‘He will do his duty’: How loyalty led to conflict for Mike Pence

Why We Wrote This

Mike Pence’s top task as Donald Trump’s vice president was to be loyal. Now, his loyalty to the Constitution has put him in a political no man’s land.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Vice President Mike Pence arrives with members of the Senate to officiate as a joint session of the House and Senate convenes to count the electoral votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol, Jan 6, 2021.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

That Vice President Mike Pence has reconciled with President Donald Trump, at least in the public telling, should come as no surprise. 

The vice president is a man of deep faith and loyalty. And so, six days after a deadly riot in the Capitol – spurred on by the fighting words of President Trump and chants of “Hang Mike Pence” – he is back to doing what he’s always done: serving as the low-key ballast to a mercurial president.

After the insurrection, Mr. Pence was urged by some to invoke the 25th Amendment on the grounds that the president is mentally unstable. By all indications, he will not go that route. Instead, the House is poised to impeach Mr. Trump for “incitement of insurrection,” which would make him the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.

And therein lies the paradox of Mr. Pence: He loyally served a president who proved to be perhaps the most controversial in history, and thus Mr. Pence himself may be finished in politics. 

“Pence clearly did his constitutional and legal duty, and he deserves credit for that,” says Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency. But until last week, Mr. Pence had gone “way overboard in his public praise of Trump, diminishing the office and diminishing himself.” 

That Vice President Mike Pence has reconciled with President Donald Trump, at least in the public telling, should come as no surprise. 

The vice president is a man of deep faith and loyalty, whether it be to his family, the president he serves, or the Constitution. And so, six days after a deadly riot in the Capitol – spurred on by the fighting words of President Trump and crowd chants of “Hang Mike Pence,” followed by the vice president’s certification of Joe Biden’s victory – he is back to doing what he’s always done: serving as the low-key, level-headed ballast to a mercurial president who both excited and repelled the American electorate.

Vice President Pence could never be another Trump, and that was the point. Mr. Trump made him running mate precisely because he would not overshadow the boss or try to usurp his power. And therein lies the paradox of Mr. Pence: He loyally served a president who proved to be perhaps the most controversial in history, and thus Mr. Pence himself may be finished in politics. 

“Pence clearly did his constitutional and legal duty, and he deserves credit for that,” says Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency and law professor emeritus at St. Louis University. But until last week, he adds, Mr. Pence had gone “way overboard in his public praise of Trump, diminishing the office and diminishing himself.” 

A former Pence aide pushes back on the idea that the vice president is too politically damaged to run for president in 2024. “Never say never,” says the former aide, speaking on background. “I’m not predicting, but I would anticipate that the vice president would do all the things necessary to preserve the right to say yes to running, if that’s what he’s called to do.” 

Consider the incoming president. Mr. Biden himself served as vice president to a more charismatic boss and seemed finished in politics when he left office four years ago. But he rose to become the man for the moment, enough voters decided, both in the Democratic primaries and on Nov. 3, and in eight days, he will become the 46th president of the United States.  

Mr. Biden’s political ascension surely was not lost on Mr. Pence last week when he sat in the Senate chamber, presiding over the counting of Electoral College votes that elevated his predecessor to the presidency. 

After the insurrection, Mr. Pence was given the opportunity to take action against Mr. Trump, with calls for him to invoke the 25th Amendment of the Constitution on the grounds that the president is mentally unstable. Under its terms, the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet could implement that amendment, making Mr. Pence president temporarily. Mr. Trump would have recourse to fight the move. 

“He will do his duty until noon on Jan. 20”

But by all indications, Mr. Pence will not go that route. Instead, the House is poised to impeach Mr. Trump tomorrow for “incitement of insurrection,” which would make him the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice. When a trial would take place in the Senate remains uncertain.

Tuesday morning, as Mr. Trump prepared to take off on Air Force One for a visit to the border wall in Alamo, Texas, he called the second impeachment a “continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics.”

It was Mr. Trump’s first public appearance since the siege of the Capitol, and his banning by Twitter and other social media, yet the day felt like business as usual. Mr. Pence, too, has gone back to his routine, presiding Monday over a meeting of the coronavirus task force, and on Tuesday, leading a video conference with governors on COVID-19 response and distribution of vaccines.

“He will do his duty until noon on Jan. 20,” says the former Pence aide. 

Unlike Mr. Trump, the first president to skip his successor’s inauguration in 152 years, Mr. Pence will also attend Mr. Biden’s swearing-in, and is being received as an honored guest.

To some political analysts, the White House since Election Day has appeared consumed by politics and less focused on the day to day of governing. 

“We’ve had a huge vacuum” of leadership, says Susan Stokes, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and director of the school’s Chicago Center on Democracy. 

In one striking example last Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she spoke to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about making sure an “unhinged” Mr. Trump didn’t launch a nuclear attack.

“As a practical reality, Trump has absented himself since the election, and really a little before, from the business of being president,” says Professor Stokes. “He has shown no interest in the least, despite the cruelty of the pandemic.”

The Biden transition team, in fact, has seemed to fill a bit of the vacuum – increasingly focused on messaging around the pandemic, reassuring the public that they will hit the ground running when they take office, amid a shaky start to the public vaccination program. On Friday, the Biden team announced a plan to release all available doses as soon as possible. 

Perhaps in response, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced Tuesday that the administration would no longer hold back the second shots of vaccine, to speed protection of as many Americans as possible.

The breach of Jan. 6

For Mr. Pence, prominently filling any leadership vacuum was never on the table. He knows his lane, and sticks to it. That modus operandi has mostly worked for him, but last week it went terribly awry. Mr. Trump effectively threw Mr. Pence under the bus Jan. 6 when he urged his vice president to overturn the election result.

“I’ve never seen Pence as angry as he was today,” his friend GOP Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma told the Tulsa World last Wednesday night. “I had a long conversation with him. He said, ‘After all the things I’ve done for [Trump].’”

After the Capitol riot, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence reportedly didn’t speak for five days, ending the estrangement on Monday. 

In reality, since then-Governor Pence of Indiana was named as running mate, the two have never been an easy fit. Mr. Trump is a thrice married, not-always-conservative populist known for making his own rules. The vice president calls himself “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican – in that order.” 

Mr. Pence pulled back from Mr. Trump in October 2016, when a tape of the GOP nominee bragging about sexually assaulting women came to light. At the time, he even reportedly told the Republican National Committee he’d be willing to serve at the top of the ticket, a move seen as almost coup-like. 

Memories of that episode have lingered. “Trumpites never liked [Mr. Pence] nor forgave him for saying he should’ve replaced Trump,” says a Republican source close to the White House. Also, nonevangelical and Roman Catholic Republicans have distrusted his “religious side,” the source adds, alluding to Mr. Pence’s conversion away from Catholicism and to evangelicalism when he met his future wife. 

In the end, if Trump enthusiasts and mainstream Republicans alike don’t trust Mr. Pence, he could wind up without much of a base.

But, as his former aide says, 2024 is a ways off and there’s no clear Trump heir apparent. Even if the Capitol rioters were ready to “hang Pence,” the aide says, they represent the radical fringe, not the mainstream.

It may well be that Mr. Pence’s long association with Mr. Trump would doom him in 2024 – both because he stuck with Mr. Trump so long and then ultimately defied him. 

Or it may be that, just like the Democrats in 2020, the GOP will look for something other than a charismatic outsider at the top of its ticket. How the Republicans do in the 2022 midterms, with both Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence expected to campaign for candidates, could be telling. 

And, says former GOP Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi, who served alongside Mr. Pence in the House, his friend can point to the “successes” of the Trump years if he runs, including tax reform, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and Middle East peace agreements. 

“Mike Pence is one of the finest people I know,” says Mr. Harper. “He’s one who doesn’t take shortcuts. He’s always going to follow the Constitution.” 

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report. 

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.