Pence seizes on Trump’s latest indictment as he looks to break through in crowded GOP field

FILE - Vice President Mike Pence speaks alongside President Donald Trump during a coronavirus...
FILE - Vice President Mike Pence speaks alongside President Donald Trump during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington on March 22, 2020. As Trump was being arraigned in Washington on yet another round of criminal charges, his former runningmate-turned-rival Mike Pence moved to capitalize on the news, unveiling merchandise that quoted from the indictment. “Too Honest” the shirts and hats read — a reference to Trump's response when Pence rebuffed his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)(Patrick Semansky | AP)
Published: Aug. 4, 2023 at 11:18 AM EDT
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NEW YORK (AP) — As Donald Trump was being arraigned in Washington on yet another round of criminal charges, his running mate-turned-rival Mike Pence hurried to capitalize on the news.

Pence’s campaign unveiled new T-shirts and baseball caps featuring the phrase “Too Honest” in big red letters — a reference to an episode in the indictment in which the former president called Pence to berate him over his refusal to go along with Trump’s scheme to overturn the 2020 election.

“You’re too honest,” Trump allegedly scoffed at his second-in-command on New Year’s Day.

Pence’s decision to seize on the words marks a notable change in tone for a usually cautious candidate who has struggled to break through in a primary dominated by his former boss. Since the release of the indictment in which he plays a central role, Pence has criticized Trump more aggressively, casting himself as the person who stood up to Trump, averting catastrophe.

“‘The American people deserve to know that President Trump and his advisers didn’t just ask me to pause. They asked me to reject votes, return votes, essentially to overturn the election,” Pence told Fox News Wednesday. Had he listened to Trump and his “his gaggle of crackpot lawyers,” Pence said, “literally chaos would have ensued.”

Pence’s response might seem like the expected reaction of a man who had to flee for his life on Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building, clashing with police and disrupting the joint session of Congress over which Pence was presiding. Trump had convinced legions of his followers that Pence had the unilateral power to undo the election, and Pence, his staff and family spent hours in hiding in a Senate loading dock as rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!” outside.

But Pence’s new words stand out, in part because of just how staunchly he refused to publicly criticize Trump during his four years as vice president, dutifully and deferentially defending his boss. His newly tough talk also contrasts with Trump’s other rivals, who have largely shied away from attacking the former president over his mounting legal troubles and efforts to remain in power.

“I think this is the ‘Enough is enough’ Mike Pence. This is the ‘Let’s do this thing,’ ‘Let’s get it done’ Mike Pence,” said his spokesman, Devin O’Malley.

Pence notably had refused to appear before the congressional committee that investigated Jan. 6, criticizing its work as politicized. And he fought a subpoena to appear before the grand jury that heard the election case.

To be sure, Pence had never shied away from defending his own actions on Jan. 6, and for a while he was openly critical of Trump.

His advisers had long acknowledged that many of the former president’s followers continue to believe Trump’s lies about Pence’s role, blaming him for failing to keep Trump in power, and they felt it was something he would have to address head-on. They believed that if he spent time explaining his position to voters, they would come to respect his decision and adherence to the Constitution.

During his campaign launch speech, Pence directly assailed Trump, saying that, “anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States” and that “anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again.” The press wifi password at the event underscored that message: “KeptHisOath!”

When a supportive SuperPAC first launched, allies said the 6th would be a fundamental part of their messaging. The group’s first ad featured footage from the riot and contrasted the two men’s actions that day.

Since then, however, Pence has spent most of his energy casting himself as the most conservative candidate in the field on economic and social issues, particularly abortion, instead of going after Trump.

He did not issue statements in response to Trump’s first two indictments. And when he did react, he focused heavily on charges of a two-tiered system of justice and allegations that the Justice Department had been “weaponized” by the Biden administration. Pence had spent four years as a loyal Trump defender and even when pressed, seemed unwilling to drop his guard.

But during a senior campaign leadership call on Monday, as Washington awaited news of the indictment, Pence and his team discussed the idea of releasing a statement this time given his central role in the day’s events. Some on the call urged Pence to go further than he had been and to deliver a message in line with what he’d said as he launched his campaign and argued Trump was unfit to return to the White House. If we’re running against him, let’s run against him, one person urged.

A draft of the statement was ready by Tuesday morning, before the indictment was unveiled.

“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” it read. “Our country is more important than one man. Our constitution is more important than any one man’s career.”

The next day, Pence continued to drive that message, telling reporters at the Indiana State Fair that, “Sadly the president was surrounded by a group of crackpot lawyers that kept telling him what his itching ears wanted to hear.”

On Fox, he pointed to “all the other legal issues around the president,” including a possible additional indictment in Georgia.

Pence’s team blasted out clips of the interview via email — “ICYMI: PENCE CHOSE THE CONSTITUTION OVER TRUMP AND ALWAYS WILL,” they read — and Pence clashed with a conservative talk radio host who had characterized Pence’s stance on the 6th as merely his “beliefs.”

The attention sparked by the Trump indictment also brought a cash infusion. The Pence campaign received 7,000 new contributions in the first 24 hours. While 5,000 of those stemmed from the more than one million pieces of direct mail the campaign recently sent out, it nonetheless marked a seven-fold increase from the campaign’s usual daily haul and will likely qualify Pence for the first GOP debate in the coming days.

Committed to America, the super PAC supporting Pence’s candidacy, also increased its spending on digital ads amid heightened interest in Pence online.

“This is the first of many moments Pence will have between now and the Iowa caucus,” said Scott Reed, the group’s co-chair.

The attention caught Trump’s notice.

“I feel badly for Mike Pence, who is attracting no crowds, enthusiasm, or loyalty from people who, as a member of the Trump Administration, should be loving him,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social network, again repeating his false claims about Pence’s role.

Soon after, the campaign decided to move forward with the new merchandising plan.

Marc Short, who was Pence’s chief of staff on Jan. 6 and was referenced several times in the indictment, said Pence had grown increasingly tired of Trump’s bad-mouthing.

“I just think there’s the reality that for two-and-a-half years, the president has misrepresented the events of that day and grossly distorted what the vice president’s authority was and knowingly presented that in false ways to the American people. And I think that there’s an understandable frustration,” he said. “How much more can any one person ... tolerate?”

While he said Short believes most Republican voters would rather be talking about other issues and focusing on Joe Biden, he said he always believed Pence’s actions that day would serve as a point of strength.

“I think people,” he said, “respect him for upholding his oath under enormous pressure.”

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