Sen. Orrin Hatch blasted Steve Bannon Wednesday for accusing Mitt Romney of dodging military service by hiding behind his religion, calling the charge “disappointing and unjustified.”
“Steve Bannon’s attacks on Governor Romney and his service are disappointing and unjustified,” Hatch said in a statement. “Mitt is a close personal friend, an honest leader, a great American, and someone who has sought every opportunity possible to serve our country.”
Utah’s other senator, Mike Lee, also hammered Bannon’s Romney rebuke on Twitter Wednesday.
“Mitt Romney is a good man,” Lee said. “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.”
Stumping for embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore at a rally Tuesday night, Bannon took aim at the former governor, Romney “avoided service” by using his Mormon faith to escape the draft during the Vietnam war.
“The college deferments, we can debate that — but you hid behind your religion,” Bannon said. “You went to France to be a missionary while guys were dying in rice paddies in Vietnam."
In the late 1960s Romney served for several years as a missionary for the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for which he received a deferment from serving in the Vietnam war.
Romney, the former Republican presidential nominee and Massachusetts governor, is mulling a run to replace Hatch in the Senate should the 83-year-old Utah lawmaker opt to retire. But the former Republican official has faced opposition from the White House and Bannon’s conservative supporters.
Bannon served as the White House chief strategist to President Donald Trump, who himself received several deferments from service during the Vietnamese conflict, citing his education and health. Trump, a longtime opponent of Romney, has sought to persuade Hatch to run for reelection in 2018, a move that would block a potential return to office from Romney.