Pence’s relationship with Trump fractures in final days
Vice President Pence spent four years positioning himself as the most loyal sidekick to President Trump, a man who prizes allegiance among aides but rarely returns it.
Pence stood by Trump through numerous controversies — the “Access Hollywood” tape, Charlottesville, Lafayette Square, impeachment and others — and at one point went viral for appearing to mimic Trump’s movements during a meeting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency when the president placed a water bottle on the floor.
But in the closing days of their time in office together, their relationship has fractured.
Trump, enraged that Pence did not break the law to reject the election results declaring Joe Biden the winner, did not call the vice president on Wednesday after he was whisked away to safety while the Capitol was under siege from pro-Trump rioters, some of them reportedly vowing violence against Pence.
Trump and Pence spoke for the first time on Monday evening, going five days without communicating even as Pence has come under additional threats. The two met in the Oval Office, a senior administration official said, and reflected on the last four years as well as plans for their final full week in office.
“Vice President Pence has been a critical part of this Administration and helped President Trump achieve unprecedented successes on behalf of the American people,” deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement. “We are all grateful for the Vice President’s service to the country.”
Cracks between the two have emerged in the weeks after Election Day. Trump spent weeks making false claims that he had won the election over Biden and that the race was “stolen,” “rigged” or “fraudulent.” Pence stuck to the line that every “legal” vote should be counted, carefully avoiding echoing Trump’s language without ever explicitly undercutting him.
Pence made several trips to Georgia to campaign for GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the Senate runoff elections there. In appearances in late December and early January, he spoke about the need for Loeffler and Perdue to serve as a defense against Joe Biden’s agenda, an implicit nod to the reality that Trump would not serve a second term.
The dynamic shifted dramatically last week, however. Pence informed Trump during a lunch last Tuesday that he did not believe he had the legal authority to reject electors for Biden during the Jan. 6 congressional certification of the votes.
Trump responded by spending the next 24 hours pressuring the vice president to intervene anyway.
“Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution,” Trump told throngs of the supporters on the White House Ellipse. Moments later, he encouraged them to “walk down to the Capitol” and lamented “you’ll never take back our country with weakness.”
A short time after that, Pence released a letter stating that he and his advisers had determined he did not have the authority to unilaterally reject electors or determine the outcome of the election.
Within hours, a pro-Trump mob had breached the Capitol complex. Pence and other lawmakers in the building were whisked away to safety. Trump’s first tweet commenting on the mayhem was an attack on his own vice president, complaining that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution.”
Multiple current and former White House officials described widespread frustration over the way Trump snapped at Pence. They argued that influential outside advisers had convinced Trump that Pence could act to stop Biden’s win.
“I don’t know if the president really believed that Pence could change the outcome, or if he just wanted someone to blame,” said one source close to the White House. “But either way, Pence didn’t deserve that because he really has been such a loyal soldier.”
Spokespeople for the vice president did not respond to requests for comment on the state of the relationship between the two men.
Some observers expressed hope that the two could mend fences, something that might appear far-fetched to others who see Trump’s actions as directly putting Pence in the path of an angry mob.
“I hope that their relationship will be OK long term. I know that there is a tremendous amount of mutual respect and affection between the two of them,” said a second source close to the White House.
Some Trump allies have come to the vice president’s defense since Wednesday’s riot. Most notably, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, a longtime Trump aide, called Pence “a genuinely fine and decent man.”
“Not only is @Mike_Pence a great person, he was and is a fantastic Vice President,” Matt Woking, a former Trump campaign staffer, tweeted Friday. The message was retweeted by former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
It’s unclear whether Pence and Trump will patch things up in the final 10 days of their time in office together.
Pence appears uninterested in engaging in talks about removing Trump through the 25th Amendment, but his spokesperson did not respond when asked if he had a comment on Democrats moving this week to impeach Trump for a second time.
The vice president led a coronavirus task force meeting on Monday, while Trump is scheduled to travel to Texas on Tuesday to tout construction on the border wall over the past four years.
Pence’s political future has been scrambled by last week’s events. He was widely seen as likely to pursue a 2024 bid if Trump did not run again, positioning himself as a natural successor to Trump.
Republican strategists argued it’s too soon to determine whether Pence’s 2024 prospects will suffer because of a perceived betrayal to Trump voters, or if he may actually benefit for declining to bend to pressure from the president.
“Because he fulfilled his constitutionally charged duties, he crossed Donald Trump at the end. And Donald Trump and his most loyal base will never forgive him for that,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
“In two years if Pence starts making moves to run [for president], whatever the Trump machine is then will go after him before they go after anyone else,” Heye added. “The question is how much is that, and can that stop him from getting the nomination.”
— Updated 6:52 p.m.