After four-and-a-half years of unbending loyalty, Vice President Mike Pence is ready to move on from Donald Trump. All it took was the president inciting a riot that, quite literally, put Pence’s life in danger.
“Pence is done with Trump’s bulls–t,” said a former Pence adviser. “He’s not going to give a prime time speech saying, ‘F you Donald Trump,’ but in his own way he is going to just get to the finish line and keep his head down.”
The vice president has spent the past few days navigating between two political forces. There is bipartisan praise for his refusal to indulge the president’s unconstitutional ploy for a second term. But the MAGA base he cultivated alongside Trump is now threatening him with political retribution and even death for that same refusal.
Not wanting to inflame the situation further, Pence and his aides have tried to dodge the spotlight since the president attacked him for lacking the “courage” to illegally overturn the election outcome. While Trump traveled to the Southwestern border on Tuesday as part of an effort to shift the conversation away from last week’s deadly rampage, Pence’s team scaled back a similar farewell tour that would have dispatched the vice president to several events this week to tout the administration’s accomplishments.
But the VP hasn’t completely checked out or turned on Trump either. On Tuesday, he formally rejected calls for him to invoke the 25th amendment to initiate the removal of the president from office. The vice president is planning to attend a memorial service for famed Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager in Charleston, W.Va., on Friday — his first planned public appearance since overseeing Congress’ election certification last week — and has also discussed meeting with state governors battling the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout between now and next Wednesday.
In a sign of Pence’s eagerness to go his separate way, he plans to attend Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20 apart from Trump, who has vowed to skip his successor’s swearing-in and is expected to depart for his West Palm Beach estate prior to then.
It’s the most overt attempt by Pence to create political distance from Trump — a man he declined to abandon amid the “Access Hollywood” leak, or through an impeachment trial in 2019, or when Trump bullied Republican allies, threatened long-standing alliances and cursed his way through campaign rallies.
For that distancing, Pence has earned plaudits from prominent conservatives, Republican lawmakers and right-wing organizations, especially since last Wednesday, when he returned to the House chamber hours after the riots to oversee certification of Biden’s win. Even Trump allies have rallied by Pence’s side as the MAGA-faithful continue to rail against him for his alleged treachery.
“I am totally supportive of him doing what he thinks is right,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
People familiar with the matter said the vice president has found solace in the outpouring of support for himself and other members of Congress who rebuffed Trump’s pressure to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s win. Pence and his allies have also been pleased with what they perceive to be a reputational boost he’s enjoyed, and the increasing likelihood that Trump will forgo launching a comeback campaign in 2024. Pence harbors presidential ambitions of his own. But the prospect of Trump running for office again in four years had threatened to freeze the Republican primary field and place Pence in an uncomfortable position.
“Mike Pence is stronger today as a candidate for 2024 than he’s ever been because he’s been loyal to the president, but also loyal to his conscience and doing what’s right,” said a former White House official.
While Pence has yet to decide on a future presidential bid, he is expected to spend the next few months selling the successes of the Trump administration — on everything from tax reform and deregulation to religious freedom — with paid speeches and appearances in front of conservative audiences. He also plans to publicly push back as the incoming Biden administration works to undo many Trump-era policies, with op-eds and media appearances. One person close to Pence said his short-term goal is to help Republicans take back the House in the 2022 midterm cycle and find a lucrative board position or steady stream of speaking opportunities to generate income.
The future of his relationship to Trump is less clear. Though a senior administration official said the two had a “good” conversation on Monday night — their first since Pence had to be hurried out of the Senate chamber minutes ahead of the mob — it is unclear if Trump has offered an apology for what Pence allies view as a remarkable betrayal. Nor has Trump expressed contrition for his remarks that preceded last week’s Capitol Hill putsch.
“If you read my speech … it’s been analyzed and people thought that what I said was totally appropriate,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday.
Despite a reprieve from Trump’s wrath after the president was banned from social media sites Facebook, Twitter and Instagram last week, Pence has faced increasingly dark threats from the president’s supporters and defenders. Outside the chaotic scenes last Wednesday, some Trump backers were caught on camera chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.” Over the weekend, attorney Lin Wood, who led an unsuccessful effort to overturn the 2020 election results, was censored on the Twitter-alternative Parler for suggesting that Pence be executed by “firing squads.”
A spokesperson for Pence declined to comment further on the conversation he had with Trump. But a former Pence adviser said of the president: “He absolutely owes the vice president an apology, not just for endangering his life, but for trying to dupe people into thinking [Pence] could do more” to change the outcome of the 2020 election.
Most Pence aides and allies said they anticipated that Trump would make life difficult for his vice president for declining to interfere with the Jan. 6 certification vote to affirm Biden’s win, citing the intense pressure Trump and his own allies — including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, director of presidential personnel Johnny McEntee and former campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn — had already put on Pence and his team leading up to last week’s joint session.
But in the aftermath of last Wednesday, some said they’ve still been surprised by Trump’s refusal to make amends with his vice president, particularly as Pence resists calls to organize the president’s removal from office or pressure him to resign.
“It’s all just very disappointing. I thought I’d lost the capacity to be shocked and I was wrong,” said one person close to Pence, noting that Trump and those pushing Pence to unilaterally overturn the election results — like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — “didn’t even have a plan” for the unprecedented fallout that would have ensued if Pence had obliged.