Mike Pence’s latest fighting words are not in fact fighting words

On Trump, the former president treads lightly and carries a big schtick.

Mike Pence speaks at a campaign event for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in Kennesaw in May.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Former Vice President Mike Pence is finally letting loose with some sharp words of reprimand for his erstwhile boss, Donald Trump.

Speaking Saturday at the Gridiron Dinner, a white-tie event organized by journalists in Washington, Pence delivered his sharpest break from Trump to date. “History will hold Donald Trump accountable for Jan. 6,” Pence said. “Make no mistake about it: What happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way. President Trump was wrong. His reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day.”

Pence's comments stand out as much for what they don't say as for what they do.

The Washington media received Pence’s remarks as “biting” and as an “unexpected twist.” Given that Pence was attending a dinner with journalists, it's clear he was trying to launch a new narrative about his relationship with Trump and about his own willingness to stand up for what he apparently believes is right.

But Pence's comments stand out as much for what they don't say as for what they do. Who exactly is meant to hold Trump accountable? In Pence's account, justice is delegated to the ethereal forces of "history," instead of, say, the GOP, the American public or the criminal justice system. Pence’s calling for accountability but ruling out its meaningful pursuit reveals how his Trump challenge is affective in nature, not substantive.

Pay close attention, too, to how Pence frames Trump's behavior. Trump was "wrong"; his behavior was a "disgrace"; acknowledging this is as matter of "decency." Pence's language carefully limits his criticism of Trump to a matter of personal misconduct. What's missing is a reckoning with the political mechanics of what was happening — an authoritarian rejection of the democratic process. And while Pence talks about the lives of Pence’s family and lawmakers at the Capitol, he doesn't talk about the ongoing threat posed to democratic life. The central question facing the GOP as it evolves in the age of Trump is whether or not it will choose to reject full-fledged denialism of empirical reality and the legitimacy of democratic institutions. Pence has nothing of significance to say about that question.

This is part of a broader pattern. My colleague Steve Benen captured the game behind Pence's mealy-mouthed remarks trenchantly when he described them as a "'yes, but' improv exercise":

Yes, Pence is willing to say publicly that Trump was “wrong,” but the former vice president still doesn’t want to answer federal prosecutors’ questions about Jan. 6.

Yes, Pence acknowledges that Trump’s lies were “reckless,” but the former vice president still blames Trump’s lawyers, rather than their client.

Yes, Pence hasn’t forgiven Trump for endangering his own family, but the former vice president is content to let Trump go unpunished, except for history’s eventual verdict.

Pence's remarks also ring hollow because he happily supports 2020 election denialists. If he's willing to support the lie that the election was rigged, then how is he in a position to criticize Trump? If you back the myth that the government is being stolen, then you're still complicit in the next right-wing coup attempt.

Pence's objections to Trump are less about rejecting his politics than they are about calculating a strategic distance from him for a 2024 lane. But it's hard to see how that's going to pan out for him. Despite having been vice president, Pence is performing poorly in the polls and isn't considered a serious contender in what's shaping up to be a likely Trump-vs.-Ron DeSantis showdown. Trump has encouraged his hard-core base to see Pence as a traitor to the cause because he declared Joe Biden the winner of the Electoral College. Given Pence's low likelihood of getting any traction in the presidential primaries, this is an opportunity for him to speak his mind and push forward some key ideological issues that he wants the party to embrace. Apparently this is how he wants to use that opportunity.