IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pence breaks further from Trump over style, but not substance

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
Mike Pence attends a luncheon at the Library of Congress in Washington
Mike Pence attends a luncheon at the Library of Congress in Washington, on Feb. 16, 2023. Alex Brandon / AP

WASHINGTON — If it’s Monday ... The U.S. Energy Department, with “low confidence,” says Covid may have originated from China lab leak. ... Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, calls for hearings on Covid’s origin. ... New York Times op-ed argues for Biden, Dems to open up race for vice president in 2024, given concerns about Biden’s age. ... Vice President Harris travels to South Carolina to tout Biden administration’s efforts to expand high-speed internet. ... NBC’s Natasha Korecki covers the Democrats' drama over control of the Nevada state party. ... Ron DeSantis’ likely 2024 campaign begins to emerge. ... And Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Michigan, announces in Michigan Senate. 

But first: Mike Pence had something to say about his former boss, Donald Trump. 

In an interview Friday afternoon with NBC’s Ali Vitali, the former Republican vice president said that “the times call for different leadership. And I’m confident we’ll have better choices than my old running mate come 2024” — in response to a question about any difference he might have with Trump. 

“I’ve heard countless Americans tell me that they want to get back to the policies of the Trump-Pence administration,” Pence continued. “But the next thing I hear, Ali, is that they want to see us and our politics return to the kind of civility and respect that Americans show one another every day.”

“And I think that when we think about the large challenges facing the country today — the rise of China, our greatest economic and strategic threat, when you think about the avalanche of debt that we’re piling on our children and grandchildren, when you think about what appears to be a steady assault on traditional values and families in America — now more than ever we need the policies but the civility that makes it possible for us to generate real solutions for the American people.”

Our take: Now a call for “civility” might not be the issue that animates rank-and-file Republican primary voters.

And conservative writer Matt Lewis contends that there probably isn’t a place in today’s GOP for a Reagan conservative like Pence — a hawk on foreign policy, a free-marketer who isn’t looking to punish corporations that disagree with him, and someone who wants to tackle entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.

But Pence, who told Vitali he expects to make his 2024 decision by later this spring, certainly has staked out his ground in the early Republican presidential race.

Headline of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … 22%

That’s by how much train derailments have declined since 2015, NBC News’ Dante Chinni reports, as the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, continues to grab national headlines. In 2022, there were 1,049 train derailments, with an average of about three per day. The number of railway incidents involving hazardous chemical spills have also dropped by 51% over the last decade. 

But those spills can still be very costly. Last year, the 355 railway incidents involving hazardous materials cost more than $45 million in damage. 

Other numbers to know: 

$2 billion: The value of a new aid package the U.S. pledged it would send to Ukraine on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

271,000: The number of Ukrainian refugees the U.S. has admitted since Russia invaded Ukraine.

$430 billion: The value of student loans at stake as President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan goes before the Supreme Court this week, the Washington Post reports.

7: The number of news outlets requesting that Speaker Kevin McCarthy grant them access to over 44,000 hours of security footage from Jan. 6, 2021, that Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed he received from McCarthy last week.

92,000: The number of voter registrations that amateur voter fraud hunters challenged in Georgia last year, according to NBC News’ Jane Timm.

166: The number of people who have died in Afghanistan from hypothermia as a colder-than-average winter grips the nation, the New York Times reports. 

250,000: The number of people without power across the country following severe storms.

Eyes on 2024: DeSantis dominates ’24 discussion 

While the former president still sits atop most 2024 polls, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis continues to draw a significant amount of attention, support, and incoming from other Republicans.  

Even if he hasn’t announced his bid, the clear trappings of a presidential bid have become clear, as NBC News’ Jonathan Allen, Natasha Korecki and Ali Vitali report. He’s barnstormed the country talking to police groups, holding donor retreats, selling out book tour appearances, promoting a spate of conservative legislation that both may endear himself with the GOP base while frustrating liberals (which has become a clear way to gain support with the GOP base).  

And as other outlets are reporting this morning, DeSantis is taking his nascent campaign right to Trump’s supporters and his turf

DeSantis’ status as the effective co-frontrunner continues to be reinforced by polling that shows him as the only Trump alternative with a solid base of support — a new Fox News poll shows the governor, starting off at 28% support among GOP primary and caucus voters, behind Trump’s 43% but the only other candidate in double digits. 

And it’s reinforced by the actions of some of his rivals. What did Pence do in his NBC interview on Friday before he made that contrast with Trump? He tried to take on DeSantis’ recent comments on Ukraine

In other campaign news: 

Party time: The Nevada Democratic Party is in chaos, reports NBC News’ Natasha Korecki, who obtained documents detailing the schism in the key battleground. In Florida, Democrats looking to rebuild their party picked former gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried as the next chairwoman.

Thanks, but no thanks: Unlike recent presidential election cycles, most senators are passing on running for the White House, NBC News’ Sahil Kapur and Scott Wong report.

All in the details: First Lady Jill Biden told the Associated Press on Friday that President Biden is likely to run for a second term and that “pretty much” all that’s left to do is figure out the details of his campaign announcement. “He says he’s not done,” she said during a trip to Kenya. 

Trump tactics: Trump’s campaign is working to cultivate relationships with state party officials “to buttress his chances of getting sympathetic delegates at next year’s nominating convention and identify opportunities to shape party rules that could help his campaign,” the Washington Post reports. 

Pledge allegiance to the party: Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told CNN that she expects the RNC will require presidential candidates hoping to participate in primary debates to pledge that they will back the party’s nominee, calling the move a “no-brainer.” 

Not afraid to pick sides: The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, plans to play in primaries in 2024 to prevent controversial candidates from advancing to general elections. The new policy was on display at a Florida event attended by former hedge fund manager David McCormick, who is considering another run for Senate in Pennsylvania after losing last year’s primary to TV personality Mehmet Oz.

Slotkin’s running: Michigan Democrat Rep. Elissa Slotkin announced her Senate bid Monday, highlighting her national security service and saying “nothing is more important to me than” Michigan. The decision comes days after multiple potential candidates said that they won’t run — including GOP Rep. John James and Democrats Mallory McMorrow, a state senator, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who tweeted over the weekend that “the Governor & I have more work to do.

See ya, Santos?: A new Siena College poll found 66% of New York voters — up from 59% in last month’s survey — who say embattled GOP Rep. George Santos should resign, per Politico. 

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

President Biden doesn’t plan to visit East Palestine, Ohio, he said, which is the site of a Feb. 3 train derailment that has led to toxic gasses and chemicals spilling out into the community and has reignited a debate in Washington about railway safety. 

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries will set up a bipartisan process for removing representatives from committees.

President Biden’s aides won’t set up a legal defense fund to help pay legal fees associated with any investigations, NBC News’ Carol E. Lee and Mike Memoli report.