Mike Pence Refuses to Connect the Dots

In his new memoir, the former vice president selectively edits his four years with Trump to avoid a necessary reckoning.

Mike Pence looking somber
Erin Scott / Bloomberg / Getty

On the morning of January 1, 2021, Mike Pence awoke after a terrible night’s sleep, poured a cup of coffee, and started his new year with a tongue-lashing from the president of the United States.

Donald Trump’s angry phone call didn’t come as a surprise. The vice president had gone to bed the night before “with a growing foreboding about the days ahead,” he writes in his new book, So Help Me God, which is part memoir, part soft launch of a 2024 campaign, and part eyewitness account of the lies, betrayals, and abuses of power that roiled the nation during Trump’s final days in office. For weeks, the president had been subtly suggesting to Pence that, as vice president, he could act unilaterally on January 6 and prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory. Pence had continually resisted, explaining that his only authority under the Constitution was to tally the electoral votes after Congress certified them. Now the proceeding was just days away, and Trump was done being subtle.

Tearing into Pence over the phone—“hundreds of thousands are gonna hate your guts,” the president told him—Trump was vexed about one thing in particular. A few days earlier, Louie Gohmert, the far-right representative from Texas, had joined other Republican officials in filing a federal lawsuit that would have given Pence “exclusive authority and sole discretion” to decide which electoral votes would be counted on January 6. Pence, in turn, had enlisted lawyers from the Department of Justice to defeat the “frivolous” lawsuit, which he considered an affront to the Constitution. The president could not comprehend his reasoning. “If it gives you power,” Trump asked Pence, “why would you oppose it?”

The anecdote speaks to what makes Pence’s book utterly captivating—and equally unsatisfying.

In the growing library of Trump White House tell-alls published by staffers, family members, and grifters of a general sort, Pence’s could have been the most intimate. It does offer a truly distinctive window into the Trump phenomenon, from unlikely election winner to unwilling election loser, recounting conversations and deliberations to which he alone was privy. And yet, the book is also singularly frustrating, tortured in its appraisal of so many history-making moments and reluctant to reflect meaningfully on the author’s view of them.

The New Year’s Day phone spat is illuminating, because it’s the moment Pence finally sees the light. Once nonchalant about Trump’s refusal to concede defeat—Pence makes no mention of ever encouraging him to do so—he came to realize just how determined the president was to remain in office. Trump didn’t just want to subvert our system of self-government; he wanted Pence to make it happen. Here, the vice president hopes the reader will be as shocked and horrified as he was. The problem is, Trump’s egomaniacal fixation on thwarting a peaceful transition of power is not some anomaly to be understood in a vacuum; rather, it is the continuation of a long pattern of selfishness, deception, and even treachery that long foretold such a crisis. That it took Pence four years—or, in this case, 446 pages—to reach the startling conclusion that the president cares more about himself than about the country robs the book of the visceral authenticity that flashes throughout the opening and closing passages.

The author’s caginess is hardly surprising. Pence, a onetime talk-radio host who communicates as deliberately as any politician I’ve ever met, had no choice but to acknowledge his bad blood with Trump as it relates to January 6. There was no brushing it aside or wishing it away, not after the public had seen the gallows and the noose and heard the mob’s chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” Whatever suspense accompanied the news, then, that Trump’s once-loyal sidekick was writing a memoir pertained to the rest of their relationship. It was widely understood that Pence, a scripture-annotating family man from southern Indiana, has little in common with the Manhattan playboy turned president. Because of the literally violent nature of their falling out, it was fair to wonder whether Pence, who had been insistent on keeping their disagreements private, might finally provide an open, honest assessment of the totality of Trump’s presidency.

Anyone who hoped so—anyone who figured that having a seditious mob sicced on you and your family by the president of the United States might be cause for public introspection—is going to be disappointed. It’s not clear whether Pence’s stubbornness on this front is to protect his own presidential ambitions, which remain very much alive, or to safeguard his vice-presidential legacy, which is already under assault. Either way, it makes for a maddening read: Pence surely has thoughts on Trump beyond the book’s carefully crafted, made-for-promotional-material talking points, but he won’t give them to us.

Here, for transparency’s sake, I should pause to clarify two things. First, I have some history with Pence; he once lost his (typically well-concealed) Irish temper in response to a story I wrote detailing his turbulent partnership with Trump and his own designs on the presidency. Pence believes I’ve unfairly picked on him, holding him to a higher standard than I have other people in Trump’s orbit. The second thing is: I have. Why? Because I believe that unlike so many other Trump associates—Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn—Pence is a decent human being. (Any number of high-profile Democrats, including Joe Biden and the late Representative John Lewis, have said the same.) The former vice president isn’t another craven, self-indulgent schemer bent on domination; he’s a humble, civil person who takes his faith seriously and knows the difference between right and wrong.

For decades, Pence has introduced himself to audiences in the same way: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican. In that order.” To lead with that identifier—to profess publicly, time and again, that you’re a follower of Jesus before anything else—is to invite and deserve perpetual scrutiny. Pence and his team of longtime loyalists would often bristle at that scrutiny, especially when it stemmed from his silence in the face of some blatant offense committed by Trump. They would remind people that he was the vice president, that his job was to support the boss, not undermine him by opining publicly on the president’s honesty or integrity or judgment.

That defense was plausible, if not always convincing, while Pence was helping Trump lead the free world. But given that he no longer is—and given the rupture in their relationship, which Pence suggests in the book’s closing pages is now permanent—a reader might hope to ascertain how the former vice president truly felt about the controversies that will be debated for decades to come. This is not a journalist’s lazy game of gotcha, hoping to pin down Pence on every policy judgment or political statement the president ever made (although it would be nice to know the author’s innermost thoughts about, say, Trump siding with Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community in Helsinki; Pence shares only that he encouraged Trump a day later to “clarify his remarks”). At the very least, because Pence orients much of the book around his Christian faith—assigning scriptural subtitles to each of the 52 chapters, plus the epilogue—it is fair to expect that he would at least acknowledge the moral dilemma that gripped many Christians who observed Trump only from afar. What to think of the administration separating children from their parents at the southern border? Whom to believe when convincing evidence surfaces to show that Trump paid hush money to a porn star during his presidential campaign? How to reconcile the example of Christ with Trump’s swaggering insults and unrepentant falsehoods and constant, merciless marginalization of those who are the least among us?

Pence makes a conscious decision not to engage with these questions. There is an argument, certainly, that politics requires even the most pious of public servants to make compromises that are justified by some greater good. But Pence does not make this argument. In fact, he flatly refuses to recognize the existence of any such compromises. He wants to impress upon the reader that no soul searching is required. He cannot even bring himself to deal with the perceptions of Trump that span ideological divides. When navigating the sea of buzzwords that substitute for any description of Trump’s manifest vulgarity—the former president is repeatedly described as “brash” and “blunt”; his “freewheeling manner” and “hardball approach” are not for “the faint of heart”—the reader can almost see Pence’s face contorting into that quizzical, far-off look he gives when confronted with questions about Trump’s decorum.

Making this even more conspicuous—at times, almost comical—is Pence’s earnest attempt to communicate his own moral code. The only non-insurrection-related private tiff with Trump that he describes is when, after the then–Republican presidential nominee ridiculed the Gold Star parents who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, he registered his “disagreement” with Trump’s “tactics.” He concludes, “I think he got the message.” Trump did not get the message, but you wouldn’t know it from Pence’s recollection of the following four years, which speeds past so much of Trump’s hateful, deceptive, dehumanizing commentary but stops often to dwell on Pence’s own persecution at the hands of the Democratic Party.

Some of Pence’s grievances are legitimate. The mocking of his personal relationship with God, by Joy Behar of The View, among others, was repulsive. And the snickering coverage of “the Pence Rule” (borrowed from the evangelist Billy Graham), which prohibits him from being alone with any woman who is not his wife, was embarrassing.

Still, the extent to which Pence portrays Trump as a martyr, a good and virtuous man who suffered gallantly for the sake of his supporters, makes his lecturing of the left ring hollow. There is harsh judgment of many Democrats—Hillary Clinton, John Brennan, Adam Schiff, and, of course, Joe Biden—and their scheming, but abundant grace and bottomless benefit of the doubt for Trump himself.

In fact, Pence goes out of his way to depict all critiques of Trump as partisan and therefore politically motivated, ignoring the fact that plenty of his fellow Republicans, including close, longtime friends such as Jeff Flake, were among the most outspoken critics of the administration. Naturally, Pence does not mention Trump’s cruel ad hominem attacks on Flake—a man who was once like a brother to Pence when they served together in Congress—or on the other former senator from Arizona, John McCain, whom Pence considered a friend and mentor. That the sitting president of the United States was not invited to McCain’s funeral, while former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush delivered eulogies, is the subject of zero analysis.

It’s true that the political warfare had become more conventionally partisan by the end of Trump’s term, because he purged so many of his critics from the party (a fact that Pence does not mention). But it’s also true that 10 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump after the attack on the Capitol, and that another seven Senate Republicans voted to convict and bar him from running for president again (another fact Pence does not mention).

This is the fundamental failing of the book. Pence has been known to lament to friends the myopic examination of Trump and his presidency, complaining that journalists like me and disaffected Republicans like Flake focus only on the negatives and ignore anything constructive that was accomplished. But in writing such a selectively edited history of the Trump era, Pence has done exactly the opposite: He focuses almost exclusively on the positives of those four years and declines to validate any of the trepidation Americans felt long before the Capitol was overrun on January 6.

Pence wants readers to believe that the carnage of that day came out of the blue, that we could not possibly have foreseen any of it. It’s an insult to the reader’s intelligence. So many dots along the way—the defense of “very fine people” in Charlottesville; the demeaning of anyone who dared, as Defense Secretary James Mattis did, to question his judgment; the quid pro quo with Ukraine and the obstruction of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election—collectively pointed to how Trump’s approach to governance was shaped by vanity and self-interest. But Pence refuses to connect those dots. Even now, with the full benefit of hindsight, nearly two years after fleeing for his very life, Pence refuses to consider the connection between the manipulative propaganda of Trump’s administration and the people wearing Make America Great Again hats who wanted to murder him for doing his constitutional duty.

It’s a shame for many reasons, chief among them the fact that Pence acted so admirably on January 6. Not only did he stand up to the mafioso tactics of Trump and his henchmen—more than could have been expected of, say, a Vice President Newt Gingrich—but Pence also refused to leave the Capitol that day, defying his own Secret Service detail and insisting that the work of Congress to certify the election results be completed in the face of bloodshed and death.

Pence deserves the gratitude of every American for his courage and conviction in that moment. Unfortunately, with the moment now passed, he has chosen to revert to vice-presidential form, excusing and ignoring the authoritarian impulses that incited a mob long before the election of 2020 was lost.