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.”
Read: A survival guide for the Trump White House
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.