Pence treads carefully with Trump
Former Vice President Mike Pence has a Trump problem, strategists and officials in the former president’s orbit say.
For Pence to successfully carve out a path to the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, he must simultaneously win over swaths of former President Trump’s base and create distance from the former president to chart a new path forward, while not creating so much distance that he angers his old boss.
Pence earlier this week offered a window into how he may try to pull off the delicate balancing act during an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News.
Pence ran through a series of criticisms of the Biden administration before being asked about his relationship with the former president, which was fractured when the two left office over Pence’s refusal to reject the electoral college results declaring President Biden the winner.
“I can tell you that we parted amicably at the end of the administration, and we’ve talked a number of times since we both left office,” Pence said. “But I believe that our entire focus today should be on the future.”
Pence went on to criticize the media for what he claimed was overplaying the significance of Jan. 6, when hundreds of pro-Trump rioters overwhelmed law enforcement and stormed into the Capitol to try and stop the election certification process. Some of those rioters chanted for Pence to be hanged as he was whisked to safety, while Trump tweeted critically of the then-vice president.
The remarks were a subtle shift from Pence’s past prepared lines about the insurrection, when he acknowledged he and Trump “may never see eye-to-eye” on Jan. 6. But the adjustment succeeded in catching the ear of his former boss, whose support Pence would theoretically need should he run for president in 2024.
“Vice President Mike Pence’s statement during his interview with the great Sean Hannity very much destroys and discredits the Unselect Committees Witch Hunt on the events of January 6th,” Trump said in a statement. “It will continue anyways, however, because the Fake News doesn’t want to focus on Afghanistan, Russia, Taiwan and China, the Border, inflation, and a failing economy.”
The statement from Trump was a rare bit of public praise for his former vice president since the two left office. While Pence said they’ve spoken “a number of times” in recent months, they have not met in person in that time.
Spokespeople for Trump and Pence did not respond to requests for comment on contact between the two men. One source close to Trump said the two men are on better terms than when they left office, though they argued the former president’s looming decision to run in 2024 would render questions about Pence’s path moot.
Should Trump decide to sit out in 2024, Pence’s path to the GOP nomination will be narrow without some kind of embrace from his old boss, strategists say, making it all the more critical for the former vice president to smooth over that relationship.
“Pence has to walk a fine line. He’s trying to stay in Trump’s good graces and not upset Trump’s base with the hope of being the heir apparent if Trump doesn’t run in 2024,” GOP fundraiser Dan Eberhart said. “The media is a convenient whipping boy on Jan. 6. Convenient because the public distrusts them and because it deflects blame away from Trump.”
Pence’s post-vice presidency schedule has had all the markings of a politician eyeing a presidential campaign. He’s held events in early voting states like South Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa. He’s campaigned for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R), he’s launched a political advocacy group, and he’s working on a memoir about his life before and during the Trump administration.
Throughout those steps, Pence has played up his role as Trump’s vice president, using speeches to rattle off economic and foreign policy accomplishments while carefully laying out his own vision for what he described as a “positive” conservative agenda to combat the policies of the Biden administration.
But Pence is walking a tightrope, strategists and GOP insiders say. A segment of the party may never forgive him for breaking with Trump and certifying the election results, while another segment will be turned off if Pence downplays the events of Jan. 6.
He must create an identity separate from Trump, even as he ties himself closely to his former boss. Some strategists believe the high-wire act may simply be too difficult to pull off.
“I do not see a credible path forward to how Pence can get the nomination,” said Sean Walsh, a GOP strategist who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. “There are too many problems he’ll have with Trump and Trump loyalists.”