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WASHINGTON – When President-elect Joe Biden takes his oath of office in a locked-down ceremony Wednesday at the Capitol, one guest who would normally rate only a passing glance is likely to get unusual attention from the cameras.
After breaking with Trump by refusing to do what he legally could not to overturn the presidential election results, Vice President Mike Pence will further give his imprimatur to Biden’s victory by attending the swearing-in that President Donald Trump is boycotting after encouraging the rioters who mobbed the Capitol two weeks ago.
Pence’s facial expression and body language will be scrutinized as he stands on his own after four years of softening Trump’s rhetoric and trying to ignore what could not be massaged.
When Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris vow to protect and defend the Constitution, Pence will relinquish his role as Trump’s No. 2 after a relationship marked by the vice president’s staunch loyalty and a falling out between the two in the final weeks of their tenure.
The new chapter gives Pence a chance to carve out a political identity of his own and possibly plan for a White House run in 2024. But he faces some choices: Will he try to paper over his split with Trump, or will he go in the opposite direction and become more candid about what he saw at Trump’s side? Where will he position himself within a Republican Party that is fracturing over the president's role in inspiring the Capitol Hill riots?
Jim Atterholt, a Pence confidant who was his top aide when Pence was Indiana’s governor, said the “very strict message discipline” that Pence has had to maintain under Trump often prevented him from showing “the Mike Pence that I know – kind, empathetic, funny and self-deprecating.”
“If the public ever gets to see that side of Mike Pence,” Atterholt told USA TODAY, “I believe he will some day be president."
Pence has long been vilified on the left for his steadfast loyalty to Trump. Many critics say he should have spoken out far sooner to counter the president's false claims of a stolen election.
But some of Pence's allies believe he is in a no-win situation when it comes to his own party.
“He’s now the man without a home,” said John Yoo, a conservative legal scholar at the University of California-Berkeley who was among the experts Pence consulted to determine whether he had the ability to prevent Congress from accepting the state-certified Electoral College votes.
Yoo says Pence is “one of the few heroes in all of this” for declaring that he did not have that power – and for pushing for lawmakers to keep counting the votes after the assault on the Capitol that resulted in multiple deaths and extensive damage.
“He must have realized that that meant he was foreclosing any future career in electoral politics,” Yoo said.
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Criticized by both sides
Many in Trump’s base, which includes the rioters who called for Pence to be hanged, believe he’s a traitor. And the Republicans who have been pushing for the party to divorce itself from Trump are disappointed Pence didn’t do more.
Olivia Troye, a former aide to Pence who left the White House in protest over Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and endorsed Biden, epitomizes the latter group – despite her sympathy for the vice president.
Even after being attacked by Pence’s office for her public stance, Troye has continued to defend Pence as someone who “at least behind the scenes tried to do the right thing when the right thing was very hard to do.”
She said she saw Pence tactfully push Trump not to be vindictive against “Democratic” states like California in need of disaster assistance after historic wildfires. She credits Pence with extensive outreach to governors at the start of the pandemic. And she saw Pence frequently move in one direction only to get overturned by a tweet from Trump or by a decision made when he wasn’t in the room even though he was the head of the Coronavirus Task Force.
Troye said she had thought it unlikely Pence would break under Trump’s intimidation and intervene in Congress’ acceptance of the electoral votes. But she had hoped he would have used the 25th Amendment to take away Trump’s presidential powers in the final days.
“I just really wish that he would have taken a bigger stand,” said Troye, who is part of the “Republican Accountability Project” that is defending the handful of GOP lawmakers who supported impeaching Trump. “He could make the decision now to become a leader to move away from that (Trump) movement. But where’s the voting bloc on that? That’s what worries me.”
Scholars will need to study the not-yet-available Trump administration records before rendering a fuller assessment of what Pence did behind the scenes and how much he was able to apply the brakes on the president, said Kathryn Cramer Brownell, who teaches political history at Purdue University.
Still, she said, Pence’s final actions don’t make up for the ways in which he “enabled the president to test the limits of our democracy by excusing and even justifying his incendiary rhetoric and dangerous behavior over the past four years.”
Defending Mike Pence
Some of those who experienced Trump’s wrath, however, say critics have an unrealistic view of what Pence was able to do.
If Pence had publicly criticized Trump, he never would have gotten in the West Wing again, said former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who wrote a scathing book about his 17 months in Trump’s White House. In private, however, Pence had “difficult conversations” with the president, according to Bolton.
“It’s easy for people to criticize and very hard to imagine how hard Pence’s role was,” Bolton said. “I thought Pence did the best job a normal human being could do dealing with Donald Trump.”
Dan Coats, who stepped down as Trump’s director of national intelligence after clashing with the president over Russia, North Korea and other national security issues, said everyone who tried to support Trump “in ways that we thought were constructive failed the loyalty test at one point or another whenever Donald Trump didn’t want to hear what you had to say.”
“Everybody thought Mike would make it to the end,” Coats said. “But even then, he wasn’t loyal enough.”
Coats, who is close to Pence and calls his final actions courageous, argues his friend is best positioned to unite the fractured GOP so it can take back the White House.
“Mike has the ability to straddle that divide and bring us together,” he said. “It will not be easy.”'
An eye on 2024?
Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and former aide to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, agreed on the difficulty of that task, especially “for somebody with as much baggage as Pence has at the moment.”
“I think it’s more likely that we’ll see fresh faces emerging in the next couple of years as voters try to move on from the Trump era,” he said.
Conant said Pence may have more market value than political capital, because he now has an interesting story to tell if he writes a book or joins the speaking circuit, as many expect him to do.
But will Pence, who was known for his message discipline even before he aligned with Trump, now be candid? Or will he craft his words with an eye on 2024?
“The book will be better if he’s not running,” said GOP strategist Michael Steel.
Ralph Reed, a longtime friend of Pence and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, expects Pence to express pride in the administration’s accomplishments and be open about where there were disagreements – but not with “any rancor or hint of disloyalty.”
“It’s just not his style,” said Reed, who doesn’t think Pence has decided what he will do next.
Another loyalty test?
Pence could soon face another loyalty test when the Senate holds a trial on whether to convict the impeached Trump of inciting violence against the government.
Democrats might want Pence to testify about why it was the vice president, and not Trump, who played a key role in mobilizing National Guard troops after the Capitol Hill Police were overwhelmed.
Such testimony could offer yet another test of Pence's loyalty to Trump.
If the Senate were to convict Trump and then vote to bar him from holding office in the future, that would remove a major impediment to Pence’s 2024 chances.
“I think it’s a prerequisite for a successful (Pence) candidacy that President Trump is not running,” Steel said.
Leaving options open?
Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said Pence is taking the same “wait and see” approach as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has left open the possibility of voting to convict Trump.
“Pence is not wanting to antagonize the base, but at the same time, he wants to leave open his options for repudiating this president,” she said.
Brown noted that Pence hasn’t faulted Trump for any of his actions, even though House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the president “bears responsibility” for the attack on Congress.
Instead, Pence spent his final days in office filling the role that a president normally would.
As Trump remained out of sight and forcibly muted on social media, Pence touted the administration's foreign policy accomplishments during weekend visits to military bases, called Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to offer his congratulations and assistance, delivered “challenge coins” and framed appreciation letters to White House phone operators, visited the National Guard troops guarding the Capitol and met with Homeland Security officials preparing for the inauguration.
“As the president made clear yesterday, we are committed to an orderly transition and to a safe inauguration,” Pence said of Trump at the briefing.
He ignored shouted questions from reporters about the Jan. 6 attacks.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Pence's future chances of running for president hurt by Trump