While the world reacts to Donald Trump’s pending indictment in Manhattan, the federal investigation led by special counsel Jack Smith is also crashing into the 2024 race this week.
Former Vice President Mike Pence may finally be forced to testify about his conversations with Trump in the days leading up to the January 6th riot after years of resisting efforts to bring him in front of lawmakers and prosecutors to tell his side of the story.
Pence said on CNN that he was still unsure if he would appeal a judge’s ruling that would compel him to talk to the grand jury investigating Trump and his allies. He’ll take the “next several days” to decide, and will be speaking with his lawyers tomorrow to evaluate his options. The former vice president is also scheduled to appear on Fox News with Neil Cavuto later this afternoon, Semafor has learned — though it’s unclear whether he’ll have an answer on testifying by that time.
But don’t expect him to make a big deal out of it either way. He hasn’t emphasized the topic on the trail and is expected to keep the focus of his proto-campaign elsewhere, like reminding voters of his conservative record on taxes and social issues as a governor and Congressman.
“The vice president has been to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina more than a dozen times, and this topic just has not come up,” a Pence advisor told Semafor. “The vice president is laser focused on the issues that people across the country are actually concerned about.”
When it does come up in the campaign, his team is hoping they can bridge the gap between Trump supporters upset with his decision to certify the 2020 election and Trump critics upset he hasn’t testified to hold the former president accountable by branding him a rare consistent “Constitutional conservative” who isn’t afraid to make any political faction upset.
In doing so, they hope to remind voters not only of his actions on January 6th, but his public opposition to efforts to remove Trump afterwards, as well as his resistance to requests to testify on the principle they would violate the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution.
“I think what you saw on January 6th was a vice president who was fulfilling his obligation to the Constitution — to support and defend the Constitution,” the advisor said. “I think you saw that same adherence to the Constitution on January 7th, when Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer tried to weaponize the 25th Amendment with a letter that they sent to him that he rejected resoundingly.”
The ruling could complicate Pence’s long-running efforts to thread the needle on his actions on January 6th, an incident that could define his campaign, whether he likes it or not.
On the one hand, Pence has published a book and given interviews defending his decision not to try and overturn the election and criticizing Trump’s conduct. On the other hand, he’s resisted requests to testify about it.
“I think Pence, to some extent, is in a no-win situation that wasn’t of his own creating. And whatever he did, or does, is going to anger some parts of the party,” Doug Heye, who served as communications director at the RNC in 2010, told me.
Testing the presidential waters in Iowa this week – and again on CNN Thursday evening – Pence said he had “nothing to hide” and was gratified that a judge’s ruling partially affirmed his claim that the “speech or debate” clause of the Constitution may shield Vice Presidents from recounting some events.
His testimony — or an appeal to the Supreme Court — would likely reignite focus on his separation from Trump and draw a response from his former boss. In recent weeks, Trump has ramped up his public support for January 6 rioters in jail for their role that day — even playing the pro-defendant song “Justice for All” at his recent rally in Texas — and Trump’s attorneys have already harshly criticized the ruling by the judge.
“I think the issue for the vice president will be the extent to which Trump continues to talk about and almost weaponize January 6 and the narrative of January 6, in a way that not only hardens his own base, but tries to again, weaponize it against other people in a race, including — especially — the vice president,” Michael Ricci, a communications veteran who worked with both Gov. Larry Hogan and former Speaker Paul Ryan, said.
Room for Disagreement
Not everyone on the right is buying Pence’s argument that he’s merely following his Constitutional duty to withhold testimony. Michael Luttig, a former judge who consulted with Pence after the election, criticized his legal appeals as “campaign-style politics” last month: “Mr. Pence’s decision to brand the Department of Justice’s perfectly legitimate subpoena as unconstitutional is a far cry from the constitutionally hallowed ground on which he stood on Jan. 6.”