WAUKEE, Iowa – Mike Pence had said his piece about Donald Trump. He moved around a suburban Pizza Ranch, shaking hands, saying grace with a local Republican Party chair. He came over to a throng of reporters, declaring himself “overwhelmed by the outpouring of support” since his Wednesday campaign launch.
Then he took questions, all of them about Donald Trump, several about the possibility that he’d be indicted over his handling of classified documents stashed at Mar-a-Lago.
“I don’t know the facts of that case, and neither do you,” Pence told reporters. “I would hope the Department of Justice did not move forward.”
Six hours later, it did. Trump’s second post-presidency indictment, just 65 days after he pled not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in Manhattan, came right after Pence and Chris Christie entered the primary against him.
Both called Trump unfit for the White House, in harsher terms than any 2024 candidate except former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said Thursday that Trump needed to “respect the office and end his campaign.”
Pence and Christie had attacked from different angles. In New Hampshire, Christie whacked the man he’d voted for twice in personal terms, from “the grift” of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner making deals with Saudis to a 2010 phone call when the future president advised him not to pay New Jersey’s bills.
In Iowa, Pence denounced Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election, then said he was “retreating from the cause of the unborn” and giving up on entitlement reform. And then, there were his actions on Jan. 6.
“Anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president again,” Pence said.
All of Trump’s rivals were expecting this indictment; Hutchinson had said for weeks that Trump should quit if he faced charges. The irony, for Pence and Christie, is that they’re trying to convince Republicans that Trump’s unacceptable for mostly different, only somewhat overlapping reasons.
They get lost when Trump is in legal trouble, and when most Republicans are climbing over each other to pronounce him innocent and attack the “weaponization” of law enforcement. This is not why Pence or Christie consider him unfit. It’s absolutely not what Pence wants to talk about.
For Christie, he doesn’t need the law to validate his argument. Trump’s incompetence, pettiness, sexual appetites, and especially his massive ego are the reason to kick him out — that he keeps getting into legal trouble is only a symptom of his broader character flaws. He is, as Christie put it in New Hampshire, “a lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog.”
For Pence, Trump was an effective leader right up until January 6th, when he betrayed his oath of office. He’s attacked Trump from the right, but not made a broader indictment that re-evaluates his record in office and his competence or character before the Capitol riot. The classified documents charges do not seem to interest him much in advancing that case.
Pence scrapped a Fox News interview after the indictment story broke, giving his take to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday morning. That interview ended with them grousing that the “distraction” pre-empted what was supposed to be a talk about China.
But before it was over, Pence had both promised to “clean house” at the “weaponized” Justice Department — including FBI Director Chris Wray, appointed by Trump — and noted that an investigation into classified documents he’d taken home ended in no charges.
“The Justice Department concluded that investigation last week and found it was an innocent mistake,” he said. “But it was a mistake. We have to protect our nation’s secrets.”
At the same time, he also said that handling classified material was “a very serious matter,” that “no one is above the law” and that he hoped DOJ would “meet a high standard” in their indictment given the explosive political implications. It was a delicate balancing act: Mostly echoing Republican critiques of DOJ, but also citing the same DOJ to validate his own actions, and subtly reserving the right to revisit the issue later once the details of the case emerged.
Even Pence’s nod to the slight possibility of a legitimate prosecution separates him within the field, however. The vast majority of Republican voters, especially in Iowa, support Trump or one of his defenders. It’s really just Pence, Christie, and Hutchinson who suggest that his legal problems — and, for Christie, his character faults — are real. Vivek Ramaswamy, the race’s most ardent Trump defender, pledged immediately to pardon him if he won the presidency. Pence and Christie didn’t.
“As a prosecutor, if I believe someone has gotten a full and fair trial in front of a jury of their peers, and especially someone in public life, who committed those crimes when they held a public trust, I can’t imagine pardoning him,” Christie said at his Tuesday night town hall, when the indictment was still looming.
But to the extent they are addressing it, both candidates are trying to fold Trump’s latest crisis into a more substantive case. For Christi, it’s that Trump’s blame-shifting creates problems for his party, turning Republicans into his hype squad, and causing them to lose elections on the way.
Pence gets less personal, and characterizes most of the investigations that dogged Trump during their administration as partisan time-wasters that distract from the policy issues he’d like to talk about. In the brief time between his own launch, and the indictment in Florida, Pence said that Trump was “retreating from the cause of the unborn” and couldn’t be trusted to govern as a conservative. Biden’s refusal to reform entitlements risked “insolvency,” he said: “You deserve to know, my fellow Republicans, that Donald Trump’s position on entitlement reform is the same.”
Room for Disagreement
Most conservatives with megaphones, from the Speaker of the House to the streamers on Rumble, condemned the indictment and demanded that their movement stand with Trump. “Every ‘Republican’ running for president should suspend their campaign and go to Miami as a show of support,” said Charlie Kirk, the president of Turning Point USA. Fox News’s Pete Hegseth came up with the same plan, for “every single Republican” candidate to head south and start “standing for justice in the country.”
The View From Voters
Iowa Republicans I talked to this week were mostly hopeful that the primary could focus on something other than Jan. 6 and Trump investigations. John Nichols, 77, said that the arguments between Pence and Trump about Jan. 6 weren’t relevant to his vote.
“That’s like white over French vanilla — you don’t tear the house apart over that kind of stuff,” said Nichols. “You’ve got to look at what’s really at stake. Joe Biden can’t talk, he can’t walk. He reminds me of that old cartoon character, Mr. Magoo.”
- It’s always a lot easier to defend Trump in the abstract then on the specifics. The latest CNN scoop — transcripts of a tape purportedly showing him bragging about holding onto classified material, and acknowledging he can’t declassify it — could present new challenges.