NEW YORK – Mike Pence, deferential no more.
The vice president who sparked four years of disparaging memes for his unblinking loyalty to Donald Trump through his presidency – except, famously, at the very end – now predicts Trump won’t be able to claim the Republican nomination for the White House in 2024.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Pence also declined to commit to voting for Trump if the GOP does choose him again as its standard-bearer. And he responded with a laugh, but not a direct answer, when asked whether he thought Trump would vote for him, if he’s the one at the top of the ticket next time around.
“I think there’s a real desire for new leadership in the Republican Party,” Pence said in an interview pegged to his book, “So Help Me God,” published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster. “Everywhere I’ve gone across the country, I hear people that are very proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration … but almost in the same breath, I hear people say they want leadership that reflects the respect and civility that most Americans practice every day.”
Stay in the conversation on politics: Sign up for the OnPolitics newsletter
In other words: They want Trumpism without Trump.
That’s the essence of the pitch Pence is making for himself as he contemplates his own bid for the White House. He argues that he not only supported, but also helped deliver, the administration’s accomplishments on the economy, immigration, the pandemic and foreign policy.
But Pence is also someone who operates in a way that is, let’s say, less New York, more Midwest.
In a half-hour interview in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a slice of Central Park visible out the window, Pence was as deliberate and sonorous as ever, wearing a dark blue suit and red tie, with an American flag pin on his lapel. A large American flag had been unfurled behind his chair, a backdrop for photos, and his wife, Karen, sat nearby, listening.
They have moved back to Indiana, where he said he was once again “going to the grocery store, driving my own car, pumping my own gas,” and talking to folks. In what was presumably an unintended echo of Jimmy Carter’s campaign slogan in 1976, Pence said, “The American people long for leadership, for government as good as our people.”
Trump just happened to schedule a “special announcement” at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida – previewed by aides as a declaration he will run again for president – on the day Pence’s book was being published and House Republicans began voting for their leaders.
The timing of the rally, and the attention it commanded, may have been designed to demonstrate that the nation’s disruptive 45th president remains the dominant face and the loudest voice in the Republican Party.
Live updates:GOP lawmakers to vote on leadership; McCarthy angles for speaker of the House
Pence, for one, said he planned to watch the rally on TV.
“I’m pretty sure he’s not announcing my book,” he joked.
Or asking him to join his ticket again?
“That also seems unlikely,” he replied.
The two men haven’t spoken for more than a year.
But Trump’s announcement won’t affect his own decision on a 2024 race, Pence said.
“We’re going to take time at the end of the year to reflect on where we might serve, and we’ll make some decisions after the first of the year,” he said. “The only decision Karen and I have made for sure is that we’re not going to let anybody else make our decision for us.”
In a brief conversation after the interview was over, Karen Pence said, “It will depend on where we feel called.”
A Trump declaration that he is running doesn’t guarantee he’ll be nominated, Pence said, and it won’t clear the field of other contenders. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and others are also considering presidential bids.
“Republicans, like every American, love competition, and I think a good, healthy debate over the future of our party, the future of our country would do the Republican cause well,” Pence said.
If Trump is the nominee, would he vote for him?
“I just believe we’re going to have better choices,” he said.
So, he won’t make a commitment to support him?
He brushed away the question.
‘No regrets’:Pence memoir describes his unlikely partnership with Trump that fractured on Jan. 6
Pence said he was shocked by the results of the midterm elections one week earlier. He had traveled to 35 states over the past year and a half to campaign for candidates for the Senate, the House and governorships, and he said he was expecting a “red wave” of GOP victories.
Instead, while Republican candidates did well in Iowa and New York, the party has scored a net gain of only a handful of House seats and not a single Senate seat, well below the predictions of pundits.
“Candidates that were focused on the past, that were focused on relitigating the last election, did not fare well,” Pence said. “And I think President Trump’s focus on the last election also had an impact on our candidates. And so for me, it was just one more moment where I was reminded that elections are about the future.”
Pence is trying to walk a delicate line, seeking the benefits of being associated with Trump’s policy successes while avoiding the taint of his scandals. For Pence’s political ambitions, that combination would be the best-case scenario.
But he could also end up with the worst of both worlds, unacceptable to never-Trumpers because of his unwavering support of the president for so long, while also alienating Trump supporters by breaking with him, finally, on Jan 6.
Scenes from a vice presidency:What Mike Pence thinks about that fly and other viral moments from his vice presidency
In his book, Pence recounts in chilling detail the events of the day a mob stormed the Capitol. Some of them chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” egged on by an inflammatory tweet Trump posted.
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,” the tweet said, blasting his vice president for refusing to disrupt the ceremonial count of Electoral College ballots, a step Pence had told him would have been unconstitutional.
“The tweet that he sent out while we were in the Capitol building and the riot was underway endangered my family and people at the Capitol, and I make no defense of that,” Pence said in the interview, calling Trump’s words “reckless.” “But I do think the American people are going to sort this out.”
How does he now view the events of that day, now almost two years past?
“It seems like yesterday,” he said.
NEW YORK – Mike Pence, deferential no more.