For much of the first 54 days of his presidential campaign, Mike Pence has been relegated to the contest’s lower tier, fighting for scraps and single-digit polls at a crowded table featuring Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.
On day 55, the former vice president took the main stage.
The indictment of Trump by special counsel Jack Smith for his efforts to undermine the 2020 election, placed a sharper focus on Pence’s actions leading up to and on Jan. 6, including the revelation that he kept contemporaneous notes. It also elevated the idea that Pence himself would be a litmus test for the rest of the field: Would they have made a different decision that day?
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Pence showed no regrets or equivocations in the hours after Smith unveiled his indictment.
“With regard to the substance of the indictment,” Pence said, “I’ve been very clear: I had hoped it wouldn’t come to that. I had hoped that this issue, and the judgment of the president’s actions that day would be left to the American people. But now it’s been brought in a criminal indictment.”
He did not weigh in on what he thought the outcome of a trial would be. He also did not foreclose the possibility that he would appear as a witness. But he did let loose on Trump and his co-defendants, calling them “a group of crackpot lawyers that kept telling him what his itching ears wanted to hear.”
Privately, Pence’s team knew Jan. 6 would be a central theme of his candidacy. The Wi-Fi code at his campaign launch gave away their instinct: “KeptHisOath!” it read. His allied super PAC Committed to America led with an Iowa ad focusing on Jan. 6 shortly after his campaign launched. “A president begging him to ignore the Constitution. A mob shouting for him to die. And an anxious nation watching for one man to do what’s right,” a narrator said in the ad. And while the former vice president has built his campaign around his faith, his social conservatism and his service with Trump prior to the insurrection, aides understood that an indictment over Jan. 6 loomed and would inevitably suck the oxygen from the room.
His team hasn’t relished having to rehash what happened that day. But they haven’t retreated from the discussion either, believing that it allows Pence to show convictions and purpose while others in the field struggle with contortions.
“He’s had a good couple of weeks,” said a senior adviser to Pence, granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
DeSantis, for one, has grappled with how best to respond to Trump’s legal foibles. Over the weekend, his campaign took an uncharacteristically aggressive swing, accusing the former president of scamming grandmothers to pay his legal bills, lying about the 2020 election results and risking the chance to unseat Joe Biden because of his unending political dramas.
But no sooner had the governor’s aides begun sharpening their hatchet than the candidate himself decided to tuck it away.
Asked on Monday about his own campaign spokesperson accusing the former president of running a scam, DeSantis claimed he was “not familiar” with those statements. After Smith unveiled the indictment, DeSantis sidestepped once again, arguing that a trial would be inherently unfair since it would be held in Washington, D.C.
He repeated his indirect defense of the GOP frontrunner in a Fox News interview Wednesday, promising to “reconstitutionalize the federal government” and “end weaponization” at the FBI and the Department of Justice. He also warned Trump will face a “stacked” jury in the nation’s capital.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), likewise, moved quickly to stand behind Trump, calling the latest indictment further evidence of “the weaponization of Biden’s DOJ.” It was a tonal shift from where Scott stood after the indictment of Trump over his handling of classified documents. Back then, he called the allegations “serious” before offering his concerns about a “double standard” for Republicans and Democrats.
A campaign adviser to Scott noted that he has been consistent in his belief that Trump wasn’t responsible for the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, pointing to a February 2021 interview where Scott said Trump was “simply not guilty” of instigating the storming of the Capitol. But the senator’s response on Tuesday didn’t fly with the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party — a voting bloc Scott may need if he is to gain more ground in the crowded primary.
“I’m not disappointed in DeSantis, because he’s an ass and I expect him to do what he’s doing. But Tim Scott, it felt like a stab in the heart, because that’s so not what he believes,” said Joe Walsh, the former Republican congressman who launched a primary bid against Trump in 2020 and served in the House with Scott. “I know Tim’s a good man, but to see a good man not be able to say what he believes after this indictment was really, really sad.”
But while Pence may have fewer hoops to jump through in order to find a settled answer on Jan. 6, he has more ground to make up in order to become a serious player in the Republican primary. Both DeSantis and Scott have qualified for the debate. The former VP has not, though Pence’s campaign manager Steve DeMaura told donors in a call Tuesday that they expect him to qualify as early as next week, saying he has a total of 30,000 donors and has gained an average of 1,000 donors a day in recent weeks — with a potential pool of 140,000 donors to his nonprofit Advancing American Freedom targeted through direct mail.
Perhaps more urgently, the criticism he has lobbed at Trump for what transpired before and after Jan. 6 hasn’t proved to have much currency with Republican primary voters, the majority of whom seem more than fine rallying to the ex-president’s side.
“I get it. Politically, they’re all fucked. It’s a catch 22 — and by the way, their own cowardice has put them in this position,” Walsh said. “If any of these candidates publicly oppose Trump, they’re done. Chris Christie knows that. Will Hurd, these guys have no shot.”
Part of that is because Trump’s campaign has been so quick to admonish anyone on the GOP side of the aisle who turns against him.
Trump spent Tuesday at his club in Bedminster, N.J., where he huddled with advisers and lawyers. He had played golf during the day, a person familiar with his movements relayed. And when it became more apparent that an indictment would be forthcoming, he and his team aimed to preempt it with a statement. They also rushed to social media to amplify congressional supporters. In the aftermath, lawyers as surrogates were dispatched to Fox News and CNN, where they appeared throughout the night and into Wednesday morning.
In a sign of the post-indictment fight to come, the campaign operation also prepared and disseminated research on Smith himself.
For months, Trump has raged against Smith in public, offering a steady stream of invective through his posts on his social media platform. But the special counsel had not been a central figure in Trump’s actual political operations. Smith has been mentioned just three times in fundraising emails from the Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee email account, according to a review of that account’s emails. Two of those mentions were simply recitations of newspaper article headlines with Smith’s name in them.
Now he, like Pence, appears headed for a more prominent role.
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.
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