The Pence pushback: Why more Republicans are daring to criticize Trump

Pence: Trump ‘wrong’ about Jan. 6

Press praises speech by former VP

It took just four words.

But those words proved to be a crack in Donald Trump’s armor and emboldened some Republicans and conservative media outlets to more openly attack the former president.

Trump remains the party’s most dominant figure and its most likely nominee in 2024. But perhaps for the first time since he left office, some in his party have concluded that criticizing him is not tantamount to swallowing a poison pill.

It’s not that the words uttered by Mike Pence were inflammatory. All he said was this: “President Trump is wrong.” And that “I had no right to overturn the election.”

That simple declaration was a major pushback to Trump’s recent declaration about overturning the election, one that declared his goal in starker terms than he had ever used.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a "Save the Majority" rally on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The fact that Pence, the ever-loyal vice president, crossed that line was what changed the political debate, and that he did it in a speech to the conservative Federalist Society. And that he added this:  “There is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”

Sure, Pence wants to make his own run for the top job, and thus decided to go a step further in challenging his ex-boss.

Pence drew some blood. Steve Bannon called him a “stone-cold coward” who would take the words “to your grave.” The former president insisted he was right about Pence having such powers–nearly all constitutional scholars disagree–but his statement was mild by Trumpian standards.  

Pence’s former chief of staff, Marc Short, joined in, saying Sunday on “Meet the Press” that Pence never considered blocking the Electoral College results on Jan. 6. “I think, unfortunately, the president had many bad advisers who were basically snake-oil salesmen, giving him really random and novel ideas as to what the vice president could do,” Short said.

Chris Christie, another former ally with an eye on 2024, praised Pence’s comments on ABC’s “This Week”: “Let’s call this what it is, January 6th was a riot that was incited by Donald Trump in an effort to intimidate Mike Pence and the Congress into doing exactly what he said in his own words last week, overturn the election.”

Christie added with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt: “Now he’s trying to do a cleanup on aisle one here in correcting that stuff, but it’s not going to change. He actually told the truth by accident. He wanted the election to be overturned.” That was harsher than the language the former governor used while peddling his book.

US President Donald Trump arrives with US Vice President Mike Pence for a Make America Great Again rally at Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan on Nov. 2, 2020. 
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

And the Wall Street Journal didn’t mince words, hailing “Pence’s finest hour…

Mr. Pence stands out as a rare Republican these days willing to stand up to Mr. Trump’s disgraceful behavior after the election,” the paper said. “Too many in the GOP seem to have lost their constitutional moorings in thrall to one man.”

In noting the conventional wisdom that Trump is unstoppable in 2024, the Journal editors said “someone should remind voters that Mr. Trump ended as a three-time election loser. He mobilized Democrats against him in historic numbers to cost the GOP the House in 2018, then the White House in 2020, and finally the two Georgia Senate seats in 2021.”

By any objective measure, it is a statement of fact that Trump has had a rough few weeks as he continues to press his “rigged election” narrative.

Trump’s announcement that he would likely pardon the Jan. 6 defendants, if he wins back the White House, landed with a thud among Republicans. Even golfing buddy Lindsey Graham called that an “inappropriate” thing to say about the Capitol riot–prompting Trump to dismiss him as a RINO.

The RNC fanned the flames by censuring Jan. 6 committee members Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger–and, with utter tone-deafness, accused the two Republicans of “persecuting” those engaged in “legitimate political discourse.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Florida chapter of the Federalist Society’s annual meeting at Disney’s Yacht Club resort in Walt Disney World on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.   (Stephen M. Dowell/Lake Buena Vista Sentinel via AP)
(AP )

The New York Times produced a detailed account of how Trump at times pushed for, at other times entertained the idea of three different federal agencies seizing voting machines–with Rudy Giuliani as the last line of defense in opposing the use of the military for such a Third World tactic. 

Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said on “Face the Nation” that it was “illegitimate discourse because it was an assault on the first branch of government.”

Plus, the Washington Post and the paper reported yesterday that Trump flouted the Presidential Records Act by keeping such correspondence as letters from Kim Jong Il at Mar-a-Lago, where the National Archives had to collect them. What’s more, the Post said Trump ripped up hundreds of official documents, in some cases leaving the Archives to tape them back together. 

The cumulative effect has been to force Republicans running this year to decide whether they can criticize some of these actions–and the attempt to rebrand Jan. 6 as a patriotic day–and still survive this year’s elections.

Trump still commands huge support among the rank and file, if not at the stratospheric level he did earlier. This may turn out to be a passing wave, or it may be that Mike Pence was the little boy who removed his finger from the dike.

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