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Will Pence be able to escape the Trump stain?

Will Pence be able to escape the Trump stain?
© Greg Nash

Donald Trump’s presidency will be remembered for one thing and one thing only: his incitement of mob rule two weeks before the end of his term. The storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 will be etched into the nation’s historic memory as clearly as the Cuban missile crisis was under President John F. Kennedy and 9/11 under President George W. Bush. It was the greatest moment of peril for our constitutional order since the Civil War. 

President TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE sees it differently. He continues to fantasize about his great electoral triumph, stolen from him by evil conspirators. “These are the things that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long,” he wrote in a subsequently deleted tweet. He added, in an apparent reference to Shakespeare’s Henry V, “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever.” No doubt they will. No doubt the entire world will.

Trump’s Twitter account has now been suspended for life.

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His incitement ended up splitting the Republican Party. The result was a wave of resignations from the White House staff: the First Lady’s chief of staff, the deputy national security adviser, the deputy press secretary. Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE, the former White House chief of staff, said: “The president has a long list of successes that we can be proud of. But all of that went away yesterday.”

Most damaging was the president’s fury at Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceIf you care about the US, root for China to score a win in space Pence heckled with calls of 'traitor' at conservative conference The Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay MORE, who refused to exercise an authority he did not have to reverse a state’s duly certified electoral vote. Pence even announced his intention to attend the Biden inaugural — without Trump. A former senior administration official said, “The thing [Trump] was most upset about and couldn’t get over all day was the Pence betrayal. . .  All day, it was a theme of ‘I made this guy. I saved him from a political death, and here he stabbed me in the back.’”

Pence has been left in a politically perilous position. The job description of a vice president can be summarized in one word: “loyalty.” A successful vice president is typically scrupulously loyal to the president who chose him. That usually puts the vice president in a good position to inherit the party’s next presidential nomination (Richard Nixon 1960, Hubert Humphrey 1968, Walter Mondale 1984, George H.W. Bush 1988, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreOn The Money: Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle | White House rules out gas tax hike Democrats have turned solidly against gas tax Overnight Energy: Biden seeks to reassert US climate leadership | President to 'repeal or replace' Trump decision removing protections for Tongass | Administration proposes its first offshore wind lease sale MORE 2000, Joe BidenJoe Biden 64 percent of Iowans say 'time for someone else' to hold Grassley's Senate seat: poll Philadelphia shooting leaves 2 dead, injures toddler Ron Johnson booed at Juneteenth celebration in Wisconsin MORE 2020). Strong partisans have a lot of influence over party nominations, and they tend to value party loyalty.

Of course, Trump may have his own plans to run again in 2024, but this month’s confrontation may turn Trump into political poison. Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerKinzinger: Conspiracy theory FBI planned Jan. 6 example of 'legacy of Trump and Trumpism' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' Why the Democrats need Joe Manchin MORE (R-Ill.) called for Trump’s removal from office using the 25th Amendment, saying it was necessary to “end this nightmare.”

“The president caused this. The president is unfit, and the president is unwell,” Kinzinger argued.

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Pence may be damaged as well, although he has astutely nurtured his own political identity. We don’t yet know whether the disastrous events of Jan. 6 have discredited Pence as well as Trump. It’s entirely possible that Republican primary voters will see a clear difference between Trump and Pence, especially because Trump’s idiosyncracies are so intensely personal. “We gather due to a selfish man’s injured pride,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said when the Senate reconvened to certify the electoral vote.

The pressure is now on Pence to establish his own political identity independent of Donald Trump. That’s not an easy thing for a former vice president to do.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).