Top Utah Republicans rushed to Mitt Romney's defense Wednesday after nationalist firebrand Steve Bannon accused the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee of using his Mormon faith to avoid military service in Vietnam.
Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Mike Lee issued statements praising Romney's integrity and patriotism and condemned Bannon for comments they described as wrong and bigoted against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Romney criticized President Trump for endorsing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, and Bannon's attack came Tuesday evening during a campaign rally for the retired judge.
"Steve Bannon’s attacks on Gov. Romney and his service are disappointing and unjustified. Mitt is a close personal friend, an honest leader, a great American, and someone who has sought every opportunity possible to serve our country," Hatch said in a statement. "I also resent anyone attacking any persons religious views, but particularly our own Christian LDS faith and the selfless service of missionary work. I’d be more than happy to sit down with Mr. Bannon and help him understand more about the LDS Church at his convenience. I’ve got a copy of the Book of Mormon with his name on it."
.@MittRomney and his family are honorable people and represent the very best of Utah values. Utahns reject the ugly politics and tactics of @SteveKBannon. #stayout #utpol— Gov. Gary Herbert (@GovHerbert) December 6, 2017
Bannon is the executive chairman of Breitbart News and Trump's former chief strategist in the White House. He is supporting Moore in a special election in Alabama as part of his proxy war with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for more power in the Republican Party. Romney and McConnell both urged Moore, 70, to withdraw from the race after multiple women alleged sexual misconduct decades ago when they were teenagers, charges the candidate vehemently denies.
Bannon unloaded on Romney after the former Massachusetts governor, who is actively considering a run for Senate in Utah in 2018, posted a tweet critical of Trump's endorsement of Moore and the Republican National Committee's decision to re-engage on the retired judge's behalf despite the troubling allegations.
"Mitt, while we’re on the subject of Vietnam, and honor and integrity, you avoided service, brother, right?” Bannon said. “You hid behind your religion. You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam. Do not talk to me about honor and integrity!”
Bannon noted that Romney also has five sons, but none of them served in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Where were the Romneys during those wars?” he said. “You want to talk about honor and integrity, brother, bring it. Bring it down here to Alabama.”
It is common practice and a deeply held component of the Mormon faith for college age adults to conduct missionary work abroad, and those comments in particular by Bannon triggered a backlash and accusations that he was stoking religious bigotry to drum up votes for Moore, an evangelical Christian, as he seeks to overcome accusations of sexual impropriety that threatened to derail his campaign.
"Mitt Romney is a good man," Lee said in a Twitter post. "Whether you agree or disagree with him on any matter of public policy, you can’t credibly call into question his patriotism or moral character — especially on the basis of his religious beliefs or his outstanding service as a missionary."
Mitt Romney is a good man. Whether you agree or disagree with him on any matter of public policy, you can’t credibly call into question his patriotism or moral character—especially on the basis of his religious beliefs or his outstanding service as a missionary.— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) December 6, 2017
The dust-up comes less than 48 hours since Hatch hosted Trump in Utah and reveled in the president's public praise and encouragement to run for re-election in 2018. Hatch has quietly been planning to retire and pave the way for Romney to run to succeed him, a race he would surely win, but has signaled recently that he might be having second thoughts.
But Bannon's comments could cause problems for Hatch, whose consideration of an eighth Senate term has not gone over well with voters and who has defended Trump's endorsement of Moore.
A source close to Bannon claims that Hatch aides recently reached out to the political provocateur to gauge his reaction to the senator possibly running for re-election, and confirmed that he is mulling an endorsement of Hatch to keep Romney out of the Senate. (Sources close to Hatch deny that anyone directly connected to the senator has contacted Bannon.)
"To win in Utah you run on principle and then lead with consistent commitment to that principle. I think this just gets more complicated for Sen. Hatch. His comments yesterday justifying the presidents endorsement of Moore were confusing to Utahns when viewed through that lens," said Boyd Matheson, Lee's former chief of staff who runs a conservative think tank in Salt Lake City and briefly considered running for Senate next year. "Standing up for the principles of morality, civility and decency are where Romney has been absolutely consistent and strong. Utahns appreciate that."