Donald Trump’s relationship with his most loyal lieutenant, Mike Pence, splintered on Wednesday after the vice president defied the president’s call to overturn his loss in the November election.
Trump attacked Pence on Twitter after the vice president announced he lacked the power to throw out Electoral College votes cast for President-elect Joe Biden. Pence, the president tweeted, “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.”
Desperate to cling to power, Trump turned what is normally a drama-free joint session of Congress to ratify the election results into a loyalty test for Pence. The gambit had catastrophic results, not just for the relationship between the president and vice president but also for the peaceful transition of power.
Pro-Trump protesters violently stormed the US Capitol after Trump exhorted them to march to the building to support Republican lawmakers who planned to challenge Electoral College votes in some states. Pence found himself caught up in the chaos and had to evacuate from the Senate chamber after presiding over the joint session.
Though Pence’s defiance of Trump’s demands he reject Electoral College votes was rooted in the Constitution, which gives the vice president no such power, it was still by far the vice president’s most serious break with his boss. Pence has been unfailingly loyal to Trump, never publicly criticizing the president or disagreeing with any policy.
When the Senate reconvened hours later on Wednesday night, Pence condemned the Trump supporters who committed acts of violence yet did not mention the president by name. He vowed that protesters who breached the Capitol would be prosecuted, separating himself slightly from Trump, who has not suggested they did anything wrong.
“To those who wreaked havoc in our capitol today, you did not win,” the vice president said. “Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the people’s House.”
Wednesday’s events mark a devastating conclusion to their relationship, and the fallout may have implications for Pence’s political future, which included a possible presidential run of his own in 2024.
Pence’s conclusion that the Constitution gave him no power to interfere with the count of Electoral College votes triggered criticism of the vice president in Trump’s inner circle, according to people familiar with the matter. Some of Trump’s allies believe Pence doomed his 2024 presidential aspirations by bucking Trump’s demands, and that the president’s loyalists will no longer be supportive of any of Pence’s future political endeavors, one of the people said.
If so, Pence’s four years of unstintingly loyal service to the president would go unrewarded.
He took on Herculean tasks, like overseeing the White House’s coronavirus response, and was exceedingly deferential to Trump when they appeared together in public. The approach allowed Pence to remain in Trump’s good graces without echoing his most outlandish claims.
Tying himself so tightly to Trump could have allowed Pence to appeal to the president’s supporters if he decided to seek the Oval Office. But the blowback from the president over Wednesday’s events may spoil those plans.
Signs of a split between Pence and Trump’s hardcore base began to emerge shortly after the election. Pence sought to focus on the coronavirus task force and the Senate runoff election in Georgia, rather than the Trump campaign’s election challenges.
In public, the vice president raised concerns about the election and said every legal vote should be counted, but didn’t repeat Trump’s baseless claims the November contest was stolen.
But Pence’s role in presiding over Congress’s Electoral College certification, which was completed early Thursday morning, proved to be too big of a challenge for his relationship with Trump to survive unscathed.
Trump’s repeated insistence that he won re-election forced Pence into a bind between upholding the Constitution he swore to protect and supporting the president to whom he has shown devotion.
As president of the Senate, the vice president’s job is largely ministerial during the Electoral College ratification. Yet Trump for days argued that Pence had the power to refuse to certify electoral votes and send the matter back to states to decide.
“If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency,” Trump tweeted on the eve of the vote.
After consultations with his legal team and the Senate parliamentarian, Pence ultimately decided he could not do Trump’s bidding.
“It is my considered judgment that my oath to support and defend the Constitution constrains me from claiming unilateral authority to determine which electoral votes should be counted and which should not,” Pence said in a letter to Congress released before the joint session.
While Pence said it was within his power to allow lawmakers to challenge the results, the Constitution’s separation of powers prevented one single official from determining an election’s outcome.
“Vesting the vice president with unilateral authority to decide presidential contests would be entirely antithetical to that design,” Pence said.
In some ways, Trump’s decision to turn on his vice president shows how isolated the president has become in his final days in power. Republican leaders in Congress and some right-leaning news outlets have come to shun Trump’s insistence he won and have urged him to accept defeat. When Trump looked to Pence for his last stand, he was once again denied.
During a fiery speech to supporters outside the White House before the joint session of Congress, Trump urged Pence not to join Republicans who had said they wouldn’t challenge the election results, deriding them as “weak” and “pathetic.”
“I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do,” Trump said. “And I hope he doesn’t listen to the RINO’s and the stupid people,” he added, using an acronym that refers to Republicans in name only.
Minutes before Trump uttered that line, Pence had already announced he would not overturn the election.
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