Former Vice President Mike Pence used his latest stop in Washington, D.C., to deliver a stinging criticism of former President Trump over what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, underlining his effort to break from his old boss ahead of a possible 2024 GOP primary clash.
Pence over the weekend said: “History will hold Donald Trump accountable for his actions around the 2021 attack on the Capitol.” He added that the Trump supporters who overtook the Capitol had endangered his family, who were there that day.
The comments — some of his sharpest to date while name-checking Trump — come as Pence is anticipated to launch a 2024 campaign in the coming months, putting him on a collision course with the former president.
“Make no mistake about it: What happened that day was a disgrace, and it mocks decency to portray it in any other way,” Pence said at the Gridiron Dinner, an annual white-tie event attended by journalists and politicians.
The comments are in line with what Pence has said publicly since leaving office about the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol and with what he wrote in his book. But they are also part of Pence’s trend of slowly testing out new lines that chide Trump, who is still a powerful figure in the GOP and the front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination in 2024.
One Pence ally said the former vice president and his team are willing to break with Trump and play up those differences where they think it’s warranted, particularly on Ukraine and the events of Jan. 6.
But the source downplayed the remarks Saturday as some broader attempt to go on offense against Trump, noting that Pence has been consistent in his public remarks about Jan. 6 and his comments condemning Trump and Jan. 6 would likely play well in front of an audience of journalists and with some Republicans.
“Let me just say Vice President Pence exercised moral clarity and judgment that day by doing his constitutional responsibility, authenticating the votes and counting them,” long-time congressman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Sunday on the CBS program “Face The Nation.”
Gary Cohn, a former Trump administration official who has at times been critical of his former boss, said the events of Jan. 6 continue to resonate and that he agrees with Pence’s comments.
Since leaving office, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the violence of Jan. 6 and has continued to spread false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Other would-be Republican challengers have broadly condemned the violence of Jan. 6, but Pence has stood out for his willingness to name Trump in his criticism.
And unlike other potential GOP challengers, Pence was at the Capitol that day, working in his capacity as vice president at the time to certify Congress’ official Electoral College count of the 2020 election.
Trump hit back on Monday, trying to lay the violence of Jan. 6 at Pence’s feet over his refusal to contest the election results.
“Had he sent the votes back to the legislatures, they wouldn’t have had a problem with Jan. 6, so in many ways you can blame him for Jan. 6,” he told reporters while en route to Iowa for a campaign stop. “Had he sent them back to Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, the states, I believe, No. 1, you have had a different outcome. But I also believe you wouldn’t have had ‘Jan. 6’ as we call it.”
Pence has spent recent months speaking to voters and local leaders in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Texas and other states as he promotes his memoir and mulls a potential 2024 presidential bid.
During those travels, Pence has declined to back Trump as a candidate in 2024, telling reporters he believes there will be “better choices” for the party to consider — at times hinting that he might be that choice.
Pence has stated there’s no room for “apologists for Putin” in the GOP and called for continued aid for Ukraine so it can fend off Russia’s invasion, while Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and other conservatives have questioned U.S. support for Ukraine.
And Pence late last month said Washington must have a discussion about long-term changes to Social Security and Medicare, a break from Trump’s insistence that Republicans leave entitlement programs untouched in budget talks.
Pence’s critics have noted that while he will publicly criticize Trump to a degree over Jan. 6, he is still fighting a subpoena for testimony about the events of Jan. 6 as part of a special counsel’s investigation into Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
One Democratic National Committee (DNC) official noted in the wake of Pence’s comments Saturday that the former vice president still endorsed candidates during last year’s midterm elections who had cast doubt on the 2020 results.
And there are those in the Republican Party who remain skeptical that Pence will be able to stand out in a GOP primary where base voters have significant sway and many hold a grudge against Pence for refusing to reject the 2020 election that resulted in Trump’s loss.
An Emerson College poll released late last month surveyed 1,060 registered voters on a hypothetical 10-way Republican presidential primary. The results found Trump leading the field with 55 percent of the vote, followed by DeSantis with 25 percent and Pence in third with 8 percent.
One Republican strategist with ties to Trump’s orbit said Pence’s path in a potential primary may be more viable than other candidates because of his appeal to evangelical voters. But the strategist questioned whether that, paired with Pence’s willingness to break from the field on Jan. 6 and Ukraine, would be enough to win over a hardened GOP primary electorate.
“A lot of this is personality driven. And the only two people that I see that generate an enthusiasm from the personality side of things are Trump and DeSantis,” the strategist said. “Whether he runs or not, they’ve got to get in there soon and find an angle that allows them to push the envelope.”