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After break with Trump, Pence charts a new path forward

Angry over his treatment by the president, Pence and his team are moving to get through the next nine days — and beyond.
Image: White House Coronavirus Task Force Speaks To The Media In Daily Briefing
Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump participate in a press briefing with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 4, 2020, in Washington.Sarah Silbiger / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — After more than four years of unflinching loyalty, Vice President Mike Pence is increasingly troubled about the way his relationship with President Donald Trump is coming to an end amid the most tumultuous episode of their administration, according to multiple people familiar with Pence’s thinking.

There is also a deepening and widespread anger among Pence’s aides and allies at how Trump seemingly discarded his most devoted soldier over his refusal to circumvent an important constitutional duty, per these people. The president’s decision not to reach out to Pence and his family while they were sheltered inside a Capitol bunker as pro-Trump rioters breached the building has particularly rankled Pence and others in his orbit.

The vice president himself is “very upset” that Trump didn’t do more to dissuade the mob, some of whom chanted for Pence’s execution. “Lives were at stake,” a person close to Pence said.

The White House, after days of notable silence on the issue, issued a generic statement Saturday condemning “all calls to violence” against anyone in the Trump administration. The president still has not acknowledged that Pence’s security — or that of any officials in the Capitol on Wednesday — was at risk.

Trump and Pence met in the Oval Office Monday evening, the first time the two had spoken since Wednesday morning, after the president repeatedly called for his second-in-command to break his oath and somehow attempt to intervene in the tabulation of the Electoral College votes, which Pence did not have the authority to do.

Pence has lamented to people close to both him and Trump that “he was a good partner for years,” yet the president abandoned him over “one little thing,” one of these people said.

The vice president is expected to resume a more regular schedule in the final nine days of the administration, with events and speeches designed to promote his own work — all while bipartisan lawmakers continue to call for Trump to resign.

And next week, Pence will attend President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, while Trump has said he will not.

Those who have marveled at Pence’s ability to remain steadfast in his devotion to Trump and have argued it will be an asset in any political future now concede it may permanently tarnish or handicap Pence's ambitions.

But others close to the vice president, and even some Republicans close to Trump, claim that despite his frustrations Pence may be better off politically than he was before Wednesday.

“Pence is in the strongest position he’s ever been in,” the person close to the president said, because the vice president has the ability to say he was staunchly loyal to Trump but had to follow the Constitution. And another source suggested that the president’s actions during and after Wednesday’s violence have likely eliminated him from serious contention in 2024, when Pence is widely believed to be considering a presidential run.

As the vice president seeks to walk that fine line, however, many of Trump’s supporters genuinely believe the baseless allegation that the 2020 election was stolen — and they view Pence as getting in the way of righting that wrong, fueling even more frustration among the GOP base.

Over the weekend, Pence wrestled with how to spend his last days in office, balancing a desire to highlight the Trump administration’s perceived successes with decisions about how to handle the potential impeachment or removal of the president. Pence is not inclined to agree to invoke the 25th Amendment, per those familiar with his thinking, and is instead waiting to run out the clock so he can make it to Jan. 20 “in one piece,” according to one ally.

Pence also spoke with the family of Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who died from injuries inflicted by rioters during last week’s assault. The president, so far, has not spoken with the family and it took days for flags at the White House to be lowered to half-staff, as they had been on the Capitol complex for several days.

Even high-ranking Trump officials have expressed frustration with the president’s conduct toward Pence, including Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, who has known Pence for years. Verma has told staffers she is “repulsed” at how the vice president has been treated both inside and outside of the administration and argued that any attack on him “further erodes faith in our democracy.”

Trump’s decision to strong-arm Pence was the culmination of what one person familiar with the discussions described as a weekslong “pressure campaign,” beginning in mid-December, with Pence fielding calls from allies of the president looking to prop up implausible scenarios in a last-ditch effort to overturn Biden’s victory.

Pence has always viewed his work “through the lens of duty,” per another Pence associate, including his decision not to challenge the Electoral College count. “It was about the Constitution and the law and not about politics.”

The vice president's ability to look back and say he felt he did the right thing will also be important to him, a close ally added, speculating that Pence might believe something like: “I have to be true to who I am. And if it costs me political capital, then so be it. I’ll be able to sleep at night knowing I did my job.”