The Memo: Pence struggles to escape Trump’s long shadow
A new, bright spotlight is about to be shone onto the complicated relationship between former President Trump and his former vice president, Mike Pence.
The third televised hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, set for Thursday afternoon, will focus on efforts by Trump and his allies to pressure Pence to help overturn the 2020 election.
Pence resisted those efforts, and President Biden’s victory was duly confirmed.
These days Pence is widely thought to be mulling his own possible bid for the White House in 2024. If he goes forward, it will require careful management of the dynamics between him and his former boss.
One Pence adviser said that the former vice president has no intention of going scorched-earth against Trump but that he intends to chart his own course.
There have already been signs that he has been doing so, on everything from Georgia’s primary elections to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Thursday’s hearing will, by its nature, demonstrate the distance between Pence and Trump, which grew to a crescendo when pro-Trump protesters on Jan. 6 called for Pence to be hanged.
Pence refused to leave the Capitol that day, despite being asked twice by Secret Service to evacuate, according to a book by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of The Washington Post published last year.
The hearing will feature witnesses close to Pence.
Greg Jacob, his chief counsel at the time of the insurrection, is expected to offer public testimony. Jacob was central to efforts to push back on Team Trump’s attempts to suggest that Pence could somehow act to prevent Congress’s certification of votes from the Electoral College.
The Trump scheme, advocated by conservative lawyer John Eastman, would have had Pence declining to count the Electoral College votes from certain states where Trump supporters put up uncertified alternate slates of electors. Rather than declare Biden the rightful victor, the election’s outcome would then have been determined by state congressional delegations and perhaps a handful of state legislatures.
Amid the chaos of Jan. 6, Jacob at one point emailed Eastman, telling him, “Thanks to your bullshit we are now under siege.”
Retired U.S. Appeals Court Judge Michael Luttig, an informal adviser to Pence, is also expected to appear before the committee. And former Pence chief of staff Marc Short has previously testified in private.
The bigger picture, beyond Thursday, is one in which Pence has sought to escape from Trump’s shadow without alienating voters who still revere the former president.
“I think he is definitely running, and I think he is pretty plausible,” said Republican strategist John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “But he has got to somehow peel the religious conservatives away from Trump. They are still pretty tight with Trump, and a lot of them don’t like Pence because he is seen as having turned on Trump.”
In a February speech to the conservative Federalist Society, Pence contended that Trump had been incorrect in his theories about what any vice president could do.
“President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election,” Pence said.
But he was careful to wrap that argument in terms that would be appealing to most Republicans.
“Frankly there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president. Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election. And [Vice President] Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat [the Democrats] in 2024,” he said.
The following month, soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin had launched his invasion of Ukraine, Pence told a crowd of Republican donors, “There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom.”
The remark was widely seen as an implicit shot at Trump, who had praised the Russian president’s “savvy” and strategic “genius” in the days leading up to the invasion. But Pence did not name Trump.
Last month, Pence rallied with Republican incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp on the night before primary elections in Georgia.
Trump had desperately sought to oust Kemp, because he too had resisted efforts to overturn the election.
Again, Pence confined his remarks largely to praise of Kemp’s record and made no mention of Trump.
In the end, Kemp defeated Trump’s choice, former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), in a landslide.
GOP strategist Rick Tyler, a Trump critic, argued that “it’s clear that Pence is rolling out his distancing” from the former president.
Praising Pence’s self-discipline, Tyler said, “I think Mike has a long way to go, but I also think he is very smart and he will be patient, and he will take his political opportunities when the environment is right.”
Tyler acknowledged that 2024 is a now-or-never moment for Pence if he wants to ever become president. But he also predicted that Pence was too cautious a politician to throw his hat into the ring without seeing a real chance of success.
It all comes back to Trump, once again.
If Pence wants the nomination, he will be vying for the support of voters who still overwhelmingly view the former president in favorable terms.
An Economist-YouGov poll released Wednesday showed 80 percent of Republican voters holding a favorable view of Trump. Pence was viewed favorably by a notably lower majority, 64 percent.
Other opinion polls show the steep gradient Pence faces. A Politico-Morning Consult poll earlier this month showed him in third place in a hypothetical battle for the 2024 nomination.
With 12 percent support, Pence was close to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), in second place at 18 percent, but way behind Trump, at 51 percent.
Pence has not testified to the Jan. 6 committee.
But he’ll be watching events on Thursday as closely as anyone, for what they say about his future as well as his recent past.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. Brett Samuels contributed reporting.