the line of succession.
But Hatch is also a fan of Romney's. And indeed, Hatch was reportedly telling friends he wouldn't. "He's not afraid to take on the big boss around here".