The former vice president faces many challenges in his potential presidential run, perhaps none bigger than his complicated relationship with his old boss.
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Former Vice President Mike Pence spoke before the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition in West Des Moines, Iowa, on April 22.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, seemingly in his element as he addressed a gathering of evangelical Christians in Iowa this month, was speaking of “the greatest honor of my life,” serving in “an administration that turned this country around” by rebuilding the military, securing the southern border, and unleashing “American energy.”
“But most importantly, most of all,” he said, building to a crescendo — but at the moment he was about to claim some credit for his administration’s success in overturning the right to an abortion, a booming voice came over the loudspeaker from the sound booth: “Check, check, testing, 1-2-3.”
It was a small interruption, but one that exemplified the diversions Mr. Pence continues to face as he considers a run for the Republican presidential nomination against the man who was once his greatest benefactor, but also his cruelest tormentor: Donald J. Trump.
On Thursday, however, Mr. Pence faced a much more onerous and grueling intrusion into his potential campaign, and one that he had hoped to avoid, when he was forced to testify for more than five hours before a grand jury in Washington about Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Those efforts put Mr. Pence’s life at risk on Jan. 6, 2021, as a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, chanting “Hang Mike Pence.”
Mr. Pence, the would-be candidate with unassailable religious convictions who spent four years a heartbeat away from the presidency, cannot seem to find the space to present those credentials to sympathetic Republican primary voters without interruption — and, in this case, on the biggest stage before a campaign has even begun.
After Thursday’s testimony, a highly unusual event involving two of the most prominent U.S. public officials during a nascent presidential campaign in which both are likely to run, he is in the odd and uncomfortable position of being both a potential challenger to his former boss and possibly a key witness for his prosecution.
Mr. Pence knows that core voters in the Republican base are in no mood to give such legal proceedings against Mr. Trump, including the current civil suit accusing him of rape and defamation, much credence. Paula Livingston, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, waved off the cases pending against Mr. Trump as “all the same, they’re out to stop him.”
Nor is Mr. Trump showing any signs of contrition. On Thursday, while campaigning in New Hampshire, the former president embraced a supporter who had served prison time for her actions during the Capitol attack of Jan. 6, and called her “terrific,” even though she said she wants Mr. Pence executed for treason.
But after the former vice president’s efforts to quash the Justice Department’s subpoena for his testimony failed, Mr. Pence had little choice but to lend his voice to the federal prosecution.
ImageFormer President Donald J. Trump spoke at a campaign event in Manchester, N.H., on April 27. Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times
The Pence camp is now working to put that testimony within the broader rubric of his potential presidential run: Conservative truth teller. Pence loyalists would like Mr. Pence to be getting more credit for the Trump administration’s successes, especially for helping to choose the nominees that tilted the Supreme Court to the right.
But Mr. Pence has to play the hand that he has been dealt, and right now that includes testifying against Mr. Trump.
“I don’t know if he has to dislodge” Mr. Trump, Marc Short, a former chief of staff to the vice president, said. “He has to remind voters who he is.”
Over his 12 years in Congress, as governor of Indiana and in the Trump White House, Mr. Pence was “the consistent conservative,” Mr. Short said, working for a man who was anything but consistent: “That’s an important contrast for him to draw,” Mr. Short said.
A Republican close to the former vice president, who requested anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations, explained on Friday that Mr. Pence has long stuck with conservative constitutional principles, even when that has meant standing up to his party.
As a House member, he chastised the administration of President George W. Bush for its failure to adhere to fiscal discipline as federal budget surpluses turned to large deficits. He has embraced changes to Social Security and Medicare that would trim benefits in the name of balancing the budget, changes that Mr. Trump has loudly rejected.
He continues to publicly make the case for U.S. military aid to Ukraine, even as some Republican lawmakers and many Republican voters turn against it. He has said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s fight with the Walt Disney Company over social policy has strayed, and become a violation of the Republican Party’s bedrock belief in free enterprise.
And he leaned on constitutional arguments, first to avoid the subpoena of federal prosecutors investigating efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and now to comply with it. Earlier this year Mr. Pence argued that the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause, intended to protect the separation of powers between the three branches of government, shielded him from having to speak of Mr. Trump’s campaign to pressure him not to certify the election results in his ceremonial role as vice president.
When that failed, he complied with the subpoena rather than search for another rationale for delay, such as the “executive privilege” claims that have been repeatedly rejected.
Mr. Pence, in his recent book “So Help Me God,” described in detail Mr. Trump’s efforts to pressure him into blocking congressional certification of President Biden’s victory. Mr. Trump became preoccupied with the idea that Mr. Pence could do something, though Mr. Pence’s chief lawyer had concluded that there was no legal authority for him to act on Mr. Trump’s behalf.
But people close to Mr. Pence said that just as he argued that he had to fulfill his constitutional duty on Jan. 6, 2021, he invoked that same Constitution the following day to reject overtures from Democratic leaders to use the Constitution’s 25th amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office.
Aides to Mr. Pence showed little worry this week as the former vice president continues his deliberations about a run. Mr. Pence’s attitude, they said, is simple: Let the chips fall where they may.
“He feels remarkably blessed to have been able to serve the American people in the roles he has had,” Mr. Short said, “and he hopes to continue that service.”