Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On January 6, 2021, then-Vice President Mike Pence slipped off his lapdog collar and put country before then-President Donald Trump by refusing to help overturn the 2020 election.
More than a year later, Pence, who may have presidential ambitions of his own, explained his fateful choice. “Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election,” Pence told the crowd at the Federalist Society Florida Chapters conference on Friday. He went on to say, “Frankly, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
Pence said, “Under the Constitution, I had no right to change the outcome of our election, and (Vice President) Kamala Harris will have no right to overturn the election when we beat them in 2024.”
His comments won instant praise from the likes of Vanity Fair politics correspondent Bess Levin, who declared, “Mike Pence grows a spine.”
After years of being called a Trump toady, the praise must have felt good.
But he didn’t deserve it. Pence, who has tried to distance himself from Trump before, is still trying to get credit for doing the bare minimum when it comes to speaking out against his former boss. Meanwhile, he’s contributing to the much bigger problem: Trump’s repeated lies about voter fraud are eroding the public’s trust in our elections.
Were he really in possession of a backbone, Pence would not have joined Trump’s fiction brigade as he did last March, when he questioned the integrity of the 2020 election because of what he falsely claimed were “significant” and “troubling” voting irregularities. And just last month, Pence tried to cast state-level voter restriction laws as “measures to try to restore confidence in the integrity of our elections.”
To be clear, no evidence suggests our election system lacks integrity. If there were such evidence, an Election Integrity Commission that Trump appointed, and Pence chaired, should have found it. Instead, the commission was disbanded in 2018 having found nothing to support claims of fraud made by the President. Unfortunately, though, belief in voter fraud is so widely-held among Republicans that it’s almost a marker of party affiliation. Last month, both a University of Massachusetts poll and an ABC News poll found that 71% of Republicans doubt the official 2020 election result.
A day after Pence’s comments, Trump released a statement calling him an “automatic conveyor belt for the Old Crow Mitch McConnell to get Biden elected President as quickly as possible.” The reference to McConnell was, of course, Trump’s way of hitting two birds with a single stone. He has frequently sought to make McConnell a stand-in for an old Republican establishment he opposes. In December he called McConnell “the best thing that ever happened” to Democrats.
Trump went on to repeat falsehoods about “obvious signs of voter fraud or irregularities,” suggesting they should have moved Pence to stop the certification of the 2020 election results. In reiterating his false claims, Trump highlighted the true controversy in a way that shows how Pence is framing his actions on January 6, 2021, as righteous while perpetuating the lies Trump is using to consolidate his power in the GOP ahead of a potential run for president in 2024. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too.
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Pence may feel boxed in by the polls that find Republicans are taken in by the election fraud fantasy. But he does have a move to make that would justify a genuine claim to courage. He could call out Trump’s failure to provide any evidence of voter fraud and point to the dozens of court decisions and audit results that show there was nothing wrong with the 2020 election.
Telling the truth, defending democracy, and defying Trump – now that would be something for Pence to brag about. It might even be the basis for a refreshing campaign for president.