As this execrable presidency slithers toward its demise, the snakes are devouring each other, and the most amusing and poetically just act of reptilian cannibalism is the sight of Donald Trump devouring Mike Pence’s soul.
Throughout his term of service to Trump, Pence has followed a singular principle: Do not allow your devotion to your master to waver. If Pence has harbored even the tiniest private doubt, he has not permitted it to escape. He has ignored or defended each and every one of Trump’s indiscretions — from the grandest abuses of power to his pettiest grifts. The vice-president’s public displays of praise are mortifyingly effusive. At times, his praise for Trump bordered on the homoerotic, with constant praise for the president’s “broad shoulders.” His subservience became almost instinctive, as when he saw his boss remove a water bottle from the table and automatically followed.
Pence surely knew the discouraging record of people who had entered Trump’s orbit before. His apparent calculation was that, if he steered clear of even a hint of disloyalty, he could avoid the fate that has befallen so many of Trump’s other lackeys. Pence believed that his service would be rewarded and that — no matter happened to the country in the meantime — he would emerge from the mess as the one man who could unite the party’s Reagan-worshipping elite with its Trump-worshipping base.
It almost worked. In the end, Trump turned on Pence because he was following the primary rule of Trump: In every situation, Trump is either a winner or has been treated unfairly. After Trump lost the election, he had to offload responsibility so that he would not be a loser. He cycled through a frantic series of gambits, pressuring state legislators, election officials, and courts to overturn the election results and hand him a second term.
Eventually, having exhausted all other options, he arrived at a final, desperation gambit: Mike Pence, in his role counting the electoral ballots, would discard the votes of several Biden-supporting states, throwing the contest into the House, and thereby (because of peculiar rules under which every state delegation would have a vote, regardless of size) making Trump the winner.
If you take this theory seriously, it posits that the Constitution contains a time bomb, under which the vice-president has the sole discretion to decide presidential elections for any reason at all, and for some reason none of them have ever bothered to use this authority before.
The theory that the vice-president has the inherent authority to negate the result of an election is so absurd that it gained no support even from the most slavishly pro-Trump organs on the right. In recent days, I scoured conservative publications like Breitbart, the Federalist, and the Journal of American Greatness, and none of them featured any defense of this proposition. The weightiest conservative legal voice I could find anywhere supporting this claim is Charlie Kirk, a 20-something right-wing social-media personality.
But when this became Trump’s only avenue to avoid loserdom, he began demanding that Pence volunteer to attempt it. He was asking Pence to step forward and claim unilateral authority to abrogate an election, an effort guaranteed to end in defeat and humiliation. Trump was ordering Pence to hurl his body onto the president’s funeral pyre. It was, at long last, an order Pence could not fulfill.
Trump has met Pence’s display of insubordination with a days-long campaign of public and private abuse. He has repeatedly instructed his fans that the responsibility to overturn the “fraudulent” election rests in Pence’s hands. “I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do,” Trump told his crowd before they broke into the Capitol, “and I hope he doesn’t listen to the RINOs and the stupid people that he’s listening to.”
This is not mere performance. As he has done many times before, Trump seems to have internalized the belief that Pence possesses the authority to hand him a second term, and has made the veep his most recent target of rage.”“The thing he was most upset about and couldn’t get over all day was the Pence betrayal. …,” a former senior official tells the Washington Post, “All day, it was a theme of, ‘I made this guy, I saved him from a political death, and here he stabbed me in the back.’ ” Maggie Haberman reports that Trump, who has until recently spared Pence the abusive treatment he often metes out to his subordinates, has “been brutal” to him of late.
Pence can surely handle the personal humiliation. (He may even enjoy it at some level.) What will sting is being cast out of the MAGA-verse after years of loyal service. The Pence 2024 or 2028 campaign, and its hopes of uniting Trump’s cult with traditional conservative dogma, has evaporated. The man crawled through so much shit and was so close to his reward, before Trump cruelly snatched it away.
A handful of Trump’s enablers got everything they wanted from the bargain. They will walk away cackling at their cleverness. Pence seemed, right up until the end, as if he would be one of the flunkies who profited from the bargain.
But now, finally, he is suffering for his sins. It is, in a way, a beautiful and perfect way for his time in office to end.