WASHINGTON — Mike Pence returned to Washington Tuesday morning to rally a conference of conservative students ahead of the November midterm elections — but all eyes are on the tension between the former vice president and Donald Trump stemming from the events of Jan. 6.
Pence’s speech comes a year and a half after his former boss and two-time running mate, Donald Trump, instigated a mob that wanted to kill Pence at the Capitol during the riot on Jan. 6, 2021. It’s also happening days after the House select committee investigating that attack and Trump’s role in it held its eighth hearing, and just hours before Trump, who has been itching to announce another bid for president, makes his first return to Washington since leaving the White House.
During his speech Tuesday morning at the Young America’s Foundation, Pence mentioned Trump only in the context of the “Trump-Pence administration” and made a glancing reference to Jan. 6, using his stump-speech shorthand for it as “that tragic day in our nation’s capital.”
But the tension between the vice president who helped stop the insurrection and the president who spurred that attack, and painted a target on Pence’s back in the process, has been unavoidable.
The first question from the audience was focused squarely on the split between Pence and Trump. “There seems to be a divide between the two of you on your outlook on what the future of the conservative movement might be,” said a student from Gettysburg College.
“I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, we may differ on focus,” Pence said with a slight laugh. “I truly do believe that elections are about the future. And it’s absolutely essential at a time when so many Americans are hurting, so many families are struggling, that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back.”
But it is Jan. 6 and his historic, if almost completely fractured, relationship with Trump that keeps Pence’s name in the news and in the mix for 2024.
“They’re very strategic about when he pops his head up,” said one top Trump adviser keeping tabs on Pence. “His path if he has one — and I’d argue he does not — is to do exactly what he’s been doing.”
Almost since he left the White House after Jan. 6 — the House select committee hearing last Thursday revealed that Pence’s own Secret Service agents believed they might die in the riot — Pence has charted a precise course, selectively picking moments to go toe to toe with Trump while also disappearing when things get tough.
That sense of stagecraft and precision may be the only thing that can carry him to the White House again as he stares down a likely 2024 field with Republican powerhouse and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and rising stars like Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a field that’s still dominated by Trump himself — though Trump’s grip has clearly weakened.
“Pence sure has some good political timing, making news with the Jan. 6 hearings burning,” said Scott Reed, a longtime Republican strategist and campaign manager for Bob Dole in 1996.
Pence’s aides, in particular longtime chief adviser Marc Short, have been making news routinely around Jan. 6, testifying before House lawmakers and, last week, testifying before a grand jury investigating Trump’s role in the Capitol attack, according to news reports. And his aides have been less reticent about hitting back at more extreme Republicans like Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. Short, on CNN, recently said that Gaetz, who’s under investigation for child sex trafficking, ought not to be speaking to a roomful of students — another sign that Pence and team are grabbing this moment.
But Pence’s team has also downplayed Jan. 6 and his role as he preps for a likely White House bid, quite likely against Trump himself.
“While the out-of-touch media focuses on the past and attempts to inject Jan. 6 into every conversation, Americans are fretting how they are going to pay their next bill or fill up their gas tank,” a Pence senior adviser told Yahoo News. “Mike Pence is focused on electing conservative leaders who will help solve these problems and restore safety, security and prosperity in the United States.”
In fine political fashion, Pence has been riding the wave built by others, without explicitly talking about Jan. 6 — or Trump, for that matter — much himself.
At the beginning of the hearings in June, Pence had been scheduled to address the House Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House lawmakers he used to run more than a decade ago — but amid pressure for Pence himself to testify and uncertainty over what the panel would reveal, it delayed his appearance. One month later, with Trump’s support in the party sagging and more clarity about Pence’s role in Jan. 6, it hosted the event.
“I just want to say thank you for defending our Constitution. I’m happy to shout it from Mar-a-Lago to Bedminster ... but I just want you to know how grateful we are,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said inside the room, according to Axios, to standing applause. “The study committee clapping like that is weird,” said one top Trump adviser, surprised by the broad support for Pence’s stance on Jan. 6.
During last week’s hearing, witnesses painted a portrait of Trump frozen by inaction while waiting to see if the mob of his supporters would successfully take the Capitol for him, all while glued to the TV.
Meanwhile Pence, under siege in a loading dock beneath the Capitol, called in the military and law enforcement to protect him and everyone else under attack at the Capitol and helped quell the insurrection. Amid the confusion and chaos in the White House at the time, as Trump walled himself away in the White House dining room, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, cautioned that word of Pence’s leadership should not get out.
“We have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all of the decisions, we need to establish the narrative that the president is still in charge,” Meadows reportedly said, according to recorded testimony from Gen. Mark Milley.
No less than the Wall Street Journal editorial board — still one of the most influential voices on the right — determined that Pence passed his leadership test that day, and Trump failed.
“Character is revealed in a crisis, and Mr. Pence passed his Jan. 6 trial. Mr. Trump utterly failed his,” the paper wrote in an editorial.
But even with the drama and the history at his back, it remains highly uncertain whether Pence could defeat Trump in a head-to-head matchup, or clear a wide-open field of other Republicans if Trump doesn’t run.