Trump-Pence ticket, torn by Jan. 6, becomes an unequal rivalry
By Michael C. Bender
Eighteen months after departing the nation’s capital for the final time as president, Donald Trump returned earlier this week confronting federal investigations, fresh doubts about his viability in an increasingly likely third White House bid and an emerging rivalry with his erstwhile running mate.
In addresses from two hotel ballrooms less than a mile apart in Washington, Trump and Mike Pence, the vice president whom he had left at the mercy of a mob of his supporters during the Capitol riot, put on clear display one of the most uncomfortable splits inside their party.
The competing speeches on the same day would have been inconceivable for a former president and his own vice president not long ago. But the demise of precedent has long been a hallmark of the Trump era.
The strange tableau also illustrated many Republicans’ frustrations and reservations about a 2024 Trump campaign, which a recent New York Times/Siena College poll suggested could cause large numbers of Republican voters to defect from the party in a general election.
In his 90-minute Tuesday speech, Trump repeatedly veered off script to complain about “hoax” investigations, boast about surviving two impeachments and lie about his 2020 election loss. Pence, by contrast, urged the party to look ahead and unite for the next political battles.
“Some people may choose to focus on the past, but elections are about the future,” Pence said.
A scowling Trump leaned on menacing imagery of an America besieged by violent crime and in desperate need of a rescue that only he could provide.
“Our country is going to hell,” he said. “It’s a very unsafe place.”
The two appearances also underscored the wide gap in enthusiasm among Republicans between Trump and any other potential primary rival in 2024.
While Pence drew tepid applause during his 30-minute address to about 250 attendees at an event hosted by the Young America’s Foundation, Trump commanded numerous standing ovations from an audience of about 800 people at a gathering of the America First Policy Institute. The former president’s speech seemed to double as a reunion for former administration officials, campaign aides and informal advisers.
Nearly everyone, that is, except Pence.
Pence has been a recurring target of criticism from Trump, who has denounced the former vice president’s refusal to delay the certification of the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021. In his speech, Pence made only passing reference to the ensuing attack on the Capitol — when he was forced into hiding as rioters chanted for him to be hanged — as a “tragic day.”
While Trump and Pence were in somewhat regular contact immediately after leaving office — speaking several times by phone in conversations that avoided the subject of the Capitol riot — they have not held similar discussions in months, according to their advisers. In an interview last year, Trump said that he had never told Pence he was sorry for not acting quicker to stop the attack — and that Pence had never asked for an apology.
But a rivalry has flared up behind the scenes.
One source of tension has been the book Pence is writing about his time in the administration. When Trump learned about the memoir, titled “So Help Me God” and set to be published Nov. 15, the former president was still musing about obtaining a deal of his own.
But in most parts of the publishing industry, Trump was broadly seen as a risk. The former president appeared stung that Pence had gotten a multimillion-dollar deal, and within days of learning about it, he attacked the former vice president while speaking to donors at a Republican National Committee event at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, seizing on Pence’s refusal to do what Trump wanted on Jan. 6.
This year, the two men have veered from each other on the midterm campaign trail. They have backed opposing candidates in several primary races, including the Republican governor’s contest next week in Arizona, and the party’s primary for governor in Georgia in June, when Pence’s pick, Gov. Brian Kemp, easily defeated his Trump-backed challenger, David Perdue.
Pence, meanwhile, left out of his speech the kind of effusive praise for Trump that he had regularly injected into his addresses as vice president and instead referred to the “Trump-Pence” administration’s accomplishments.
A mild-mannered former governor of Indiana, Pence remains a reviled figure among much of the Republican base — largely because he resisted Trump’s attempts to subvert the 2020 election.
In a New York Times/Siena College poll of Republican voters this month, 6% said they would vote for Pence if he ran for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, compared with 49% who said they backed Trump and 25% who supported Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
In his speech, Trump received some of his biggest applause when he strayed from his prepared remarks, including his call to keep transgender women from playing in women’s sports — and again when he claimed he had won the presidency a second time.
Trump also called for creating sprawling homeless encampments outside cities, which would have bathrooms and medical staff, and he urged aggressive policies to combat crime. He renewed his support for the death penalty for drug dealers and for controversial stop-and-frisk law enforcement tactics that, he said, would help “give police back their power and prestige.”
“Leave our police alone,” Trump said. “Each time they do something, they’re afraid they’re going to be destroyed, their pensions are going to be taken away, they’ll be fired, they’ll be put in jail. Let them do their job.”
In his speech, Pence celebrated the Supreme Court’s recent ruling eliminating the federal right to abortion and called for a movement of cultural conservatives to turn back a “pernicious woke agenda” that was, he argued, “allowing the radical left to continue dumping toxic waste into the headwaters of our culture.”
“We save the babies, we’ll save America,” he said.
Still, Pence couldn’t escape the direct contrast with Trump. When Pence finished his speech, the first question from the audience of young conservatives was about the former president “and the divide between the two of you.”
“I don’t know that our movement is that divided,” Pence said. “I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus.”