Mike Pence wants to have it both ways.
He wants to be the conservative hero of Jan. 6: the steadfast Republican patriot who resisted the MAGA mob and defended the institutions of American democracy. “Make no mistake about it,” Pence said at the Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington, D.C., this month: “What happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way. President Donald Trump was wrong. I had no right to overturn the election and his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day.”
But Mike Pence also wants to be president. And he can’t fully repudiate the previous Republican president if he hopes to win the Republican presidential nomination, especially when that president is still on the stage, with a commanding role in Republican politics.
The result is that Mike Pence has to talk out of both sides of his mouth. With one breath, he takes a righteous stand against the worst dysfunction of the Trump years. “We have to resist the politics of personality, the lure of populism unmoored by timeless conservative values,” Pence said last week while speaking to an audience of Republican donors in Keene, N.H.
With his next breath however, Pence rejects any effort to hold Trump accountable, especially when it asks him to do something more than give the occasional sound bite. Asked to testify about the events surrounding Jan. 6, Pence says no. Faced with a grand jury subpoena forcing him to testify, Pence says he’ll challenge it, under the highly dubious theory that, as president of the Senate he was a legislative officer who, like other lawmakers, was covered by the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution and thus free of any obligation to testify.
When asked this past weekend about potential criminal charges against the former president — possibly for falsifying records of a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, a porn star whose real name is Stephanie Clifford — Pence deflected, telling ABC News that, “At the time when there’s a crime wave in New York City, the fact that the Manhattan D.A. thinks that indicting President Trump is his top priority I think just tells you everything you need to know about the radical left.”
Who will hold Trump accountable, according to Pence? No one living. “History will hold Donald Trump accountable,” he said, as if “history” has agency separate from the people who make or write it.
In fairness to Pence, he’s not the only Republican hedging his bets. None of Trump’s rivals — or anyone else who hopes to have a future in Republican politics — views either the investigation into his behavior or the potential charges against him as legitimate.
“Here we go again — an outrageous abuse of power by a radical D.A. who lets violent criminals walk as he pursues political vengeance against President Trump,” tweeted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
“I’m directing relevant committees to immediately investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions,” he added, without irony.
“The Manhattan district attorney is a Soros-funded prosecutor. And so he, like other Soros-funded prosecutors, they weaponize their office to impose a political agenda on society at the expense of the rule of law and public safety,” said the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, the pot calling the kettle black.
Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and current presidential aspirant, has been silent on the matter, and the long-shot candidate Vivek Ramaswamey, a venture capitalist, condemned the potential Trump indictment as a “disastrously politicized prosecution.”
Whether or not you think it is a good idea to indict Trump in this particular case, it is striking to see how Republicans commit to the former president when asked to speak to his alleged crimes.
But it speaks to a larger point, beyond the double-talk of Pence or the deflection and avoidance of other Republican politicians. Trump may not be as strong as he was as president. He may have been wounded by the long investigations into Jan. 6 and diminished by the failure of many of his handpicked MAGA candidates in the midterm elections. And yet, Trump is still the dominant figure in Republican politics. He still occupies the commanding heights of the Republican Party. And there’s no one — not DeSantis or Haley or any other potential contender — ready to challenge Trump for control of the party.
There was hope, after the 2020 presidential election, that after his defeat Trump would somehow fade away. He didn’t. There was hope, after his failed putsch, that his time in the spotlight was over. It wasn’t. And there was hope, after the 2022 elections, that MAGA had run its course and Trump along with it. Wrong again.
The only way to remove Trump from the board — to neutralize his influence in the Republican Party and to keep him out of power — is for Republicans to move against him with as much force as they can muster. It was true in 2015, when Republican elites could have coordinated themselves against him when he was still a curiosity and not the leading candidate for the nomination; it was true in 2019 and 2021 when he was impeached by the House, and it’s true now.
Republicans can’t avoid conflict if they want to be free of Trump. They have no choice but to condemn him, reject his influence and refuse to defend his criminality.
We can see, of course, in this instance and so many others that they won’t. Among Republicans with an ambition to lead, there’s no one who will take that step. Which tells us all we need to know about the state of the Republican Party. It was Trump’s when he was president, it is Trump’s while he’s still a private citizen, and it will be Trump’s next year, when the presidential race starts in earnest.
Put differently, if there’s no voter Trump could lose if he stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot somebody, as Trump famously said, there are probably no leading Republican politicians who would leave his camp, either. Hell, they might even say the victim deserved it.
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