There is one thing that Mike Pence is right about: History will judge his former boss harshly. Speaking at D.C.’s Gridiron Club Dinner on Saturday, Pence delivered what The New York Times and many others labeled the “strongest rebuke yet” of President Donald Trump—this time from his former number two, who happens to be (presumably) running for president himself.
“Tourists don’t injure 140 police officers by sightseeing,” Pence said of the riot at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021. Here, Pence was referring to a narrative recently advanced by Fox News host Tucker Carlson and embraced by Trump, which colorfully revises history to argue that the people who broke into the seat of American democracy were gentle and respectful sightseers. “Tourists don’t break down doors to get to the Speaker of the House or voice threats against public officials” continued Pence. “President Trump was wrong; I had no right to overturn the election. And his reckless words endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol that day. And I know that history will hold Donald Trump accountable.”
Pence’s assessment of the events of that day conforms to the fabric of reality. Contra Trump and Carlson, what happened on January 6 was absolutely a riot; the rioters were there to disrupt the peaceful transition of power and to attack public officials who got in their way. When they marched through the halls of the Capitol chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” they meant it. When Trump reportedly said that Pence deserved those chants, he meant it too. Pence and his family were in danger on January 6 and Donald Trump is the reason why they were in that predicament.
This might be Pence’s strongest rebuke yet of Donald Trump, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. In fact, it’s a straight-up dodge. If the spectral spirit of “history” truly possessed the awesome power to hold mere mortals accountable, then it would surely hold Mike Pence accountable for his actions as well—or at the very least call the former vice president out for failing to act in a similar vein. For the last two years, Pence has had a number of opportunities to play a direct and material role in holding Trump to accounts. He has chosen, on every occasion, not to do so, for reasons that are both craven and pathetic. If Pence actually cares about holding Trump accountable for, again, nearly getting him and possibly members of his family killed, then he would have already done so. He hasn’t.
Pence’s inaction stems from one of the worst political calculations in recent American history: He is the only person in the country who believes that Mike Pence is a viable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. As such, he knows that he can only go so far in his criticism of Donald Trump—after all, there’s no path to the nomination without winning over some significant share of the former president’s diehards. To that end, Pence has spent much of the last two years lying low, intermittently offering some manner of light rebuke as he’s stumped around the country selling either his would-be candidacy or copies of his dull tome So Help Me God.
Those who’ve purchased Pence’s memoir will have read a fair amount of criticism of Trump contained on its pages: He calls out his former boss for failing to condemn “the racists and antisemites in Charlottesville by name” and dings him for being soft on Vladimir Putin. But no amount of prose can extricate Pence from the trap in which he’s stuck. Pence needs to run on his record as vice president, which means defending and touting Trump’s record. Even when he’s trying to find some amount of separation from Trump, he ends up sounding vaguely like a cheerleader.
Holding Trump accountable may, in any event, not be foremost on Pence’s mind. His news-making comments at the Gridiron Dinner may very well be just fuel for his own political resurrection; a helping of buzz to allow him to reach escape velocity. Though ambitious, Pence has never had much going for him as a national political figure. Uncharismatic—he typically looks like a constipated Lego figure—and puritanically evangelical, he was only brought into the ticket in 2016 as a political Hail Mary, a desperate attempt for Trump to shore up support with conservative Christians. And Pence only accepted because he was flailing as governor of Indiana and hardly a shoo-in for reelection in a deeply red state.
If Pence had hoped to use his proximity to Trump as a springboard, that was a foolish bet. Trump kept his vice president at arm’s length, rarely involving him in important decisions. Pence was never able to translate his time in the Trump administration into a broader political appeal. Every now and then he would do a stunt—he would squint and look really serious while staring at North Korea—but for the most part, he was a peripheral figure until the president’s advisers put the mad notion into his head that his running mate could single handedly undo the will of the electorate.
After his brief stints as the avatar of Trump’s hopes and, later, the object of his furious anger, Pence has returned to the periphery, supplanted by other Republicans of a newer vintage. Florida and Virginia Governors Ron DeSantis and Glenn Youngkin are cut from a similar cloth—moralistic culture warriors who built political careers out of whining about progressive influence in education and popular culture—but feel more of this moment. Though undeclared, Pence has been running a shadow presidential campaign for months.
It has gotten him nowhere. He is languishing in the polls. One released last week by Morning Consult found him garnering 7 percent of the vote, a mere 46 percentage points behind Trump. (He is closer to DeSantis, who leads him by a mere 21 points.) That is where he has been for this entire primary cycle. There is room to improve but it is unlikely Pence will—as the race heats up and voters learn about more candidates, it seems highly likely that his support will take a dip. (He may not even have the support of all his blood relations; his congressman brother Greg rather famously voted against impeaching Trump for inciting the riot and, indeed, voted against certifying the 2020 election mere hours after rioters nearly lynched his brother.)
And yet, despite all of this, Pence is refusing to take on his boss in any venue that really matters. He could cooperate with prosecutors and investigators seeking to charge Trump with crimes. He could offer testimony to the Senate Committee that is currently investigating the January 6 attacks. But he has thus far refused to do anything useful, instead limiting himself to barbed but often veiled criticisms, these most recent ones coming during a comedic speech at a chummy Beltway party. It’s all cowardly and futile. It’s precisely how Mike Pence will be remembered.