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Utah's senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, plant political flags in different spots when it comes to President Trump

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mike Lee and Sen.-elect Mitt Romney planted their flags on divergent pieces of political sod in the past few days, signaling how the two Utah Republicans intend to deal with President Donald Trump.

While Romney's Washington Post op-ed assailing the president continued to garner all the attention Wednesday, Lee told Politico on Sunday that he is ready to endorse Trump in 2020.

"Without a doubt, rhetorically at least, the two senators are now in different places when it comes to the president," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

Romney will be sworn in Thursday, while Lee is in his second term.

Karpowitz said it's a "little surprising" that Lee would announce his intention to back Trump at this stage given his resistance three years ago.

"If he's decided already that he's going to endorse and that he's not going to support any kind of opposition to the president, then that's an important signal and I do think that's a headline," he said.

During his Senate campaign in 2018, Romney wouldn't endorse Trump for re-election but said he expects him to win the GOP nomination and be elected to a second term.

In an interview with the Deseret News on Wednesday, Romney again said it's too early to decide whether to endorse Trump and that he's going to wait and see what the alternatives are. Romney made it clear he is not one of those alternatives and said he will not run for president.

Lee said he had "real concerns" about Trump during the 2016 election but now is "very pleased" with the president, adding "I quite like him."

"Look, I had some concerns and I expressed those," Lee told Politico. "I've been pleased with the number of things he's done, and he's been very helpful to me on criminal justice reform. … I've talked to him a lot and talking to him helps me develop a relationship with him."

Utah's soon-to-be senior senator, though, had no comment Wednesday on Romney's take on Trump.

"We don't normally comment on op-eds from other senators," Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said in an email.

But others, including Trump, had plenty to say about it.

"Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn't. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!" the president tweeted.

Trump later told reporters at a White House meeting that he wished Romney "could be more of a team player."

"If he fought really hard against President Obama like he does against me, he would have won the election," Trump said.

Romney's niece, Ronna McDaniel, who heads the Republican National Committee, tweeted "POTUS is attacked and obstructed by the MSM media and Democrats 24/7. For an incoming Republican freshman senator to attack @realDonaldTrump as their first act feeds into what the Democrats and media want and is disappointing and unproductive."

Asked whether Utahns agreed with Romney's op-ed, Utahn Don Peay, a longtime Trump supporter and family friend, said in a text message to "see Romney's niece's response."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., questioned the wisdom of Romney's op-ed, warning the incoming senator that the move could hurt Romney and Utah.

He explained to Fox News radio host Brian Kilmeade on Wednesday that Trump is accessible and will listen to criticism if it's intended to help the president succeed.

"That will not happen if he believes you are out to get him. So I'm hoping that Mitt will sit down with the president privately, share his concerns with the president about whatever drives his thinking but also commit to the president that I want you to be successful and I'm here to help you," Graham said. "If he will do that he can be a very effective senator. If he's going to be the critic from Utah, it's going to hurt him and Utah."

The New York Times reported that Romney's critique of the president "touched off a series of counterattacks from Mr. Trump's allies Wednesday and an initial effort to insulate him from a primary challenge next year."

The Times quoted an email from Jevon Williams, Republican National Committee member from the Virgin Islands, who called Romney's op-ed "calculated political treachery," and urged other committee members amend party rules to prevent challengers from being nominated at the party's 2020 convention.

Romney said Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria on a "precipitous basis" leading to the departure of Secretary of Defense James Mattis led him to pen the op-ed a "little faster than I would have."

"I'm not sure when the right time is to describe what your perspectives and priorities are other than as you're about to go to work in the chamber," he told the Deseret News

Romney said it's important for people to know how he's going to work in Washington and to know that he will work with the president and his polices, but that if or when he says something which is significant and is divisive, he'll speak out.

"The president is going to do what's right for his presidency, and I respect that. We will surely have places of difference over the coming years. But I hope we'll also have many places where we'll find common ground despite the fact that we're going to have some disagreements," he said.

While Romney is off to a rocky start with the president, Lee has thrived in the Trump administration.

In addition to getting the Trump-backed criminal justice reform bill passed — his biggest legislative accomplishment to date — Lee was among few Republicans applauding the president's move to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Trump gave Lee a shout-out in a tweet defending the decision.

While Romney appears to be setting himself up to contend with the president — at least when it comes to character and leadership — Lee continues to strengthen his ties to Trump.

Politico reported that Lee and other conservative senators had lunch with Trump amid the government shutdown.

"I'm a big believer in the need to bolster border security and I think he is right to place emphasis on that," Lee said of the president.

Neither Lee nor Romney voted for Trump in 2016, and both were highly critical of him during the campaign. (Lee cast a "protest" vote for independent candidate Evan McMullin, while Romney said he wrote in his wife, Ann Romney.)

Lee tried to derail Trump's nomination at the 2016 GOP convention. In a June 2016 interview with Newsmax, he said he was open to backing Trump but was uncertain about where Trump stood.

"I would like some assurances that he is going to be a vigorous defender of the U.S. Constitution, that he is not going to be an autocrat, that he is not going to be an authoritarian," Lee said then.

Lee also took offense that Trump accused the father of his friend, Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, of conspiring to kill John F. Kennedy. He also expressed concern that Trump made "religiously intolerant" statements that turned off Utah voters.

Karpowitz said Lee appears to moving toward the camp of Republicans who are willing to work with the president, though that's not to say Romney isn't willing to do that. Romney has largely agreed with Trump's policies.

"I think Mitt Romney is taking a very different approach in being willing to be much more openly critical about the shortcomings that he sees," he said, adding he thinks many GOP senators have deep concerns about the Trump administration but are unwilling to state them publicly.

Karpowitz said both Lee and Romney have room to criticize Trump given Utah has not fully embraced him.

Contributing: Matt Brown, Lisa Riley Roche