On the same day that the Republican National Committee (RNC) officially condemned two of the GOP’s most prominent critics of former President Donald Trump, Trump’s vice president issued his most direct rebuke of his former boss’ attempt to undermine the 2020 election.
“President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election,” Mike Pence said Friday while speaking at an event organized by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) February 4, 2022
Pence appeared to be responding to a statement made earlier this week by Trump, who claimed that congressional efforts to reform the process by which electoral college votes are certified was evidence that Pence could have “overturned the election.” Trump is probably wrong about that, though the law is somewhat vague (hence the ongoing, bipartisan effort at clarifying it).
But Pence did not stop there. He went on to say that “there’s nothing more un-American” than to have “one person choose the president.” It was a clear shot at both his former boss and the party leaders who continue to coddle Trump’s delusions about the past election: Democratic legitimacy must be bigger than any one person.
Those same party officials voted earlier on Friday to censure Reps. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.), the only two Republicans participating in the investigation of the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. In a statement, RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Cheney and Kinzinger “chose to join Nancy Pelosi in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.”
The twin moments on Friday afternoon point to the ongoing turmoil within the Republican Party, which is at least partially held captive by Trump and his most ardent supporters despite—or perhaps because of—the former president’s loss in 2020. They also point to the fact that the party isn’t wholly owned by the former president, at least not as long as prominent Republicans are willing to say things like “Trump is wrong.”
As the party looks toward the midterms this year and the soon-to-follow start of the next presidential nominating process, it seems to be torn in two. One faction—which includes Cheney, Pence, Kinzinger—is committed to upholding the basic principles of democracy, acknowledging that Republicans will lose elections sometimes. The other is committed to Trump’s grievances, no matter how vacuous or self-serving, about the 2020 election.
Pence has criticized Trump’s election interference in the past, but never as starkly as he did on Friday. A few days before the chaos of January 10, 2021, Pence told reporters he did not agree with Trump’s legal acolytes who believed they had found a loophole to allow the vice president to throw out the legitimate electoral votes. In June, Pence went a bit further by suggesting that he would likely “never see eye-to-eye” with Trump on that issue.
Pence is a broadly well-liked Republican who successfully navigated the chaos of the Trump years and emerged from it as one of the strongest non-Trump candidates for 2024. His willingness to take a strong stand on this vital issue is as praiseworthy as it is politically risky, and how the rest of the Republican Party responds to his comments on Friday will tell us a lot about the extent to which Trump continues to hold the party in his thrall.