Trump, Pence avoid going scorched-earth
Former President Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence have avoided an all-out war even as they break forcefully over whether Pence had the power to overturn last year’s election.
Pence’s speech on Friday rebuking Trump for un-American comments about overturning President Biden’s win represented his sharpest criticism to date of his former boss.
Allies of the former vice president, who is seen as a potential future presidential candidate, were bracing for a verbal assault from Trump, who typically goes scorched-earth against any allies who criticize him.
Yet Trump’s response to the vice president, who is reportedly respected by various Trump family members, was relatively muted.
Trump in a couple of statements criticized Pence’s remarks but put some of the blame on Pence “advisors” who said he had no choice. “I was right and everyone knows it,” he wrote.
The former president did not insult Pence and reserved his toughest comments for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other “RINOs” who went unnamed.
The carefully chosen words from Trump, following Pence’s own carefully worded rebuke of Trump, show neither politician thinks it is in their benefit to completely break from the other.
“I think Pence is trying to build a brand separate from Trump, but neither Trump nor Pence benefit from all-out war between their two camps,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant.
Pence has been trying to thread a careful needle since Election Day 2020, distancing himself from the fringe rhetoric of Trump and some of his supporters while elevating the policy accomplishments of the Trump administration.
Conant said he thinks “you’ll continue to see Pence do things that distinguish him from Donald Trump without the two of them engaging in sort of a negative back and forth.”
Pence’s comments at the Federalist Society event on Friday earned plaudits from various former Trump administration officials who have since become critics of the former president, such as ex-national security adviser John Bolton and former cybersecurity official Chris Krebs.
The right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote an effusive piece about Pence on Sunday, saying the former vice president “has received too little credit for his policy and personnel advice” during the Trump administration.
Still, Pence aides have been reluctant to trumpet the former vice president’s rebuke as a full-throated break with Trump, a tacit acknowledgement that ties to the former president could be crucial should Pence seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
“I think he’s been very clear to say that he believes the president was wrong, believes the president was given bad advice on the day,” Marc Short, Pence’s former chief of staff, said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “It does not take away from what they accomplished working together for four years for the American people.”
Trump largely left Pence out to dry on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of the former president’s supporters invaded the Capitol as the vice president was presiding over a joint sessions of Congress.
Pence was almost certainly in danger on Jan. 6.
Video of protesters chanting “Hang Mike Pence” have repeatedly circulated since that attack. The chants reflected the beliefs, promulgated by Trump, that Pence had the power to overturn the election.
He did not, as Pence himself made clear on Friday. His role in the certification of the Electoral College results by Congress is largely ceremonial.
“President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election,” Pence said Friday. “The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. Frankly, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
Trump has shrugged off the threats to Pence’s life and last week suggested Pence should be investigated by the House panel probing the events of Jan. 6 for his refusal to reject the election results.
Given Pence’s Friday remarks, the former vice president’s team expected to earn the ire of Trump. Instead, Trump mentioned McConnell and a legislative effort to reform the Electoral Count Act.
“Mike Pence said he had no authority other than to send the votes forward to the Old Crow, Mitch McConnell. If so, why are the Dems and RINOs fighting so hard to make it impossible for a VP to do so in the future?” Trump said in his Saturday statement, using an acronym for “Republicans in name only.”
Trump is widely considered the likely Republican nominee in 2024 should he decide to launch a campaign. But he has played coy about his intentions, and the former president is facing a bevy of legal challenges that could complicate an eventual campaign.
In the meantime, Pence is forging ahead with speaking engagements in early voting states in the 2024 presidential primaries. He is expected to return to South Carolina in the spring, his latest visit to the Palmetto State in addition to stops in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a onetime Trump ally who has expressed openness to running in 2024 himself, told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday that he expected Pence to run regardless of whether Trump runs for reelection.
By speaking out now, some Republicans argue, Pence is positioning himself as an alternative torchbearer of the Trump agenda. But doing so also risks eventually earning wrath of the former president.
“Pence is trying to rehabilitate his reputation and revert to the principled conservative and deeply religious man that he’s always been,” GOP fundraiser Dan Eberhart said. “Whether he can be successful at that remains to be seen. Trump may not let him as doing so means accepting Pence’s truth of what happened on Jan. 6.”