Vice President Mike Pence’s political future looks murky after he decisively broke with President Trump to preside over the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Pence has been a loyal Trump understudy and a reliable bridge between MAGA populists and movement conservatives, especially the evangelicals among them. He had hoped to ride these traits into the 2024 Republican presidential primaries. But Trump’s repeated public insistence that Pence reject Biden electors from contested battleground states, something the vice president declared he had no constitutional authority whatsoever to do, has strained their relationship, possibly to the breaking point.
Trump all but called Pence a coward. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” Trump tweeted in a post that was later deleted. “I’ve known Mike Pence forever,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, told a local newspaper. “I’ve never seen Pence as angry as he was today.”
The rift has the potential to leave Pence, a former governor of Indiana and third-ranking House Republican before the vice presidency, politically homeless. “I don’t believe Pence has a political future,” said conservative strategist Chris Barron. “For the wing of the GOP looking to turn the page on the Trump era, he will always be Trump’s vice president. For the pro-Trump wing of the party, he will always be viewed as the man who let Trump down. Whether it’s fair or not, I think Pence is a man without a constituency.”
The president foreshadowed a possible break with Pence while speaking at a rally for the two Republican candidates in the Georgia Senate runoffs. “I hope that our great vice president comes through for us. He’s a great guy. Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him as much,” he said. “Mike is a great guy. He’s a wonderful man and a smart man and a man that I like a lot.”
“The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. Then, early Wednesday, Trump tweeted that if Pence “comes through for us, we will win the Presidency.” When it was reported that Pence told him the vice president has no such power, Trump issued a statement through his reelection campaign, decrying it as “fake news.”
“Vice President Pence shares the concerns of millions of Americans about voter fraud and irregularities in the last election,” Pence chief of staff Marc Short said in a statement. “The Vice President welcomes the efforts of members of the House and the Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence before the Congress and the American people on January 6th.” Trump subsequently banned Short from the White House.
Isolated from Trump for the first time in their tumultuous term together, Pence instead huddled with congressional leaders in both parties. He more clearly denounced the attack on the Capitol than the president. When the joint session certifying the Electoral College results resumed, he said, “Let’s get back to work.”
The move has elevated Pence in some circles. “The vice president is welcome to come, would be happy to have him come and to move forward in the transition,” Biden said of the inauguration. It wouldn’t be the first time Pence had to represent Trump at an event where the president wasn’t welcome. The vice president attended the funeral of John McCain and paid his respects to civil rights icon John Lewis as the Georgia Democratic congressman laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
After Trump turned in a wild first debate performance, Pence was more traditional, subdued, and, some said, effective in the vice presidential debate. Pence also retains the admiration of many conservatives who viewed him as a steadying influence on the Trump administration.
“Vice President Pence proved yet again the statesman that he is by standing for the Constitution and the rule of law,” said Republican strategist Jon Gilmore. “And the demeanor he showed presiding over the counting of his own defeat is something every political leader could learn from. He’s an important conservative voice for the future.”
Other potential 2024 GOP candidates have done more to distance themselves from Trump than Pence. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton disavowed the effort to challenge the Electoral College results. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, once Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, told Republicans history would not be kind to the president’s words and deeds on Wednesday.
But at a minimum, any enduring split with Trump will make it difficult for Pence to enjoy the kind of advantages George H.W. Bush derived from his close relationship with Ronald Reagan in the 1988 Republican primaries. Bush 41’s vice president, Pence’s fellow Hoosier Dan Quayle, already found it difficult to establish front-runner status four years later as the erstwhile second banana to a one-term president.
Pence now finds himself under increasing pressure on Capitol Hill to invoke the 25th Amendment and declare Trump unable to discharge the duties of his office for the remainder of his term.