SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney spoke by phone with President Donald Trump, the White House confirmed Friday, a conversation that comes as Romney is believed to be readying a run to replace retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
During the Thursday call, described as lasting less than 10 minutes, Trump wished Romney the "best of luck in his future endeavors," according to a report by Politico that cited two sources briefed on the exchange.
Hatch's announcement earlier this week that he would retire when his seventh term in the Senate ends in December rather than seek re-election was also a topic, the online political news source said.
The call is being seen as a sign that Trump recognizes Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and one of his harshest critics, is likely to be the next U.S. senator from Utah.
"It's close to inevitable that Mitt will be the senator and a simple phone call can go a long way in repairing whatever past rifts there were and laying a foundation for a better future," said Kirk Jowers, a longtime Romney supporter.
The calls shows a pragmatic president, Jowers said, who understands "he might as well give that relationship a shot" and also "bodes well for Mitt to have an even bigger impact as a senator."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Trump may be "trying to mute any potential criticism by reaching out personally to Mitt Romney."
Karpowitz said there's no real upside for Romney, because Trump remains relatively unpopular in Utah, even though the state is one of the most Republican in the country.
"It's certainly not the case that an endorsement from Trump is going to make the difference for Mitt Romney," he said. "In fact, it might even have a negative effect given that some Utahns are hoping Romney is someone who will stand up to some of the more controversial parts of the Trump White House."
Romney has yet to make his plans public, and an announcement from him may not come for another week or so. He is not expected to have significant Republican opposition, although Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, has not ruled out a run.
"We are talking with my family and staff," Stewart told the Deseret News this week. "We'll take a little time to think about it."
Hatch, who is close to the president, said recently Trump all but begged him to stay in the office he has held since 1976. But Hatch said with the GOP's $1.5 trillion tax plan passing Congress just before Christmas, he's ready to step aside.
Romney has been encouraged by Hatch to run despite his tough talk about Trump. During the 2016 GOP primary, Romney labeled Trump a fraud and a phony and urged his party to choose another nominee.
Although Romney was briefly considered by Trump as a potential secretary of state and met with the president about the position, he has continued to raise concerns about the administration.
Last month, Trump's now embattled former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, went after Romney at a rally for Roy Moore, the GOP candidate in the special election to fill Alabama's U.S. Senate seat.
Moore, who lost the race to a Democrat despite Trump's endorsement, faced accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls in his past that he has denied.
Bannon said at the rally that Romney hid behind his religion to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War by serving a Mormon mission in France. Romney had tweeted that Moore would be a stain on the party and the nation.
The widely condemned statement by Bannon had been viewed as an opening salvo against a potential Romney candidacy. Bannon had promised to target Republicans opposed to Trump in the upcoming midterm elections.
But Bannon's involvement in "Fire and Fury," a newly released book highly critical of Trump, has caused a rift between the president and the conservative media leader, calling into question his influence.43 comments on this story
"Bannon might finally be in the space where he should have been all along, which is irrelevance," Jowers said. "In that case, he'd have even less ability to be a thorn in Mitt's side."
Romney won't hesitate to keep speaking out, Jowers said, even though they may agree on a number of issues.
"I think Romney will always have concerns about certain aspects of President Trump," he said. "Ultimately it will be a very complicated relationship because Romney will never put politics over principle, and that's typically what's expected of people who are steadfast supporters of President Trump."