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Pence steps out of Trump's shadow, raising new questions about his political future

In response to former President Donald Trump's claims that Mike Pence could have overturned the 2020 election, the former vice president spoke out in his strongest remarks yet.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
In response to former President Donald Trump's claims that Mike Pence could have overturned the 2020 election, the former vice president spoke out in his strongest remarks yet.

It was a series of words some never expected former Vice President Mike Pence to utter: "President Trump is wrong."

Pence was responding to Trump's claims that Pence had the power to overturn the 2020 presidential election results during last year's joint session of Congress.

Pence's comments raised new questions about his political future and whether he's charting a new course in the Republican Party out from under of Trump's shadow.

"I'm very interested to see where it goes from here," said Brendan Buck, a former top congressional GOP aide. "Because it's not clear, at least in the next three to four years, that there's much room for somebody to be outside of Donald Trump's good side."

Historically, vice presidents see themselves as the heir apparent to the Oval Office.

But for Pence, that plan appeared to be cut short in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, when rioters called for his hanging.

Pence had declined to accede to Trump's demands to reject Joe Biden's win during that day's joint session of Congress.

He has since drawn Trump's growing ire. In response to Trump's claims he could have overturned the election's results, Pence spoke out in his strongest remarks yet.

"I had no right to overturn the election," Pence told the conservative Federalist Society earlier this month. "The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone. And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion than any one person could choose the American president."

"Love my brother"

Pence's remarks highlight a dramatic divide facing the GOP today.

They're also a reminder of the political dangers that Republicans who speak out against Trump face — evident even in Pence's own family.

"I stand by my brother and always will," Indiana GOP Rep. Greg Pence told NPR, "and I'll let him speak for himself about his remarks."

When asked again about his own stance, Greg Pence declined to comment.

"Love my brother, I'll always stand by him," he said.

Mike Pence's brother, Indiana Rep. Greg Pence, is seen in 2018.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Getty Images
Mike Pence's brother, Indiana Rep. Greg Pence, is seen in 2018.

But some working to defeat Trump and his movement, like former Pence adviser Olivia Troye, were grateful her ex-boss finally spoke out.

Troye, who left the Trump White House in 2020, said Pence helped enable lies about the election — that is, until his stunning remarks.

"That's very hard for Mike Pence to do, because I have never heard him say that publicly," Troye said.

Now, she suspects Pence was prompted by a perfect storm: Several of his former advisers have testified before the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 riot.

And days before Pence's remarks, Trump escalated his attacks. He said the House select committee should probe Pence instead, for not rejecting Biden's win.

"I think at that point, I think Mike Pence was like, 'Enough,' " Troye said. "And I think it set him up to be able to do this."

Troye believes Pence is now looking for ways to survive politically as a traitor to the GOP's de facto leader.

This comes as the Democratic-led Jan. 6 committee has engaged with Pence's lawyers in talks for weeks to try to land his voluntarily testimony, too.

"It's been publicly reported that we've ... met with folks, you know, around him and we continue to learn a lot," said California Democrat Pete Aguilar, who sits on the panel. "We'd obviously ... love to hear from him. And we're proceeding, you know, respectfully with what we do in the future."

So far, the committee has received voluntary testimony from at least three former Pence advisers: retired Army Gen. Keith Kellogg, who was his national security adviser; ex-chief of staff Marc Short; and former counsel Greg Jacob.

Panel Chair Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., called Pence's remarks "excellent."

"That was a wonderful speech he gave," Thompson told NPR.

Carving out a new lane

Questions remain whether Pence would cooperate in a probe that could harm Trump's political future, as the select committee plans to deliver its findings through some prime-time hearings this spring.

Buck, the former GOP aide, says until the Capitol attack, Pence had well-positioned himself as Trump's successor.

"That has been shattered," Buck said. "And it probably took a year for him to come around to the realization that his future is no longer going to be defined among Republicans as the loyal No. 2. Even if he wanted to do that, at this point, Donald Trump wouldn't allow it."

Trump is eyeing a 2024 presidential run and will likely deal more attacks to those who cross him along the way. Buck says within the GOP, Trump remains as strong as ever politically.

As a result, that's left Pence to carve out a new lane for what could be a lonely journey.

Still, Buck says it's too soon to count out Pence's political future and his influence for Republicans since he still draws wide respect in certain circles. And Pence is banking that now is the time to finally make his move, Buck said.

"You can't wait 10 years to hope the party changes and be off the stage that entire time," he said. "So part of it is remaining out there and relevant. Some of it ... is probably getting something off of his chest. It probably also comes down to the political calculation that we need to chart a different course and if we're going to do that, it needs to start now and let's get going."

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.