In the more than two years since he was hunted by pro-Trump rioters through the halls of the U.S. Capitol, Mike Pence has always seemed hesitant to condemn the man who unleashed a violent mob on him. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly made it clear he thinks Pence deserved a little mob justice over his refusal to symbolically (and illegally) reject the results of the 2020 presidential election on January 6. But while Pence has done next to nothing to make sure Trump faces real consequences over his attempt to overturn the election results and the deadly mayhem that caused, the former vice president, author, and potential 2024 also-ran has at least gradually become more comfortable offering, as politics reporters like to say, “stronger” criticism.
There’s arguably no better place for a politician to get noticed ramping up their rhetoric than an event like the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., where on Saturday night, Pence “delivered what amounted to his strongest rebuke of Donald Trump,” according to the Washington Post. His “remarks were the sharpest condemnation yet,” the Associated Press added. Pence “slammed” Trump (per Axios) with “his most blistering comments yet,” CNN reported. The New York Times explained that what Pence said set “a new bar for other Republicans hoping to replace Mr. Trump as the party’s leader.”
But the difference between what Pence said Saturday and what he’d said before marked incremental progress at most.
“President Trump was wrong,” Pence said, not for the first time. “I had no right to overturn the election,” he said, again. “And his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day,” Pence continued, reiterating points he has repeatedly made while dodging efforts to make Trump pay for doing that. But, Pence added, for the first time ever: “I know history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
The rebuking didn’t stop there. The former vice president also seemed to call out fellow secret Trump-hater Tucker Carlson — though not by name — over the Fox News host’s efforts, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s help, to recast January 6 as a peaceful protest. “Make no mistake about it, what happened that day was a disgrace,” Pence said Saturday. “And it mocks decency to portray it any other way.”
Pence also “openly mocked” Trump and other politicians in his speech, including some distasteful mailed in jokes about personal pronouns and transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg taking “maternity” leave.
Pence’s advisers had hoped, in comments to Politico Magazine ahead of the traditionally light-hearted event, that Pence showcasing his hidden sense of humor would make him a less overshadowed presidential candidate. “He is so risk averse right now,” Pence’s pal and former gubernatorial chief of staff, Jim Atterholt, explained. “I hope he tears off the Band-Aid with this speech on Saturday. I certainly talk to him about letting his hair down and showing some leg.”
The advisers did not offer any estimate, however, of when Mike Pence will have finally worked up the courage to publicly refer to Donald Trump as “kind of a jerk” — or actually do something about it.
This post has been updated.