If Mike Pence really wants to be president someday, he should probably avoid publicly disagreeing with his 2016-2020 running-mate and erstwhile lord and master Donald J. Trump. And up until now, the former veep has tried to treat their rather significant disagreement over what happened on January 6, 2021, as a minor disagreement between fast friends, an assessment the 45th president has not reciprocated.
But Trump’s recent renewed blast at Pence for his failure to “overturn the election,” escalating to a tongue-in-cheek demand that Congress investigate him for dereliction of duty on January 6, probably baited Pence into a response. Either way, Pence’s decision to respond at a Federalist Society event in Florida was shrewd. Nearly everyone in this audience of conservative legal beagles almost certainly knows that Trump’s incoherent and self-serving claims — that Pence had the power to award Republicans a victory they had not earned and/or to adjourn that day’s constitutionally sanctioned joint session of Congress and “send it back to the states” — are absolute B.S. (See this analysis from Matthew Seligman for a formal demolition of Trump’s desperate pseudo-theories.) At a minimum, it was a group whose loyalty to Trump was coextensive with their view of him as an instrument for a conservative counter-revolution in the federal courts, not as an authoritarian warrior-jefe itching to review military parades with a chest full of phony medals.
Still, Pence chose some pretty spicy language in hurling Trump’s challenge back at him. It was largely identical to what he said on the subject at the Reagan Presidential Library last June, but that wasn’t in the immediate wake of a Trump statement to the contrary:
There are those in our party who believe that as the presiding officer over the joint session of Congress, I possessed unilateral authority to reject Electoral College votes. And I heard this week that President Trump said I had the right to ‘overturn the election. …
President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election. The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. Frankly, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.
Then, having thrust in the knife, Pence gave it a twist:
Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election. And Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.
This was an effective riposte to those who wonder why Trump is trying so hard to stop a bipartisan effort in Congress to fix the Electoral Count Act of 1887 that could be exploited by irresponsible elements in either party (not that there is any evidence Kamala Harris would do so, but MAGA folk tend to project their own vices onto the opposition).
Pence’s speech marks an escalation — or counter-escalation — of his evident break with the man he once idolized to an embarrassing degree. “Un-American” is a verbal hand grenade when tossed into the company of self-proclaimed super-patriots. But it was a reminder that Donald Trump does not necessarily define his country, his party, or the law and Constitution. We’ll now see if MAGA bravos start once again building gallows for Pence.