Mike Pence's moment of truth

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As Donald Trump tweeted through November and into December that the “rigged” 2020 election was “far from over,” Vice President Mike Pence’s top advisers were sketching out a deliberate and strategic blueprint for the post-vice presidency. It would keep the conservative stalwart front and center in the Republican consciousness over the next couple of years. It would prime the pump for a campaign for the GOP nomination for president from Pence’s planned home base and political headquarters — Indiana — when the time was right. Job one would be to stand up a political nonprofit organization, a 501(c)(4), that includes as advisers Trumpworld insiders and is adroitly constructed to promote Pence without getting him crossways with the 45th president or the legion of loyalists clamoring for the return of their king. Advancing American Freedom launched in April 2021, ahead of Pence’s first trip to South Carolina as an ex–vice president. The group’s advisory board included a cross section of Republicans, including, as planned all along, some key Trump administration veterans, such as former chief White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow and former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, plus all-around Trump cheerleader Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives.

As the calendar flips from 2021 to 2022, phase II of the Pence post-election plan is likely to take shape in the form of a resurgent Great America Committee, the political action committee the former vice president unveiled soon after he and Trump were sworn into office in 2017. Through this overtly political vehicle, Pence planned to raise money and campaign for Republicans up and down the ballot — gubernatorial candidates, congressional candidates, even those running for office at the state and local levels. Party efforts to recapture a narrowly divided U.S. Senate after a brief, two-year interregnum, and reclaim the House of Representatives after four years out of power, are going to be a magnet for 2024 Republicans. Even in Trump’s shadow, the jockeying will be fierce, but Pence begins with a head start: He’s already a known quantity. Early in Trump’s presidency, the president was generally uninterested in mundane party-building activities outside of playing host of his traveling rally roadshow; his vice president filled the void with gusto. Whether Trump mounts a third White House bid in 2024 or not, Pence had a plan to put himself in position to pull the trigger on a presidential campaign, and he was executing.

The Trump toady is a unique political species that mushroomed throughout the Republican Party — and, really, the broader conservative ecosphere — during the latter half of the 2010s. For four of those years, Pence delivered an Oscar-worthy performance as the quintessential idolator. But underneath the aw-shucks, dear-leader routine Pence played so well for public consumption was an assertive, shrewd politician who maximized his relationship with a president who knew a whole lot less about how to run a government — and party politics — than his vice president.

Rather than mark the 1990s by climbing the political ladder to stake his claim as the next Ronald Reagan, Pence spent the decade wandering the wilderness. For a young, aspiring politician talked about in Republican circles as a rising star, the experience was humbling. It matured him. By the time Pence sought the House of Representatives a third time, the politician in a hurry, motivated by ambition, had been replaced by a methodical plotter driven by faith in God and a desire to serve. There were still stars in his eyes. Pence fashioned himself the leader of a conservative insurgency at a time when Republicans controlled most of Washington and a pragmatic party establishment reigned virtually unmolested by outside forces in the media and grassroots circles.

In 2010, a U.S. Senate seat opened up in Indiana unexpectedly when Democrat Evan Bayh announced he would forgo reelection and retire.

The party faithful wanted Pence to run.

But Pence had made a commitment. Just a couple of months before Bayh announced his retirement, the future vice president had accepted John Boehner’s invitation to run for House Republican Conference chairman. He had asked colleagues to support his candidacy for leadership. He did not feel comfortable walking away.

Six years later, embroiled in an uncertain race for reelection as governor, Pence wouldn’t be so cautious about an opportunity to advance when Trump came calling. This time, he was ready to maneuver.

Mike Pence never lost faith — in himself or Trump.

It was a Thursday in the middle of July 2020, four months before his career as vice president would be cut short in a particularly pointed rebuke of Trump. In public and private polling, the Republican ticket was in a world of hurt. The pandemic was raging early that summer as the coronavirus ravaged states that had survived the initial spring wave relatively unscathed. The economy was still cratering, as businesses big and small reeled from government-enforced lockdowns intended to slow the spread of COVID-19. Civil unrest tore apart communities across the United States, as Americans protested racial injustice, and criminals looted and rioted, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.

But Mike Pence was serene, confident, and very optimistic. That much became clear to me as I trailed the vice president across central Pennsylvania, toward Philadelphia, while on assignment for the Washington Examiner. Earlier that year, before the pandemic froze regular political activity, Pence’s political team got wind of a couple of plush, armor-plated touring buses manufactured for the federal government during the Obama administration but that had spent the Trump years mothballed. Taken with the idea of hitting the 2020 campaign trail in a couple of billboards on wheels, Team Pence had the vehicles mechanically prepped, painted blue, and emblazoned with the slogan “Trump-Pence, Keep America Great, 2020” alongside smiling pictures of the president and vice president.

After months of delay due to the pandemic, Pence kicked off his first bus tour of the reelection campaign in Pennsylvania, the commonwealth that mattered most. As Pence wound his way through rural Lancaster County’s two-lane roads, the bus stopped at one point, and the vice president exited to greet supporters who were lining nearly every inch of road with official and homemade Trump-Pence campaign signs. After pocketing an easy $1 million for the campaign at an outdoor fundraiser on the grounds of a local farm owned by a wealthy Republican donor, Pence sped off to a roundtable at a technology firm. He ended the day in Philadelphia with a scorcher of a speech (by Pence standards, at least) to police officers and their family members at a Fraternal Order of Police lodge in which he accused Joe Biden of turning his back on law enforcement and siding with the anarchist mobs ravaging American cities.

Afterward, I boarded the bus for a chat with Pence as we made our way to the airport for the ride back to Washington on Air Force Two. The vice president was giddy; he was energized. The support he witnessed along the back roads of central Pennsylvania, and the response from the audience at each stop, had him absolutely convinced there was only one way the reelection campaign would end. And Biden being declared president-elect once a sufficient number of votes had been counted did not figure into that equation.

“I don’t put a lot of stock in the polls,” he told me, as chief of staff Marc Short, press secretary Katie Miller, and top political adviser Marty Obst looked on. “I sense people are more enthusiastic today than they were four years ago.”

The evolution of the vice presidency is due in no small part to enterprising politicians uninterested in spending four, or eight, years as a withering houseplant that its owners neglect to water. They demanded a seat at the table as a condition for joining the ticket. And with Trump, the table was practically barren as he readied to take the oath of office, and for several months afterward. He was a rookie politician with few Washington allies and virtually no idea how government worked. The 48th vice president filled the void. In fact, Pence assumed so much power and influence — it was just sitting there for the vacuuming — that Trumpworld insiders who watched events unfold say he took on the role of de facto prime minister.

Pence initially served as a West Wing gatekeeper for corporate and political interests with business before the administration, a dynamic that receded but never really faded, even as Trump gained a firmer grasp on governing and developed close personal relationships with Republicans on Capitol Hill. That was in part due to the fact that professional Washington was familiar with the vice president and his team. In turn, Pence and his lieutenants understood the political pressures and limitations Republicans faced as members of Congress that were often lost on Trump.

“My rule of thumb when I was governor, in particular, was, if I agreed with the president, I said it. If I had a problem with him, I called Mike Pence,” Scott Walker, former Wisconsin governor, told me.

Meanwhile, the vice president stood up a distinctly separate political operation inside the White House and launched a political action committee that only he controlled. Pence is a devout Christian and often speaks publicly (and privately) of politics and his political future being in God’s hands — a belief that is heartfelt. But underneath, Pence is an interested political tactician with a keen eye for strategy who is an active member of his political team’s decision-making process. So, immediately following the 2016 campaign, Pence convened with Nick Ayers and Obst to develop a blueprint for his political operation as vice president, what to focus on and how to deploy himself. The first decision Pence made was to bypass the White House political shop headed by Bill Stepien, who would emerge as one of the president’s most trusted aides and, in July 2020, manager of his reelection campaign. His second big move was greenlighting GAC — Great America Committee. The group was a standard, hard-dollar political action committee, the sort of leadership PAC popular with members of Congress.

According to federal guidelines, these kinds of PACs can accept contributions of only $5,000 annually from individual donors. It was unusual for a vice president to raise his own pot of money. Normally, the No. 2 executive operates through the auspices of the national party committee. Pence wanted to avoid interference from the Republican National Committee and, frankly, anyone else. Great America Committee offered an efficient way to finance expensive travel on gas-guzzling Air Force Two, which, incidentally, saved the RNC money, and by extension, saved Trump money. But the key to understanding Pence’s decision to form his own political action committee was that he wanted control. Having served in the House of Representatives for a dozen years, in the minority and majority, under Democratic and Republican presidents, he knew what awaited Trump, and the GOP, in the 2018 midterm elections. Pence wanted to chart a course to resist the blue wave he feared might build over the next two years unfettered from meddlers inside the party: where he traveled, where he raised his money from, who he campaigned for. Among his first moves was to put together a joint fundraising committee tying Great America Committee to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Being able to promote his connection with the vice president helped the California Republican raise money for his colleagues. It also promoted the vice president (but more on that in a moment). Great America Committee raised $20 million that election cycle, giving most of it away in direct donations to House Republicans and spending the rest on the vice president’s extensive campaign travel. This unorthodox setup put Pence on the front lines of Republican politics at a time when Trump had little interest in party-building activities, and the GOP establishment, from elected officials to donors to grassroots activists, hardly knew the president personally and was still coming to terms with his surprising victory.

On the outside, while it appeared to some as though Pence was building a wall to keep out crazy, he was prepping for his political future.

None of the rules of conduct Pence had established for himself over the past four-plus years were applicable to the events of Jan. 6, 2021. This was a choice for the vice president to make and an action for the vice president to take. There was no way to keep a disagreement with Trump private.

Under the Constitution, the vice president’s job is to preside over the joint session of Congress and count state-certified Electoral College votes in his capacity as president of the U.S. Senate. As long as there are not competing, certified slates of electors from the same state, or slates of electors submitted that have not been certified, there is nothing else for the vice president to do. Trump, instigated by a cast of advisers-cum-conspiracy theorists, had other ideas. If the Congress could be persuaded to block ascertainment of legal, state-certified Electoral College votes, Pence, so one of their theories went, could unilaterally send the rejected slates from so-called problem states back home. There, friendly, majority-Republican legislatures would use their so-called authority to reverse the initial vote, and Trump wins. Or: By unilaterally throwing out supposedly objectionable state-certified electoral votes, Pence could force a vote of the House of Representatives to decide the election. In such a case, each state’s House delegation gets one vote. Since Republicans control a majority of state delegations, Trump wins. All Pence had to do, Trump seemed convinced, was locate the intestinal fortitude to seize for himself this extraordinary constitutional power to decide the outcome of the election, over the will of American voters, that had been hiding in plain sight since the founding of the republic.

But Pence is a constitutionalist. Every single legal challenge to Biden’s victories in more than half a dozen states brought by the Trump campaign and its allies failed in court for one reason or another. Recounts in almost as many states failed to make a dent in Biden’s tally of 306 electoral votes. The Electoral College met, it voted, and in every single state plus D.C., the results were legally certified. By Republican officials, too. Also a critical metric that influenced Pence: No state submitted competing slates of certified electors. Especially after all of that but not only because of all of that, the notion — the conspiratorial theory — that the vice president was invested by the framers of the U.S. Constitution with the power to dictate presidential elections and held in his hands the authority to do so all these years struck Pence as plainly preposterous. He told Trump as much, informed and armed by reams of information on history and constitutional precedent researched and compiled by his general counsel, Gregory Jacob, a Justice Department veteran and longtime Washington attorney recruited to the vice president’s office from white-shoe law firm O'Melveny & Myers. “We researched all of those, and I think very fastidiously wanted to be respectful of new perspectives that we were brought, but always felt strongly that no limited-government conservative would ever advocate that one person could unilaterally choose what electors to accept or reject and would ever be given that sort of power by our founders. Nor would we ever want anyone to have that power,” Short said.

In one particular meeting, on Jan. 4, the conversation grew heated. Pence had been campaigning in Georgia that day in advance of a pair of Senate runoff elections on tap for the following day when a call came in to Air Force Two asking him to return to the White House. When he arrived, Trump was being briefed in the Oval Office by John Eastman, a prominent conservative law professor then at Chapman University in Southern California. “He’s a respected constitutional attorney, you should hear him out,” Trump said. In fact, Eastman was very well respected in conservative circles — and well known. He wasn’t some kraken crackpot. That Eastman was advising Trump of Pence’s apparently extraordinary until-then-unknown powers left Pence and his team flabbergasted. In that Jan. 4 meeting, the vice president listened courteously, as was his habit. But he held firm, as was also his habit, reiterating his position on the matter that he had relayed to the president, unwavering, so many times before in several cordial meetings that had gone unreported, maybe because none had erupted in a shouting match.

Facilitated by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Trump in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6 was increasingly surrounded by people telling him what he wanted to hear: that Pence was empowered to reject electoral votes. All that was required was the political will to act. As the day of the joint session of Congress drew nearer and Trump latched himself tighter to this cockamamie theory, Pence began to fret that the 45th president wouldn’t be the last losing chief executive to be tempted by it. A future vice president, he thought, might not share his view of the Constitution and his conclusion that his role in the congressional certification of electoral votes was purely mechanical.

So, Pence instructed Jacob to research the matter extensively and prepare documentation, in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter that he would make public. “It was such a boneheaded analysis, and so we wanted to have our record make that clear, too,” Short said, emphasizing the significance of the letter for posterity.

The vice president’s goals were twofold: Control the narrative in a stormy news environment and, more importantly, place a constitutional vise on his successors, and on Trump’s, that — like a precedent established in a Supreme Court decision — would hamstring them from traveling down this road for time immemorial.

“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence wrote in the letter, issued just before the opening of the joint session on Jan. 6.

At that moment, Trump was addressing a massive crowd of grassroots supporters who had gathered near the White House for a “#StoptheSteal” rally aimed at pressuring Congress and the vice president to reject certification of the Nov. 3 election.

“If Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump told the adoring sea of supporters. “He has the absolute right to do it.”

Trump’s speech on that Jan. 6 morning was really no different from any other Trump speech. The media are fake; my presidency is beyond reproach; the election was stolen. The usual, but with a caveat. More than a half-dozen times in 70 minutes, the 45th president turned his attention to the 48th vice president, assuring the crowd, without reservation, that he possessed constitutional authority to deliver his administration a second term.

“I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do,” Trump said, despite already being fully aware of the vice president’s decision on that matter.

“I hope he doesn’t listen to RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] and the stupid people he’s listening to.”

Within a couple of hours of those remarks, Pence would be in hiding in an undisclosed location at the U.S. Capitol. The building was under siege by a violent mob of grassroots Trump supporters, many of whom walked from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other intent on using force to prevent the Congress from certifying that Biden would be inaugurated the 46th president two weeks hence. The rioters were chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.” In the middle of this shocking insurrection that was playing out as Americans all over the country watched on their television screens, Trump essentially called Pence a coward, expressing unhappiness that the vice president had done exactly what he told the president he was going to do when the counting of the electoral votes commenced.

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” Trump tweeted.

Much has been learned since then about how Pence conducted himself in those hours; much was witnessed. The vice president refused to leave the Capitol, wouldn’t even wait out the mayhem in his secure automobile, as the Secret Service suggested, because he didn’t trust that the agents wouldn’t put their foot on the gas and speed him to safer confines.

With Trump taking little action to quell the violence, instead tweeting out oddly encouraging messages to the mob (that included the obligatory, though totally weak, admonishments to disperse), Pence filled the gap. He led. The vice president conferred with top Pentagon officials to accelerate deployment of security forces to the Capitol and kept in constant contact with Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. What did Congress need, he wanted to know, so that the joint session could resume that very day, a prospect that in the middle of the siege seemed very much unlikely. Pence was determined to climb back onto the rostrum of the House of Representatives that day and finish certifying a presidential election, the results of which would oust him from office after one term.

When order was finally restored and lawmakers were returning to their respective chambers to finish debating the objection to Arizona’s electoral votes and get on with the rest of the process, Pence asked McConnell if he could first say a few words from the dais about what had happened. The majority leader agreed. “As we reconvene in this chamber, the world will again witness the resilience and strength of our democracy,” Pence said in remarks that lasted two and a half minutes. “Now, let’s get back to work.” Republicans, in Washington and around the country, took notice.

Pence awoke the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, possibly the least formidable heir apparent vice president to a president in a very long time. Pence had two strikes against him wholly of his own making, and they created unique difficulties. First, he had never actually run for president. His public relationship with Trump was the other problem. The 45th president demanded that subordinates bend the knee. Pence tended to comply, both out of a sense of duty to the job and a matter of self-interested strategy. Stroking Trump’s id enabled Pence to wield power and maneuver independently. None of that was apparent to Republican insiders who were not otherwise predisposed to back a Pence 2024 campaign. They saw a toady missing the stuff leaders are made of. Ditto grassroots conservatives. On Jan. 6, 2021, Pence flipped the script. As Pence openly defied Trump, refusing to be bullied into an unconstitutional power grab, as Pence took command, practically in the middle of a war zone, while his boss shirked responsibility, doubts harbored by institutional leaders in the Republican Party, and by some in the broader conservative movement, melted.

In the days after Jan. 6, the telephone in the office of another Pence ally started ringing. Republican donors; county GOP chairmen, conservative activists, about two dozen in all, they all wanted to send word that Trump’s treatment of Pence on that day, especially after four years of loyal service, was appalling, and that if he runs for president in 2024, count them in.

Every vice president who has ever run for president in the shadow of the president who made them has been faced with a dilemma: charting an independent course and promising change while simultaneously campaigning to maintain course and block the change promised by the opposition party. Pence was always going to have to untether himself from Trump, eventually. Jan. 6 accomplished that.

There is another crucial aspect of the long-term political impact of Jan. 6 that could be serendipitous for Pence.

“Boy, does he have a story to tell,” said his ally who fielded calls of support for the vice president in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection. “How he chooses to tell that story will tell you a little bit about what he might want to do.”

And that’s the big question for Pence, really: What story does he want to tell?

Excerpted from IN TRUMP’S SHADOW: The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP. ©2021 David Drucker and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.

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Tags: Mike Pence, Donald Trump, White House, Books, January 6, 2020 Elections, January 6 Commission, Congress, U.S. Capitol Building, U.S. Capitol Police

Original Author: David M. Drucker

Original Location: Mike Pence's moment of truth

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