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Decoding Mike Pence: The words he just can’t say

Attorney: Is Trump criticism meant ‘to benefit the country or himself’?

Republican presidential candidate and former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Clinton County GOP Hog Roast in Clinton, Iowa, on July 30.
Republican presidential candidate and former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Clinton County GOP Hog Roast in Clinton, Iowa, on July 30. (Getty Images)

Mike Pence is not ruling out testifying against former President Donald Trump. But could the jury crack the code he uses when talking about his onetime boss?

Exactly how the former vice president really feels about Trump’s past actions and his fitness to again be commander-in-chief requires a legal decoder ring and a political magnifying glass. Trouble is, neither accurately measures courage or fortitude.

Despite headlines declaring Pence as having broken with the thrice-indicted Trump, the former vice president still pulls punches and minces words when talking about the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Parsing Pence the candidate is a murky task, and one jurists in a coming federal criminal trial about Trump’s actions after the 2020 election and before the Jan. 6 insurrection must undertake when considering Trump’s guilt or innocence. Next year, voters will have to do the same — especially independent and some moderate Republicans in the six or eight swing states that will decide the 2024 presidential election.

Pence’s most recent public comments about Trump’s most recent federal indictment — in a Washington, D.C., district court with four charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot — offer a prime example of his habit of rhetorically dancing and dodging about Trump.

“Former Vice President Pence is in the unenviable position of having pissed off everyone,” GOP strategist Brian Seitchik said in a Wednesday email. “He’s too complicit for Trump haters, he’s a traitor to the MAGA crowd, and this playing of the middle does nothing other than dig his heels further into no man’s land.”

Pence has indeed grown more critical of the former president as the pages of federal and state indictments, and the charges included within them, have piled as high as boxes of classified military and intelligence papers in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom.

“Look, President Trump was wrong. He was wrong then. He’s wrong now. I had no right to overturn the election. And, more and more, Americans are coming up to me every day and recognizing that,” Pence told Major Garrett on “Face the Nation” on CBS on Sunday. “I’m running for president in part because, frankly, President Trump asked me to put him over the Constitution that day, but I chose the Constitution — and I always will.”

Republican strategist Rick Tyler this week took umbrage with Pence’s rationale. “If Pence really were ‘too honest,’ he would be doing everything in his power to keep Trump from securing the Republican nomination,” Tyler wrote in a Tuesday email. “Running for the nomination himself doesn’t count.”

Pence recalled in the same CBS interview that after Election Day in November 2020, Trump began to hear from some advisers that the Office of the Vice President possessed the legal authority to send Electoral College votes back to the states. According to former White House officials’ testimony before the House select committee that investigated the Jan. 6 riot and indictments of Trump since, Pence consistently rejected that flawed legal theory.

On Sunday, he again noticeably left out Trump’s name when describing his own constitutional litmus test.

“At the end of the day, I know we did our duty. I know we kept our oath. But … I truly do believe that, you know, no one who ever puts himself over the Constitution should ever be president of the United States,” Pence said. “I mean, our Constitution is more important than any one man and our country is more important than any one man’s career.”

That’s a clear legal philosophy. But also classic Pence murkiness when it comes to the 45th president. Why? For the two words it left out: Donald Trump. (President Trump would also have sufficed.)

A true profile in courage, so very rare in today’s political environment, would include saying the words.

One of Trump’s former attorneys general whom he fired, William Barr, has mounted the gumption to say them. “I am concerned that in a second term, he will be off the hook,” Barr told PBS NewsHour last week. “There’ll be no way of controlling him.”

One of Trump’s onetime political advisers turned 2024 GOP primary foe, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has managed to find such fortitude. “If Donald Trump had a risk of breaking a fingernail, he’s such a coward that he wouldn’t go up to Capitol Hill [on Jan. 6, 2021],” he told CNN this week. “So he went back to the safety of the White House and sent those folks up there to do what they did, which was to create, many of them, violent conduct up on Capitol Hill to try to stop what was going on, in terms of confirming the election.”

But time and again, Pence has opted to not say the words.

One might conclude a longtime House GOP leadership member and former vice president who is a strong institutionalist would feel a responsibility to say the words. But if Pence feels such a responsibility, he either is not willing to act on it or he simply does not truly believe Trump should be DQ’d by voters, if not jurors.

What other conclusion could one reach when also parsing his response when asked if he could ever again personally cast a vote for Trump to become president.

“Look, I don’t think I’ll have to,” Pence replied before being pressed to answer.

“I’m running for president because I don’t think anyone who ever puts himself over the Constitution should ever be president or should ever be president again,” the former VP shot back.

Again, some combination of the magic words were not uttered: President. Donald. Trump.

There are other recent public comments from Pence about Trump’s actions that give the oft-indicted former POTUS something of a pass. Like when Pence said during a campaign event last week that the real post-election problem was the “crackpot lawyers” Trump had surrounded himself with.

Pence deflecting blame from Trump seems like yet another attempt to curry favor with the MAGA base and does little to send a clear message to potential jurors and GOP primary voters that he worries about a second Trump term. After all, it was Trump who surrounded himself with those attorneys — then heeded their advice as other aides warned their proposals were illegal, according to a Justice Department indictment unsealed last week.

“The Constitution is, or certainly should be, more than a lip service document that is merely applied upon the ideological whim of where the wind appears to be blowing,” national security attorney Mark Zaid said in an email this week. “It is refreshing in today’s political world when a politician of any party gives the impression that principles still exist, but a la carte, sporadic application does not reflect the historic values of our democracy.

“While one can applaud former VP Pence’s actions on January 6th, and his recent stance against Donald Trump, it is hard to discern whether those acts are to benefit the country or himself,” he added. “The lines are incredibly blurred.”

One can only wonder if Pence does worry about Trump back in the Oval Office. He still seems mostly concerned with winning his party’s nomination and achieving what a senior aide told your correspondent early in the Trump term was Pence’s lifelong professional goal: becoming president of the United States.

Only that he polls around 5 percent nationally, nearly 50 percentage points among GOP voters behind Trump, and has been called a “traitor” at his own campaign events.

If his true goal is blocking Trump, Pence will need to — finally — say the words.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter. His column will return Friday, Aug. 25.

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