NEW YORK – Former Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that voters are “looking for new leadership” following the disappointing midterm elections for Republicans, who are now openly debating whether his onetime boss, Donald Trump, should maintain a leading role in the party.
In an interview with The Associated Press just hours after Trump announced another White House run, Pence declined to say whether he thinks the former president is fit to return to his old job. But he implicitly positioned himself as a potential alternative for Republicans seeking conservative leadership without the chaos of the Trump era.
”I think we will have better choices in 2024," Pence said. “I’m very confident that Republican primary voters will choose wisely.” He said that he and his family will gather over the holidays “and we’ll give prayerful consideration to what our role might be in the days ahead.”
Asked whether he blamed Trump for this week's Republican losses, he said, "Certainly the president’s continued efforts to relitigate the last election played a role, but ... each individual candidate is responsible for their own campaign.”
Pence, while considering a presidential campaign of his own, has been raising his profile as he promotes his new memoir, “ So Help Me God,” which was released on the same day that Trump made official his long-teased White House bid. If Pence moves forward, he would be in direct competition with Trump, a particularly awkward collision for the former vice president, who spent his four years in office defending Trump, refusing to criticize him publicly until after Jan. 6, 2021.
That's when a mob of Trump's supporters — driven by Trump's lie that Pence could somehow reject the election results — stormed the Capitol building while Pence was presiding over the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's victory. The vice president was steered to safety with his staff and family as some in the mob chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!"
Still, Pence on Wednesday remained largely reticent to criticize Trump beyond the insurrection. That hesitance reflects the reality that the former president remains enormously popular with the GOP base that Pence would need to win over to be competitive in primary contests.
“It wasn’t exactly the style of presidency that I would have advanced had I been the first name on the ballot," Pence said of his unlikely partnership with Trump. "But it was his presidency and I was there to support him and help him. And until that fateful day in January 2021, I sought to do just that.”
Pence said he hadn't watched Trump's full announcement speech on Tuesday, but made the case that voters are looking for a new, less contentious direction.
“You know, the president has every right to stand for election again,” he said. But after traveling the country campaigning with midterm candidates, “I have a genuine sense that the American people are looking for new leadership that could unite our country around our highest ideals and that would reflect the respect and civility the American people show to one another every day, while still advancing the policies that we advanced during those years of service," he said.
Trump's campaign launch comes as Republicans grapple with fallout from elections in which they failed to wrest control of the Senate and are on track to win only the narrowest majority in the House. Those results came despite voters' deep concerns over inflation and the direction of the country under Democrat Biden.
Trump endorsed a long list of candidates in competitive states including Pennsylvania and Arizona who then lost their general election races. While Pence said he was pleased Republicans were taking the House, he acknowledged the election "wasn’t quite the red wave that we all had hoped for."
“My conclusion," he said, “is the candidates that were focused on the future, focused on the challenges the American people are facing today and solutions to those challenges did quite well." But those still questioning the 2020 results — as Trump demanded — “did not do as well."
In his new book, Pence writes in detail about his experience on Jan. 6, and he expounded on that Wednesday.
“I’ll never forget the simmering indignation that I felt that day, seeing those sights on the cellphones as we gathered in the loading dock below the Senate chamber. I couldn’t help but think not this, not here, not in America," he said.
In the interview, he recalled his reaction to Trump's tweets “that criticize me directly at a time that a riot was raging in the Capitol hallways."
“The president’s words were reckless, and they endangered my family and everyone at the Capitol building,” he said. “The president had decided to be a part of the problem. I was determined to be a part of the solution.”
Asked what consequences Trump should face for his actions, however, Pence punted.
“That’s up to the American people,” he said he believes. “I truly do. And look, I’ll always be proud of the record of the Trump administration for four-and-a-half years. President Trump was not just my president. He was my friend. And we worked closely together to advance the policies that we’d been elected to serve.”
“It didn’t end well," he acknowledged, in an understatement. “And that tragic day in January will always be a day of great sadness for me, a sadness about what had happened to our relationship, to the bad advice the president was accepting from a group of lawyers that, as I write in my book, should never have been allowed on the White House grounds, let alone in the Oval Office. ”
Pence and Trump were always an odd couple — a pugilistic, crude New York celebrity and a staid Midwestern evangelical who once wrote an essay on the evils of negative campaigning and who, as a rule, says he will not dine alone with a woman who is not his wife. Asked why he so rarely spoke up when Trump launched deeply personal insults against figures such as the late Sen. John McCain, Pence said, in effect, that that was what he had had signed up for.
“As his vice president, I believed it was my role to be loyal to the president," he said. "And so every step of the way, the way I squared it was I believe that I had been elected vice president to support the presidency that Donald Trump had been elected to advance.”
Indeed, Pence in the book writes that even after Jan. 6, the two men “parted amicably when our service to the nation drew to a close."
“And in the weeks that followed, from time to time, he would call me and to speak and check in," Pence said in the interview. “But when he returned to criticizing me and others who had upheld the Constitution that day, I just decided I’d be best to go our separate ways. And we have.”
Asked why he would part “amicably” with Trump given the president's actions — including his decision not to call Pence to check in on his safety while the riot was underway — Pence said he believed the president had been genuinely regretful when they met for the first time after the 6th.
“For the balance of about 90 minutes, we sat, we talked. I was very direct with the president. I made it clear to him that I believe that I did my duty that day, and I sensed genuine remorse on his part," Pence recalled. “The president and I had forged not only a good working relationship, but a friendship over four-and-a-half years. We worked together literally every day. But he was different in that time. I encouraged him to take the matter to prayer.”
As for his plans for the future, as everyone asks whether he plans to run, he and his family will gather over the holidays “and we’ll give prayerful consideration to what our role might be in the days ahead."