The Slatest

It’s Really Time for Orrin Hatch to Step Down

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch at the Capitol on Nov. 28, 2017.
Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch at the Capitol on Nov. 28, 2017.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch is about to turn 84. He announced in January that he will not be seeking re-election this fall, which would mean that his time in the Senate is scheduled to end with the 2018 calendar year. That’s not soon enough.

It’s become evident that Hatch can’t currently handle the demands of his job. Whether his problem is incapacity or indifference isn’t something that can be said with certainty by an outsider, but given statements like the one he made Thursday morning to a question about ex-White House aide Rob Porter—who was Hatch’s chief of staff for three years and has been accused of serial abuse in detailed, corroborated statements by his ex-wives—it doesn’t matter:

There are two ways you can interpret “I really don’t understand what happened,” but they both involve Hatch being delinquent in his attention to a serious situation. The more generous reading is “I don’t understand what happened to make him lose his temper”—a 1950s-vintage suggestion that Porter must have gotten carried away during an enigmatic, isolated incident. In fact, Porter’s ex-wives say that he used violence to hurt or intimidate them on more than five occasions, while CNN has reported that another of his ex-girlfriends contacted both ex-wives in 2016 to recount similar incidents. The less generous interpretation is that Hatch is saying he literally doesn’t understand the news about Porter, a possibility that’s all too believable given his ghastly initial statement on the issue, which was released Tuesday night by the White House:

It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man. Shame on any publication that would print this — and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.

I know Rob. I’ve known him for years, both as a close friend and as a personal adviser. He is kind and considerate towards all. The country needs more honest, principled people like Rob Porter, which is why I hope that this cynical campaign to discredit his character ultimately fails.

A Hatch aide told CNN that this statement was issued without the senator having actually apprised himself of the allegations that, at the time, were about to be published by DailyMail.com:

However, an aide to Hatch said the statement was drafted before the first article came out and Hatch didn’t know all the details. His office was only told there was some kind of effort underway to undermine Porter and that it would involve his marriages.

“The statement was prepared before any accusations were printed but with the understanding that his past marital troubles would be used against him,” the aide said.

But on Wednesday, after issuing a more appropriate statement noting that domestic violence is abhorrent, Hatch said the following:

Thursday, then, he said he didn’t understand what had happened—a senator asking for a mulligan on Day 3 of a story about the potentially criminal conduct of someone who went from being his top adviser to handling sensitive material for the president.

Unfortunately, none of this is out of character for the Utah senator, who in the last year has:

• Said publicly that he planned to run for re-election, surprising the many people to whom he’d privately said he was retiring, only to announce six weeks later that he was, in fact, retiring.
Told a Slate reporter he’d be shocked if Paul Manafort had done anything illegal in his overseas consulting work—a statement made after Manafort, an already legendary sleazeball, had been indicted on a detailed list of charges by Robert Mueller, which itself followed a long period in which various press reports had provided extensive documentation of recent behavior by Manafort that, to the layperson at least, seemed extremely crime-like. “I’d be surprised if Paul broke any laws,” Hatch said. Gee whiz!
• Had to be told “almost verbatim” by a staffer how to answer a question posed by Sen. Claire McCaskill about the Obamacare repeal bill during a committee hearing.

You don’t have to be a Democratic partisan to see that Hatch has stayed in office past the point at which he can, or is willing to, effectively process the details of ongoing national issues. And you only need to be a normal human being to be embarrassed by the way this failure has played out in Rob Porter’s case. Someone whose staffers have to explain that he called the alleged victims of domestic violence “morally bankrupt character assassins” because he didn’t know what he was talking about doesn’t qualify for the winking retirement-tour treatment that aging, checked-out legislators are so often given. It’s time for Orrin Hatch to go.