Former Vice President Mike Pence finally launched his expected bid to become president on Wednesday, becoming the first former vice president since 1940 to run against the president he served. And in announcing his candidacy, Pence tried to draw the brightest line yet between himself and Donald Trump on the former president’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
Pence told the crowd at his Iowa launch that on the morning of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Trump “demanded I choose between him and the Constitution. Now voters will be faced with the same choice. I chose the Constitution, and I always will.” He added that “anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States, and anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United Sates again.”
A pro-Pence Super PAC followed up the candidate’s speech with an ad on Thursday that centered Jan. 6. “A weak man appeases a mob,” the narrator recited. “A man of courage and character stands up to them. That day one man failed the test of leadership while another stood tall.”
It’s not just a stark contrast with Trump but with many other would-be nominees. Most have either avoided calling out Trump directly for his attack on democracy or tried to hedge on whether the former president was to blame for the violence carried out in his name. And in a CNN town hall on Wednesday evening, Pence told moderator Dana Bash that — unlike Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — he wouldn’t consider pardoning people convicted of crimes related to Jan. 6.
But does that include Trump himself? Well, on that front Pence wouldn’t say. And therein lies the problem that he’s going to face over the next few months. So far, Pence has tried to have it both ways when it comes to the other investigations into Trump. When Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg charged Trump for paying hush money ahead of the 2016 election, Pence stuck with the party line, calling the prosecution “politically charged.”
Likewise, Pence told Bash on Wednesday that he didn’t think the Justice Department should charge Trump in its investigation into whether the former president illegally held onto classified documents after leaving office. Pence didn’t base this conclusion in evidence, but in politics. “I think it would be terribly divisive to the country, at a time when the American people are hurting,” Pence said. “I hope the DOJ thinks better of it and resolves these issues without an indictment.”
When Bash pressed him on his previous statements about the importance of the rule of law, Pence at first hedged. “Let me be clear that no one’s above the law,” he said before eventually changing the subject to “need for us to have new leadership in the White House and in our party.”
After news broke Thursday night that special counsel Jack Smith had indicted Trump on seven charges in that case, Pence barely changed his tune during an interview with a conservative radio host the next morning. He then called on the Department of Justice to unseal the indictment so Americans could see what's inside it, accusing Attorney General Merrick Garland of "hiding behind the special counsel." Pence did not offer rush to offer updated comments once the indictment was made public later that afternoon.
This sort of dodge won’t work much longer. The Jan. 6 side of Smith’s investigation is still ongoing and there’s still every chance that he charges Trump and others in his inner circle with crimes in that case between now and the end of the GOP primaries. And while Pence may have found an easy target in Bragg, he may find it harder to attack Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis should she decide to indict Trump for breaking Georgia state laws as part of his bid to overturn the 2020 election.
If Pence is going to make Jan. 6 the dividing line between himself and Trump, then he will have to decide whether that means supporting the efforts to hold his former boss accountable. He declined to do so when it was Congress investigating Jan. 6, despite the danger Trump put him in. But if Pence really wants to show that he puts the Constitution ahead of his own ambitions, that will mean having to stand on the side of justice if and when Trump faces consequences for his attempt to subvert democracy.