Updated on January 15, 2021 at 1:52 p.m. ET
Mike Pence publicly defied the president once in four years, and for that solitary show of independence, his own political future could be all but finished.
The vice president’s swift journey from acolyte to outcast was head-spinning. This is someone who would pause after mentioning Donald Trump’s name during an address so that the audience had time to clap—and who would then stand silently at the lectern when it didn’t. Editing Pence’s speeches, aides would cut references to Trump when they didn’t believe there was any reason to mention him. Reviewing the changes, Pence would take his Sharpie and add Trump’s name back in, a former Trump-administration official told me.
But Pence will see no reward for his fealty, or for his actions on January 6, when he resisted pressure from Trump to toss out the election results. The springboard to the Oval Office that so many vice presidents have used is gone. Not only has Trump’s base turned on him, but Pence is complicit in the Trump administration’s most egregious actions.
Lashing himself to Trump was a path to becoming president—the only path, really—for a man who has long wanted the job. As a lowly representative from Indiana, he talked privately with former Vice President Dan Quayle about how best to position himself for a White House bid, gaming out whether he should run as a member of Congress or as Indiana governor.
Imagining his next move is difficult. “The biggest and most obvious problem he has is he has to distance himself from the president, and when you’re vice president for four years, you can’t do that,” Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a former aide to California Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, told me. Alternatively, “going into a crowded primary field [in 2024], he could say, ‘Hey, I’m the guy closest to Donald Trump.’” But after last week, he can’t do that either.
When Pence’s most memorable act is ushering in the Joe Biden presidency, the MAGA crowd becomes less a reliable following than a possible mortal threat. Spurred on by Trump’s remarks at a rally before the Capitol riot, some in the mob went looking for Pence. “Hang Pence!” they chanted, as they flooded the halls of Congress. Worried about Pence’s safety, federal agents have now surrounded his official residence in Washington, D.C., with chain-link fences and concrete barriers for extra protection. Any credit Pence gets for certifying Biden’s victory comes from people who probably wouldn’t vote for him anyway. “Live by the sword, die by the sword,” Whalen said.
Pence’s rise and fall is emblematic of that of so many people who tethered themselves to Trump with disastrous results. When he agreed to become Trump’s running mate, his career was in peril. He was an obscure governor facing a difficult reelection campaign. At the time, his national profile centered on a bill he’d signed that critics feared could be used to discriminate against the LGBTQ community on religious grounds. By putting him on the ticket in 2016, Trump rescued him from a potentially career-ending loss—a point that Trump hasn’t hesitated to make in private discussions with White House aides.
From the first, Pence worried about alienating a thin-skinned president in constant need of validation. He stayed on message even when there was no message. James Melville, a former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, told me about a visit Pence made to that nation in July 2017. When Pence would huddle privately with aides, he’d invariably ask: “Were there any tweets? Did I miss anything?” Melville recalled. “I thought it was shocking and amusing” that Pence would be engaged in so much “hand-wringing over what the boss was saying.” Working under Trump, Melville said, was akin to “living with an alcoholic. You’re always waiting for the next disaster.”
My first exposure to Pence came during the 2016 transition, and I was immediately struck by his determination to bind himself to Trump. He’d agreed to an interview, but recited only talking points that ate our time—and revealed nothing. With his wife, Karen, sitting nearby, he stood up at the end and, with some sympathy in his voice, asked if he’d said anything that might prove useful. Not really.
Over and over, he gave Trump cover and vouched for him with the evangelical voters who were a crucial part of Trump’s governing coalition. He stayed when families were separated at the border and when the president pressured a foreign leader to find dirt on Biden. He stayed through the tweetstorms and tantrums and false claims of election fraud. “He tends to seek approval from something bigger and more powerful than himself,” Rob Schenck, an evangelical minister who prayed and read scripture with Pence when he was in Congress, told me. “And in this case, it’s the president.”
Embracing Trump was always a gamble. As Brendan Buck, a former House Republican–leadership aide, told me, “There are no happy endings when it comes to Trump.” In this partnership, the president got more out of the bargain. Pence comes away damaged, while Trump, at least, got a vice president who ran a functioning operation.
Pence’s office was a corner of the Trump administration that actually resembled a working executive office. His staff didn’t turn over every three days. There was little public drama and, whatever you may think of his politics, a sense of mission. Career government officials with no love for the president told me that Pence was a fair intermediary who’d listen to their arguments. Joseph Grogan, who left his job as the director of the White House’s Domestic Policy Council in the spring, said that when people ask him who they should call at the White House with a question or problem, he suggests Pence’s office. “I tell them that that’s the only place you can really go right now, because they’re still working,” he said. Now that Trump is holed up in the White House nursing his grievances, Pence is, in some respects, stepping into the role of acting president. Yesterday, he went to the Capitol to thank the National Guard troops deployed to protect the building ahead of Inauguration Day—the sort of gesture a president would normally make.
Until the election’s grisly aftermath, Trump seemed positioned to become a GOP kingmaker who’d hold considerable sway over the political fortunes of any West Wing aspirants, including his vice president. (That is, if he himself didn’t run in 2024.) Now the party faces a reckoning. “Trump’s inexcusable behavior likely blew himself up politically, which may become a huge gift to the Republican Party,” said a former senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly. The official framed Pence as a casualty of Trump’s recklessness. His recent treatment of Pence showed “a complete lack of character.” What Trump was imploring Pence to do by rejecting the election’s certification was not “legal and not constitutional … It’s ridiculous.”
Yet Pence has no obvious place in GOP electoral politics even if his party repudiates Trump. Grateful though they might be that Pence honored the popular vote, independents and Never Trump Republicans have plenty of plausible alternatives when the 2024 primary season rolls around. Consistent and unapologetic critics of the president, such as Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, would most likely attract those voters. In the meantime, the Trump base is more likely to gravitate toward one of the president’s adult children, or maybe one of the two GOP senators who pushed to reject the electoral-vote count: Ted Cruz of Texas or Josh Hawley of Missouri. Pence was never a lock for the presidency, but now he simply has no lane left.
“The hardest core of the Trump crowd is going to turn on him—and Trump is going to make sure that they do,” Doug Heye, a former Republican National Committee spokesperson, told me.
This week, Pence offered Trump one last act of service, rejecting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call for him to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and bounce the president from office. But come January 20, he’ll be in the same position as he was after the Capitol riot: out in the cold.