The path Mike Pence is trying to walk toward the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is so narrow as to be undetectable by modern scientific instruments. Donald Trump’s former vice president was shoved to the outside of Trump’s sphere of influence on Jan. 6, 2021, and there he has remained, a Trump critic mostly because he wasn’t enough of a Trump sycophant.
If Pence is to have any chance of winning his party’s nomination, which he doesn’t, he will need votes from an awful lot of people who currently plan on voting for his former boss. And that means that, like pretty much everyone else in the field of declared candidates, Pence keeps defaulting to attacking the right’s perceived enemies instead of the former president — even though many of those perceived enemies earned that status not because of politics but because they dared to challenge Trump.
Sort of like Pence.
On Sunday, this impulse meant that Pence embraced a popular redirection of questions about the flurry of indictments faced by the Republican front-runner.
ABC News’s Jonathan Karl asked Pence if he would apply the same standard to Trump that he applied to former Ohio representative Jim Traficant (D) in 2002. After Traficant was convicted on felony corruption charges, Pence (and nearly every other member of the House) voted to oust him from that body.
“Would you hold that same standard for the White House?” Karl asked.
After a bit of hemming and framing the 2002 vote as the House self-policing, Pence answered the question.
“Would I apply that to my former running mate in this race?” Pence said. “Look, I think that needs to be left to the American people. Look, let’s let the former president have his day in court. Let’s maintain a presumption of innocence in this matter” — that is, the federal charges filed in Florida — “and in the other matter that, you know, unfolded this week here in Georgia.”
“I’ve said many times, Jon,” Pence continued, “I would have preferred that these matters be left to the judgment of the American people.”
There’s a reason that Pence frames his response in that way. Americans are split on whether they are more worried about Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential contest or what they perceive as political motivation undergirding criminal charges filed against the former president. Nearly two-thirds of Americans say either that political bias is their bigger concern or that they are concerned about both issues.
That’s largely because Republicans overwhelmingly point to potential bias as a concern. Three-quarters of Republicans polled by CBS News and YouGov recently indicated they are more concerned about bias.
Other polling has indicated that many Republicans accept Trump’s argument that the indictments are meant to derail his effort to be reelected president. In CBS-YouGov polling released earlier this month, nearly 90 percent of Republicans framed the indictments and probes in that way.
Both Karl’s question and Pence’s response conflate the criminal charges and politics. For many observers who are not explicitly beholden to the Trumpian worldview, the question of Trump’s seeking election while under indictment or potentially after being convicted is a subset of a broader debate over his potential service as chief executive. For Trump supporters, Karl’s question reflects the effort by panic-stricken Elites to prevent Trump from returning to the White House. Pence’s response aims to nod at the latter pool of observers while engaging with the former.
It’s worth noting that this issue reflects a long-standing gulf between Trump’s base and everyone else: Is he an exceptional actor in American political history, someone who did things and says things that extend well beyond what has been done in the past — or is he simply framed that way because he is more fearsome to his opponents? It seems objectively clear that the former is far closer to the truth, but lots of things that seem objectively clear these days remain muddied with genuine and artificial skepticism.
Again, Pence’s response to Karl tries to leverage the hostility Trump’s base feels toward his prosecutors by collapsing the criminal question — did Trump break the law? — into the political one of whether Trump should be allowed to serve as president. Like others before him, Pence is suggesting that the evaluation that matters, in this case, is solely the will of the voters.
A better precedent for Karl to have cited when challenging Pence was the investigation into Bill Clinton during his second term in office. In 2018, CNN dug up old comments from Pence in which he suggested that the presidency wasn’t simply something handed to the guy who got the most votes (which Clinton did in 1996, by a lot).
“If you and I fall into bad moral habits, we can harm our families, our employers and our friends,” Pence wrote at the time. “The President of the United States can incinerate the planet. Seriously, the very idea that we ought to have at or less than the same moral demands placed on the Chief Executive that we place on our next door neighbor is ludicrous and dangerous.
“Throughout our history, we have seen the presidency as the repository of all of our highest hopes and ideals and values,” he continued. “To demand less is to do an injustice to the blood that bought our freedoms.” So, he concluded, “[e]ither the President should resign or be removed from office.”
In a hypothetical poll offered by ABC News shortly before the 2000 election, Clinton was preferred over the Republican presidential nominee that year, George W. Bush, by a five-point margin. Had Clinton been eligible for a third term, would Pence have viewed a victory in the 2000 election as simply reflecting “the judgment of the American people?”
All of this sets aside that the charges filed in Georgia and those emerging from the special counsel probe in Washington are rooted in Trump’s efforts to subvert that judgment. What if you leave the issue of Trump’s fitness for office to voters and then Trump, through some mechanism, seizes the presidency anyway? Would Pence then view his service as chief executive as illegitimate? If so, the dividing line appears to be little more than the success of the effort.
There are legitimate questions about the extent to which a criminal indictment should affect a candidate’s ability to serve in office. We do not want a system where a sitting president could gin up a criminal indictment that he then uses to sideline his opponents — as Trump supporters think has happened in this case. Often, as in the case of Jim Traficant, the dividing line is whether the candidate has admitted guilt or been convicted by a jury.
In other words, fitness for office in the face of indictment often comes down to voters: 12 of them, sitting in a jury room. To Karl, Pence suggested that even this wouldn’t prompt him to demand that Trump not be allowed to serve as president.
By the time any of the juries considering charges against Trump reach their verdicts, it will almost certainly be the case that Pence’s presidential bid will have come to an end. It would be interesting at that point to ask him Karl’s question again.