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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 TrumpFBI says California extremist may have targeted Newsom House Democrat touts resolution to expel Marjorie Taylor Greene from Congress Facebook to dial back political content on platform 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 MulvaneyRepublicans now 'shocked, shocked' that there's a deficit Financial firms brace for Biden's consumer agency chief Trump campaign had paid .7M to organizers of rally ahead of Capitol riot: report 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 PenceTrump censure faces tough odds in Senate Bringing America back from the brink Scarborough: 'Pence is in fear for his life because of Donald J. Trump' 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 GoreExclusive 'Lucky' excerpt: Vow of Black woman on Supreme Court was Biden turning point Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing Al Gore: 'If I were still in the Senate, I would vote to convict' Trump MORE 2000, Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat touts resolution to expel Marjorie Taylor Greene from Congress Science denialism in the new administration Jill Biden to offer input on helping reunite separated immigrant families: report 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 says he's 'very isolated and very lonely' in Republican Party Cheney tests Trump grip on GOP post-presidency National Guard back inside Capitol after having been moved to parking garage 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).