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Pretty Vacant

Mike Pence Is Useless

The former vice president’s refusal to address his former boss’s attempted coup somehow manages to straddle the line between cowardice and opportunism.

Donald Trump stands next to Mike Pence, pointing at him.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Donald Trump and Mike Pence, in happier times

On Monday, during an appearance on the Fox Business channel, former Vice President Mike Pence was asked what may very well have been the easiest question in the history of media—or, for that matter, of questions.

“Have you ever seen a president who refuses to accept blame, and I want to add to that, commits so many falsehoods?” host Larry Kudlow, himself a former Trump administration official and something of an expert on bullshit, asked. “I’m being very polite here, calling it falsehoods—falsehoods, you know, on any given day. He’s out there saying stuff that just ain’t true. Have you ever seen anything like that?”

Pence, of course, has firsthand experience of something very much like that. He spent more than four years at Donald Trump’s side, where as both a presidential candidate and then president, Trump lied at an almost superhuman scale—literally thousands and thousands of times. Pence, moreover, has some extremely good reasons to acknowledge his former boss’s serial dishonesty. During last week’s January 6 commission hearings, it emerged that Trump had suggested that Pence perhaps deserved to be hanged for failing to aid his efforts to steal the 2020 presidential election.

But Kudlow and Pence were not talking about Trump. They were talking about Joe Biden. Pence’s response? “Never in my lifetime. I said today that there has never been a time in my life where a president was more disconnected from the American people than we see today.”

Sure. We get it: Mike Pence does not want to talk about Donald Trump. At the moment, Pence is one of the few people—perhaps the only person—in the United States who believes that Pence is a viable presidential candidate in 2024, and he’s at least smart enough to understand that a public rift with Trump would be electoral poison. But boy, is he the only person who seems interested in mending this rift: “He said I deserved to be hanged? So what; we’ve all been there.” Actually, not really!

For some reason, Pence is unwilling to acknowledge or accept that the damage to the future of his electoral career has already been done. We’ve all seen it on television: Rabid supporters of Trump literally marched through the halls of the Capitol looking to lynch Pence. He has no constituency for a Republican electorate eager either to vote for Trump again or to push for a slightly more disciplined upgrade like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. To the extent that moderate or “Never Trump” Republicans might form a coalition to offer an alternative, Pence would never in a million years be their choice to run the country. The “Pence bloc” simply does not exist.

This is the ongoing tragedy of Mike Pence. Vice presidents are typically useless things—theirs is a job with no real purpose beyond being a living human vessel, on hand in the unlikely event the president is rudely thrust into the Great Beyond; Pence, in four years, certainly made little effort to imaginatively expand the job’s slight boundaries. But it’s hard for an ex–vice president to be more useless than this. Pence has only tepidly condemned a man who was itching to throw him to the wolves to gain another term in office; he nearly died serving perhaps the most dishonest and dangerous president in American history. And yet, because Pence clings to the hope that a presidential campaign—based around the thin rationale that as the Veep, he was “next in line”—will at least revive his political fortunes if not propel him to the White House, he has refused to say much of anything about Trump beyond occasionally talking up the administration’s meager accomplishments.

As The New York Times reported on Monday, Pence has been traveling “around the country in advance of the 2024 primaries,” attempting to weave around what the paper euphemistically describes as “his fraught positioning.” “Much as he did after the 2020 election, when he tried to keep his tensions with Mr. Trump from becoming public only to have him push them into the light,” write Maggie Haberman and Reid Epstein, “Pence continues to walk a tightrope, trying to make the best of a situation he didn’t seek without becoming openly adversarial to the president with whom he served and who remains the leader of the Republican Party.”

Most candidates travel to Iowa or New Hampshire when they want to signal their presidential ambitions. Pence has opted to launch his from this pathetic patch of middle ground, desperately hoping to to square this impossible circle.

On the one hand, he has made allusions to the fact that Trump pressured him to overturn the election. “I heard this week, President Trump said I had the right to ‘overturn the election,’” Pence said at a Federalist Society event earlier this year. “President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election. And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.” On the other, Pence keeps trying to own the scant fruit of the Trump administration as his own, attacking the Biden administration as if that was still his job, while finding whatever thin pretext he can to praise the ex–running mate who thought he maybe deserved to die.

The goal, as The Nation’s John Nichols observed last week, is somehow to be all things to all people. “He wants to be seen by Trump critics as the patriot who stood up to the former president, and he wants to be seen by Trump allies as a loyal vice president who did almost everything the boss asked,” Nichols writes. It’s a gambit destined to fail, badly.

It doesn’t have to be like this, however. Pence can do something useful—if he’s willing to admit to himself, finally and belatedly, that his political career is over. Which, again, I should stress: It very much is.

The best thing that Pence could do right now is to testify before the January 6 commission itself—to drop whatever dimes on his former boss and his corrupt allies he is in the position to dispense. Pence has thus far refused to speak to the committee, though members of his staff, including his former chief of staff, have. But Pence’s communications with Trump on that fateful day, as well as the actions he took as rioters stormed the Capitol, remain somewhat murky. For the whole story of the attack on January 6, 2021, to come out, Pence must testify—and he must tell the full version about the attempted coup he witnessed between November 2020 and January 2021.

These are not the only options at hand. Pence could go nuclear on Trump during the primaries, attacking his former boss for his authoritarianism and incompetence. He is unlikely to do this because it would also savage his own absurd claim to the presidency: that he and Trump did a good job. But Pence could at least attempt to be honest, even if the effort to thread a needle, making the case that he—and he alone—was responsible for the administration’s successes and that Trump was a hindrance to them, falls flat. Additionally, Pence has a book coming out in the fall. He could use that forum as a venue to settle these scores and set the record straight, making a similar case that Trump’s bumbling idiocy and propensity for chaos hampered his ability to push the culture-war issues that are salient in American politics right now.

But based on his recent attempts to play both sides, it’s very clear that Pence is unlikely to do anything of the sort. He’s a coward and an opportunist, and he sees only one way forward: kissing Donald Trump’s ass while, every now and then, lightly calling out the fact that Trump tried to get him to steal the election (if not killed). This only adds to the increasingly tragic career of Mike Pence. He has the opportunity to salvage his reputation—at least somewhat—and perhaps take Trump down. Because he naïvely believes he still might be president, he chooses not to. He will emerge from this gaining neither the things he wants nor the things he needs.