CNN  — 

Mike Pence did not initially intend to admonish former President Donald Trump during a long-planned speech last week. But a pair of statements from Trump criticizing Pence’s actions on January 6, 2021, were the final straw, said two people close to the former vice president. He had to say something.

In the hours after his stunning rebuke of his onetime running mate, Pence fielded calls from donors, Republican lawmakers and top conservative leaders eager to privately applaud him. His speech to a gathering of conservative legal minds had caught their attention after he declared – in no uncertain terms – that “Trump is wrong” in his insistence that Pence could have unilaterally overturned the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Buried deep in his remarks at a Federalist Society conference near Orlando, Pence defended his actions last January, including his refusal to reject the Electoral College votes in states Trump had lost. Trump’s repeated suggestions that his vice president could have rejected those ballots was “un-American,” Pence said.

“He is not looking for this to be a main storyline, but if something is falsely said about him, he is going to correct it,” said a person close to Pence.

Those familiar with Pence’s thinking say the outpouring of support that he’s seen since taking on Trump by name – both in gushing op-eds by conservative media outlets and in private conversations with GOP donors and fellow Republicans – has emboldened him as he looks to chart a future in politics that could include a White House bid against his former boss in 2024. At the same time, it also underscores the degree to which many Republicans are still unwilling to bat down Trump’s lies about the 2020 election in public – instead choosing to privately praise those who do so – even when there could be an upside to telling the truth. Although the GOP remains Trump’s party, those around Pence see his distinctions from Trump as an asset.

One Pence ally said donor engagement in the former vice president’s advocacy group, Advancing American Freedom, “has picked up in [the] days since” Pence addressed the Federalist Society crowd in Florida.

Another person close to Pence said he and his team were pleased that his remarks didn’t elicit the scorched-earth reaction that Trump typically reserves for Republicans who deny his claims about the last presidential contest. This person said it “would have been reasonable to expect campaign-style Trump” to include a derogatory nickname for Pence somewhere in his response, and that his muted reaction came as a surprise. Instead, Trump attacked Pence’s “unwitting advisers” and merely accused his former vice president of “being an automatic conveyor belt” for then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to certify Joe Biden’s victory.

The harshest critiques of Pence’s comments came from Trump allies, rather than the former President himself. During a Tuesday appearance on Steve Bannon’s podcast, for instance, former White House trade adviser Peter Navarro blasted Pence as “never a pure Trump guy” and “the prisoner of Marc Short,” a longtime Pence confidant and the former vice president’s chief of staff.

“Mike, you are dead politically,” said Navarro, who has been a vocal champion of Trump’s election lies.

Pence felt ‘compelled’ to respond

Months after they last spoke, Trump issued a statement on January 30 calling out Pence by name for declining to “change the outcome” of the 2020 election. Citing ongoing bipartisan negotiations about reforming the century-old Electoral Count Act, which spells out the process by which Congress currently certifies Electoral College votes submitted by each state, Trump falsely claimed that such legislative discussions validated his belief that the ECA does “allow the Vice President to change the results of the election.”

Two days later, Trump went after Pence again.

This time, the former President attacked the House select committee investigating the January 6 riot and claimed that Pence could have rejected the counting and “sent the votes back” to the states. Trump also suggested the committee investigate “why Mike Pence did not send back the votes for recertification or approval.” (The House panel has interviewed two top Pence aides who witnessed the pressure campaign mounted against the former vice president by Trump and his allies in the days leading up to January 6.)

“[H]e could have overturned the Election!” Trump said in a second statement.

Two people said Pence was prompted to criticize Trump explicitly after the former President issued the pair of statements wrongly describing Pence’s powers as vice president. One of the people close to Pence said he was “compelled” to correct the record after declining to engage in such a direct rebuttal of Trump in his previous mentions of January 6.

Pence’s team determined that the Federalist Society event would be a prime opportunity for him to refute Trump’s claims because of the audience – not hardcore MAGA fans but constitutional scholars and conservative lawyers. During a separate appearance in Florida last June, a crowd at the annual Faith & Freedom Coalition conference greeted Pence with boos and cries of “traitor” as he began his remarks.

“If there is any audience that is going to understand the details of the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act, it would be the Federalist Society,” said a former Pence aide.

The former vice president’s latest response to Trump reveals how carefully he is navigating the worlds of conservative and Republican politics as he weighs a run for president and looks to be a top surrogate for GOP candidates in the 2022 midterms. Pence has been calculating in how he creates a separate political identity from Trump. In public appearances, he has continued to tout the achievements of the “Trump-Pence administration” and contrast them with the perceived failures of Biden’s presidency.

He has also leaned into his identity as a religious conservative as he works to remind party officials and GOP donors who he was before he joined Trump’s ticket and how he can be their ally on a handful of social conservative causes. In November, Pence delivered a speech hosted by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List in which he urged the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and in April, he will deliver the keynote address at a fundraiser for the Carolina Pregnancy Center in the all important early-voting state of South Carolina, according to a person involved with the planning.

Still, Pence’s divide with Trump over January 6 has perhaps been his most distinguishing factor as he prepares for a possible presidential run in 2024. Other potential Republican candidates, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have dodged the question of the validity of the 2020 election and Pence’s powers to change the outcome.

Building their case

Pence’s forward-looking approach and emphasis on party unity, his supporters hope, will in time look better to Republican voters than Trump’s vindictiveness and refusal to rise to the moment. Pence’s advisers want to build a case that he was and remains a source of steady conservative leadership where Trump, implicitly, has not been.

To this end, Pence’s team was pleased with the reception his Friday remarks received in some conservative media outlets.

“Good for Mike Pence,” declared the headline of a column by National Review online editor Philip Klein, in which he praised Pence for upbraiding Trump “forcefully and by name.” A separate editorial by the conservative outlet encouraged the Republican National Committee, which formally censured GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger last week for their participation in the House probe of January 6 through a resolution that described the events surrounding the riots at the US Capitol as “legitimate political discourse,” to learn “from the example of Mike Pence.”

“There is … no conceivable political benefit to the Republican Party or its members – other than Donald Trump – in looking to defend or minimize January 6 rather than simply move on,” read the editorial.

And The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial board wrote in its Sunday editorial that “Americans should welcome Mike Pence’s stand Friday for constitutional principle on elections no matter its political cost.”

Despite the positive reaction he received in certain corners of the GOP, one of the people close to Pence described his comments as “out of character” and said they did not expect him to include such reactionary lines in future speeches unless Trump continues to attack his former vice president.

“Generally speaking, he would rather be talking about the case he’s trying to make about looking ahead. But future events may dictate similar reactions,” said another person close to Pence.

For now, Pence has gravitated toward policy-focused speeches, such as his July speech on China at The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank where Pence is a “distinguished visiting fellow,” and opportunities for him to connect with younger or more religious GOP voters and may not be as enthralled with Trump as others in the party. The former vice president has been hosting a podcast for the Young America’s Foundation, a decades-old group that aims to introduce students to conservative ideas, and he is due to appear at Stanford University for an event hosted by the campus’s College Republicans later this month.

Pence is also careful to direct his more overt criticism in public appearances toward the Biden administration. In an interview last week on “Fox & Friends,” he went after Biden’s announcement that employees at medium-size and large businesses would be required to get vaccinated for the coronavirus.

And despite the attention his rebuke of Trump received, Pence spent the bulk of his Federalist Society remarks going after the Biden administration and the excesses of the “radical left.”

“In less than a year, the Biden-Harris administration has unleashed a tidal wave of left-wing policies that threaten to wipe out the progress we have made,” Pence said in Florida before providing a litany of criticisms of Biden’s policies and approach to governance. This portion of the remarks resembled a campaign stump speech, as did the climax of his remarks.

“I promise you, we will stay in the fight,” Pence said.