Six months after their relationship deteriorated in the midst of an insurrection at the US Capitol, Donald Trump and Mike Pence appear to be on the mend.
As Pence drops hints about his White House ambitions, more than a half-dozen aides and advisers who remain close to him and Trump told CNN that the tension between both men has eased to a manageable level. That has lent new hope to allies of the former vice president who once worried that Trump, furious over Pence’s refusal to indulge his unprecedented and unconstitutional request to block certification of the 2020 election results, would tank his shot at the Republican presidential nomination if he were to forgo running himself in 2024.
“They are in a better place now. Things have simmered down after being pretty raw for awhile,” said one former Trump campaign official.
Pence allies say improvements to his relationship with Trump, however incremental, are a welcome development as the onetime Indiana governor lays the groundwork for a possible foray into presidential politics – with recent visits to early-voting states, the launch of his conservative policy group Advancing American Freedom, and plans to be an active GOP surrogate on the campaign trail in 2022. To even stand a chance in a crowded GOP primary that does not include Trump, these allies said Pence must have the favor of the party’s MAGA faithful, in addition to social conservative and evangelical voters he helped excite in 2016 and 2020.
“I think he realizes that his path if he’s running for president is open if Trump does not run, and that it’s a smart move for him to minimize the distinctions between himself and the former president,” said Club for Growth President David McIntosh, who remains a close friend of Pence.
To that end, Pence recently attempted to turn the page on his and Trump’s most high-profile disagreement. In an illuminating speech to New Hampshire Republicans last Thursday, Pence acknowledged that he and his former boss would likely never settle their differences over January 6, when a pro-Trump mob invaded the Capitol – with some chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” as they weaved through the Halls of Congress – shortly after then-President Trump accused his deputy, who was inside the Capitol complex at the time, of lacking the “courage” to unilaterally block certain electors when counting the 2020 Electoral College votes.
“You know, President Trump and I have spoken many times since we left office and I don’t know if we’ll ever see eye to eye on that day,” Pence had told the Granite State crowd.
Discussions between Pence and his aides about how he might address his and Trump’s disagreement over January 6 kicked into full gear following a speech he delivered in April to South Carolina conservatives, where his only mention of the episode included a brief nod to the “tragedy at our nation’s Capitol.” He and his team had previously agreed that the appearance in Columbia – his first since leaving office – was not an appropriate venue for such a headline-making statement, according to a person involved in those discussions.
“Everyone needed him to say something so he could focus on policy,” said a person familiar with Pence’s thinking. “The first speech he gave [in South Carolina], everyone just mocked him for rolling right over it. After that, I think he realized the media wasn’t going to focus on the substance until he got over the shiny object.”
Inside Pence’s orbit, his remarks in New Hampshire a month-and-a-half later were widely seen as accomplishing that goal.
When Trump appeared in North Carolina two days after Pence’s televised speech for his first public appearance in three months, he seemed to echo his vice president, telling Fox News in an interview at the donor dinner that he was “disappointed with Mike on one thing” but otherwise considers him “a very fine person and a fine man.”
“They’ve had a few conversations about it and as [Pence] tells more of that story, they are going to have different viewpoints. But I think it’s an asset for Pence. It’s hard to argue he wasn’t loyal to both Trump and to the Constitution,” said a person close to Pence.
Of course, even with tensions easing between the two men there is a distinct possibility that Trump – widely seen as mercurial and rarely expressing interest in forgiveness – could still pull the rug out from Pence should his opinion shift in the future.
Thus, a second person close to Pence said the best thing the former vice president can do for his political future is to let time go by and hope that Trump stays neutral in the 2024 Republican primary if he doesn’t mount a presidential campaign of his own.
“There is still great affection for Mike inside the base. Most Republican voters think he’s a great guy, even if they’re asking themselves, ‘Why couldn’t he at least have allowed the election challenges to proceed?’ ” this person said. “I don’t think that’s fatal but it is problematic, and for that reason, time is Mike Pence’s best friend.”
However, a different source close to Pence rejected the assumption that the Republican base is comprised of voters who “don’t recognize that Pence did the right thing,” even amid polls showing that a majority of GOP voters believe the 2020 election was stolen.
Turning 2022 into a launchpad for 2024
While numerous Republican presidential hopefuls – including Pence – await a decision from Trump on 2024, allies of the former vice president say his exclusive focus for the next 18 months will be on the 2022 midterm elections.
And though it is widely understood within Pence’s inner circle that his efforts to boost GOP candidates next fall are likely to be a net positive if he decides to run for higher office later on, they insist that he has yet to make a decision on his future.
“At some point after 2022, he and Mrs. Pence will get together and discern whether this is something they are called to do and that is what is going to guide his decision – not what other man is or isn’t in the race,” said a third person close to Pence.
In the meantime, Pence has maintained close relationships with key Republican leaders who are involved in the midterm cycle – from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The former vice president has hit the fundraising circuit to assist GOP efforts to retake the House and Senate next fall and is expected to maintain a demanding campaign schedule next year as he makes appearances alongside various candidates at the House, Senate and gubernatorial level. Pence aides who spoke with CNN would not rule out potential appearances by the former vice president to support incumbent GOP candidates who have drawn Trump’s ire, such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
The former vice president will also continue to participate in events that aim to awaken the Republican Party’s grassroots activists ahead of the crucial midterm cycle. In addition to his April remarks at a Columbia dinner hosted by the socially conservative Palmetto Family Council and recent visit to New Hampshire, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed his upcoming appearance at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual Road to Majority Conference this month, which will place Pence in front of an audience of the GOP’s most active religious conservatives and donors.
Pence also plans to address the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines this July. And he has been approached by the Club for Growth about appearing in Iowa again this fall to promote Republican policy efforts surrounding school choice, though a spokesperson for the former vice president said the latter event has not been confirmed.
“If he didn’t assist the party in 2022, he would be doing himself a great disservice. He needs to contribute to building out the political apparatus so that he can potentially come back two years from now and say, ‘I’m running and I need your support,’” said one of the people close to Pence.
Outside of these scheduled appearances, many of which have raised speculation about his interest in 2024, Pence has continued to consult a small team of longtime aides on how he can assist Republicans leading up to next fall and simultaneously positionhimself for success in his own political career. From his home base in Indiana, he is in regular contact with his former chief of staff Marc Short, longtime strategic advisers Marty Obst and Chip Saltsman, and remains close with Paul Teller, a former White House legislative affairs official who now serves as executive director of Pence’s advocacy group AAF; Devin O’Malley, his former press secretary in the White House; and Nick Ayers, an elusive Georgia-based Republican operative who preceded Short as Pence’s chief of staff before exiting the Trump administration at the end of 2018.
Pence allies say he has actively encouraged his closest advisers to pursue their own ventures and careers since there is no reason to build out a large political team until he has made a decision on 2024 and believes that their work in the meantime – as consultants to various GOP campaigns or, in Short’s case, as the founder of a new anti-tax group targeting President Joe Biden and Democratic candidates – ultimately benefits him, too.
“You hear so often in politics about people who are bad to their staff and Pence just isn’t that kind of boss. He keeps his loyalists close and has a giving spirit, so he doesn’t have to ask people to do things for him. They just do,” said one of the people close to Pence.
The Trump factor
Despite a recent uptick in Trump’s public expressions of interest in 2024, several Pence allies said they do not believe the former president will ultimately enter the GOP presidential primary.
One of the people close to Pence even suggested privately that the former vice president might benefit politically if Trump is indicted, as it would provide him with an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the former president in a post-January 6 landscape. Trump is facing multiple criminal and civil investigations, including a criminal probe in New York that has led to the empaneling of a grand jury.
“He can go out there and say, ‘this is a witch hunt’ and repair his relationship with Trump supporters who remain skeptical of him,” the person said.
To prepare for a scenario in which Trump doesn’t run, Pence has been crafting a pitch to voters that communicates his allegiance to the former president by underscoring their policy accomplishments and time in office together, and leans into emerging cultural issues that are resonating intensely with Republican voters.
“It is past time for America to discard the left-wing myth of systemic racism,” Pence told the crowd in New Hampshire last week, panning a new trend in K-12 public education known as “critical race theory,” which teaches students about racism and inequality in the US and which its critics claim contains Marxist ideology.
“Instead of teaching all our children, regardless of race or religion or color, to be proud of their country, critical racial theory teaches children as young as kindergarteners to be ashamed of their skin color,” Pence claimed in his remarks.
The former vice president has also weaved criticisms of cancel culture into his recent remarks and fundraising appeals. It’s these kinds of overtures – with their cross appeal among standard Republican voters and Trump’s core supporters – that Pence allies believe will set him up for success if he chooses to launch a presidential campaign a couple of years from now.
“One of the things he has as a former vice president is the bully pulpit and the power of persuasion and I think he should use that,” McIntosh said.