Mike Pence is a man of God. He is also a practiced politician of intense discipline who answers every question, no matter how aggressive or personal, with carefully prepared talking points delivered in a reassuringly measured Midwestern cadence.
He is always on message. He has hardly ever, as vice president, strayed from the MAGA line.
When asked about his prayers during the pandemic, Pence explained in one breath how he offers prayers of intercession (that the suffering would be comforted), prayers of petition (that leaders would be given wisdom), and prayers of thanksgiving (that Donald Trump is his boss). “I have to tell you,” he told RealClearPolitics aboard Air Force Two shortly after accepting the nomination for vice president in August, “I really could not be more proud of this president's leadership through this global pandemic.” That Pence would turn a question about faith into an answer about Trump is not surprising.
He has been nothing but dedicated to the president, and no controversy — not the Ukraine scandal, not the St. John’s church photo op, not even the “Access Hollywood” tape — has ever caused Pence to abandon his post. Disciplined. On message. Loyal. Pence is all of that: A vice president straight out of central casting, who has backed up Trump at all costs but who will now risk four years of earned goodwill in one afternoon. He has to count votes.
As vice president, Pence serves also as president of the Senate, meaning that on Wednesday he will preside over a pro forma certification of the Electoral College vote. The duty is normally procedural. But by clinging to power and alleging widespread voter fraud, Donald Trump has foisted an uncomfortable decision on his loyal lieutenant: ratify the victory of President-elect Joe Biden or back his boss.
“There is a famous verse coming out of the Book of Esther,” David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth and a longtime friend of Pence, told RCP. “I think that applies to Mike right now.” Pence knows the scriptural passage McIntosh is talking about. It is the story where the queen in Babylonian exile must decide whether to denounce a plot to slaughter the Jewish people or to say nothing and ensure her own safety. The Word of the Lord:
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for a time such as this?
The parallel is obvious. The choice, less so. Pence is faced with a difficult decision that will affect not only the nation but his entire legacy. The vice president, no doubt, is seeking divine wisdom. And for a time such as this, he has reportedly sought guidance from political advisers and legal experts and the Senate parliamentarian. McIntosh, for his part, didn’t say who the “Babylonians” are in this case.
Trump has made his thoughts known. “I hope that Mike Pence comes through for us. He’s a great guy,” the president said Monday night at a rally in Georgia. The hopes of Trump World rest on playing the so-called Pence Card, the idea being that the vice president would unilaterally reject the election results. “Of course, if he doesn’t come through,” Trump added, “I won’t like him quite as much.”
This would be a bitter pill for Pence, who is widely believed to harbor Oval Office ambitions of his own. Being a party to a quixotic attempt to overturn the election results, however, could very well make him a pariah in any future general election.
But close friends as well as current and former colleagues stress that the vice president has a higher allegiance. “He’s very loyal to President Trump, who obviously is very interested in the outcome, but the most important feature about Mike is that he really is a constitutionalist,” McIntosh said. As for the gaggle of Senate Republicans who plan to challenge some state results, McIntosh predicted that Pence would limit himself simply to using “the chair to give them an appropriate hearing for their motion.” Nothing more.
The task before Pence is simple, at least on paper. The vice president is to open envelopes that contain the Electoral College votes reported from the individual states and then, “in the presence of” both chambers of Congress, hand them to the tellers of the House and Senate. Trump adviser Peter Navarro argued that Pence has broader authority, that he could delay the process and grant a 10-day audit of the results. Pence is apparently unmoved by this curious theory. “Peter Navarro is many things,” the VP’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told the Wall Street Journal. “He is not a constitutional scholar.”
While Pence has signaled that he is open to GOP efforts to overturn the election result, he hasn’t tipped his hand. It still isn’t clear what he will do, other than serve his constitutionally mandated clerical role. The vice president, his office said in a statement, “welcomes the efforts of members of the House and Senate to use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence before the Congress and the American people on January 6th.”
The Trump campaign and its allies have filed no fewer than 60 legal challenges alleging widespread fraud. None have been successful in court. Meanwhile, there has been whispering among White House staff that the vice president is not a true believer when it comes to election conspiracies. The New York Times reported that Pence even told the president that he didn’t believe he has the power to block congressional certification of a Biden victory. This, Trump said late Tuesday night, was “fake news.”
“The Vice President and I are in total agreement that the Vice President has the power to act,” Trump said in statement, later adding that the “election was corrupt in contested states” and therefore “was illegal.”
“Our Vice President has several options under the U.S. Constitution,” Trump’s statement added. “He can decertify the results or send them back to the states for change and certification. He can also decertify the illegal and corrupt results and send them to the House of Representatives for the one vote for one state tabulation.”
If Pence doesn’t exercise those oddball options as Trump prescribes, he could alienate the president’s base. But what good is a base that isn’t large enough to win national elections? That is the question of GOP strategists surveying the wreckage of 2020. Trump couldn’t secure his own reelection, let alone keep Republican Senate majority which, as of Wednesday morning, appears lost.
There may be an opportunity in all of the chaos, a chance for Pence to place a steady hand on the wheel of government as the peaceful transition of power begins. “It only helps his future ambitions,” said Rep. Jim Banks, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee that Pence once helmed.
“Only the wacky fringe elements of the Republican Party believe that Mike Pence should stand up before the nation, on the floor of the House, and not perform his constitutional duties of counting the electors from the States,” added Banks, who predicted, “Pence will be president one day.”
Those ambitions were evident to former Rep. Mark Souder from early on. The two Hoosiers served in Congress together, and Souder watched as Pence moved steadily through House leadership to the Indiana governor’s mansion and finally to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across a parking lot from the White House. “He is gonna have to choose,” Souder said of the vice president’s last, and most consequential, decision. “Pence respects the institution too much; he’s signaled it, and he is not going to overturn the vote, court cases, and state election officials because he built his career on states’ rights.”
“I can't see him selling out,” Souder added. “Not for this guy.”
Pence will preside over a joint session of Congress, his office confirmed late Tuesday night, to count electoral votes at 1 p.m. Trump is scheduled to speak at an event across town two hours earlier. It is billed as the “Save America Rally.”
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