Pence walks tightrope between owning Jan. 6 role and courting Trump voters

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Two high-profile events on Thursday could weigh on Mike Pence’s White House aspirations — and the former vice president will not appear at either.

In Washington, a hearing by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol will feature Pence’s top aides discussing how they resisted Donald Trump’s demands for his vice president to throw out the electoral college results. Pence has publicly said Trump’s demand was wrong, but he didn’t talk to the committee.

In Nashville, meanwhile, Christian conservatives will gather for the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference that’s a traditional stop for emerging presidential hopefuls, especially candidates rooted in the movement like Pence. When Pence appeared at the group’s event last year, he was booed and heckled with calls of “traitor.”

Pence’s decision to skip both highlights his challenge as he positions himself to take on Trump for the Republican nomination in 2024. Advisers say the former vice president stands by his actions on Jan. 6 but doesn’t want to be known for attacking Trump like Rep. Tom Rice (RS.C.), who lost his primary on Tuesday after voting to impeach Trump, or Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who is leading the Jan. 6 committee’s most aggressive broadsides against the former president.

“The way he views it is, he did his duty, he doesn’t need to talk about it more,” Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He doesn’t want to re-litigate the past. He believes that voters want to look forward, not backwards.”

Short said he doesn’t believe Pence’s actions before and during Jan. 6 will be a political liability for Pence in the long run, though he said there were people who questioned Pence over the decision.

“In certain circles, there’s a lot of admiration, and in certain circles, there’s a, ‘Let’s don’t talk about it, we love you for all you did, but it’s uncomfortable for all of us,’ ” Short said. “History has a way of sorting out truth, and I think more and more people will come to appreciate what he did that day. I can’t tell you exactly when that happens, but I think over time, it’s to his benefit.”

But Thursday’s hearing could complicate that posture, whether Pence likes it or not.

A committee aide said Wednesday that the hearing will be divided in four major parts: the emergence of the theory that Pence could unilaterally reject President Biden’s electors; how the theory was rejected by Pence and his advisers; the pressure campaign applied on Pence driven by the former president; and how that campaign directly contributed to the insurrection and endangered Pence’s life.

The hearings have already highlighted tensions between Trump and Pence, as in the prime-time opener last week when Cheney quoted unspecified testimony saying Trump expressed support for rioters chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” saying they “had the right idea” and that Pence “ deserved it.” (Trump has denied saying, “Hang Mike Pence.”)

Pence resisted appearing before the committee himself, believing it would not be helpful and was not a good forum for him to appear, advisers said. But he accepted his aides, including Short, would talk and wounded their cooperation.

In a January deposition, Short described Pence’s demeanor on Jan. 6 and his interactions with Trump. The committee is likely to use video clips from Short’s testimony. Thursday’s hearing will also feature live testimony from Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, who spoke in his deposition about an Oval Office meeting between Pence, Trump and others on Jan. 4, 2021, in which attorney John Eastman outlined scenarios for denying Biden the presidency.

Pence has not looked for opportunities to attack Trump directly, but he has defended himself when taking heat from Trump and his allies. Several people who have spoken to him privately say he has no plans to attack Trump for some of his more incendiary actions in office and sees no political lane in being explicitly critical of Trump.

“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said in February at a Federalist Society meeting in Florida. “I had no right to overturn the election.”

Pence has not spoken to Trump in more than a year and rebuffed initial invitations to visit him at Mar-a-Lago, advisers said. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Pence has told others he may run against Trump, and allies have pushed for an announcement early next year. He has taken an aggressive travel schedule to early 2024 states, particularly South Carolina and Iowa.

Early polls of the 2024 Republican field consistently show Pence trailing Trump and other potential candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Such surveys are not reliable predictors this far out from an election, but they could indicate that Pence may struggle to find a strong base of support.

His case to voters is that he supported Trump but did not have the power to do what Trump wanted. He has given this explanation when asked by donors and activists, as recently as his trip to a crisis pregnancy center in South Carolina last month, according to a person who heard his comments. Pence is not negative about Trump in these private conversations, this person said.

“He’s been asked in a few places here and there what his take is on it, and he generally just said, ‘The vice president has a ceremonial role there. I had no constitutional authority to do that,’” said Josh Kimbrell, a state senator from South Carolina who has organized trips for Pence there and accompanies him around the state. “We’ve been at eight events together, and of the eight events we’ve been at, it’s maybe come up four times. It hasn’t been a dominant topic.”

Some of his advisers note that Trump, since leaving office, has not lit into Pence as viciously as he has some other former advisers such as former attorney general William P. Barr or former defense secretary Mark T. Esper, and that Trump’s harshest words for Pence have come from a spokesman rather than the former president himself. Pence often praises the “Trump-Pence agenda.”

“Mike Pence clearly delineates between being proud of the policies he helped deliver for those four years, and he sees that as separate from what he was asked and pressured to do post-election,” said Tim Phillips, a Republican operative and Pence ally. “He is proud of the policies he helped implement and he’s proud of what he did in that period after the election. He separates those things.”

Pence has also joined other Republicans in criticalizing Democrats and the media for focusing too much on Jan. 6. The adviser said Pence’s team believes Republican voters are becoming less interested in the 2020 election, and that the residual anger from that day toward Pence has waned. He has found that in visiting early 2024 states, he doesn’t get asked about the topic as often.

Pence only briefly mentioned the 2020 election, for instance, at a campaign rally last month for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. That appearance was another way for him to establish his from Trump without attacking him directly, independence since Trump was backing an unsuccessful challenge by former senator David Perdue in the GOP primary.

Pence’s emphasis on campaigning with 2022 candidates and highlighting Republican priorities — he just returned from a visit to the border — instead of fighting over the 2020 election draws another contrast with Trump, said a person in frequent contact with the former vice president who spoke anonymously to discuss private conversations. Pence will spend Thursday in Ohio, fundraising with Gov. Mike DeWine and Rep. Steve Chabot, and joining DeWine for a roundtable with an oil and gas industry group.

The Ohio commitment is the reason Pence won’t appear at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference, the person said, adding that the heckling he faced last time wasn’t a factor in the decision.

A person familiar with the conference said Pence remains close with the coalition’s founder and chairman, Ralph Reed, and will be invited back. Pence and Reed appeared together last month at an event in North Carolina.

Though Pence was invited to speak at Reed’s program in Nashville, according to multiple people involved, he wasn’t advertised as an invited speaker on the conference’s webpage. The lineup includes other potential 2024 Republican contenders including Sen. Tim Scott (SC), Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), form South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

The speaker who got top billing: Trump.

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

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