Updated Jul 31, 2023, 7:12am EDT

‘We’re not doing kickbacks’: Mike Pence says he’s ready to hit the debate stage

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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The News

Former Vice President Mike Pence sat down with Semafor on Friday after his remarks at the Republican Party of Iowa’s Lincoln Dinner. It wasn’t an easy room. Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis got most of the crowd, of 1,000 party activists and donors, on their feet. No one else did. Ex-Texas Rep. Will Hurd ended his speech under a chorus of boos, after saying that Donald Trump was running for president to stay out of jail. Pence, even when talking about the record of the “Trump-Pence administration,” got a mild response, and wrapped up by thanking the audience for hearing him out.

Pence is constantly asked to comment on his former running mate’s legal problems; he told reporters in Nevada, Iowa on Saturday that he didn’t agree with Hurd, because Trump was obviously planning to run again as soon as he left the presidency, before the law caught up with him. He talked about a few other issues with Semafor, starting with the reaction he got from an audience that had voted overwhelmingly for him to be vice president.

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The Interview

Semafor: What was your read on that crowd?

Mike Pence: I thought the crowd was respectful, enthusiastic. From where I’m sitting, I got a lot of response. To me, tonight was really about just putting down a clear message about what we can all agree on. And that is that Joe Biden will never be reelected as president of the United States. As I said, I think that everybody on this stage — we have differences, we have plenty of time to sort that out. Tonight, I wanted to express that what brought me to the stage is that I think the country is in a lot of trouble. But I was very encouraged by the response.

Semafor: In your anti-inflation plan, you once again endorse ending the dual mandate. It was Jerome Powell who not only kept the dual mandate, but said growth should be “broad-based and inclusive.” Was it a mistake to appoint him? Who would you want to replace him?


Pence: Well, as you know, when I was in Congress, I was deeply concerned about the practice of quantitative easing. I think I had hoped that Jerome Powell would bring a change in direction, away from essentially free money. But in the early days of his time at the Fed, we didn’t see that progress. And then, of course, the COVID pandemic struck.

I honestly think that this is an issue that takes a moment to explain. For me, ending the dual mandate is about saying to the Fed: We need you to look after the integrity of the dollar, to combat inflation, and we ought to be holding presidents and members of Congress accountable for full employment. I think that the presence of the dual mandate over recent decades has resulted in the kind of policies that set off the inflation that we have today. The greatest means of combating inflation is to get runaway federal spending under control and to bring forward common sense policies that will stave off the debt crisis facing our children and grandchildren.

Semafor: You’ve delineated a lot of the spending cuts that you want to fight inflation: Eliminating the EPA; cutting environmental programs, electric car tax credits, subsidies for electric batteries. What would be the climate impact of rolling that back?

Pence: Well, one of the least reported facts of the Trump-Pence years was that we actually saw a reduction in carbon output in our administration that exceeded the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. But we did it through American innovation. For my part, I believe that the responsibilities the EPA can be entrusted to other agencies with regard to upholding current law. But at the end of the day, I think the pathway to a cleaner environment is to continue an all-of-the-above energy strategy and to promote American innovation, including nuclear energy. I was in New Hampshire last week, and at several of our town hall and restaurant conversations, people asked the question, why aren’t we doing nuclear energy? That, of course, has zero carbon output. I just think it’s a moment for national leadership, and we’ll provide that.

Semafor: After Gov. DeSantis suggested a role for RFK Jr in his administration, you said this week that you’d only put pro-life people in your cabinet. How do you define pro-life for those purposes? Supporting a 15-week ban? Heartbeat bill?


Pence: We’ll have a pro-life administration with each person. The one thing I won’t do is appoint people to healthcare positions who don’t embrace the right to life. I felt it was important this week to make it clear that if I’m President of the United States, I would only appoint pro-life Americans to lead HHS, CDC and the FDA, given the enormous role that those agencies play in policies that affect the right to life.

Semafor: The Biden administration has launched a civil rights inquiry into legacy admissions at Harvard. Would you continue that investigation if you were president?

Pence: It feels like another example of Biden bullying private academic institutions or public institutions of higher education. Look, my first full time job after college was an admissions counselor. I’d rather leave our universities to establish the criteria for admission, without the heavy hand of government. But I really do believe that, while there may well have been a day that we needed affirmative action to correct historic wrongs and to ensure access, I think that that day is over. And I truly do believe that the Supreme Court’s step has moved us toward a more perfect union than ideal of a colorblind society. And I celebrate it.

Semafor: You have not qualified for the first debate yet. There are candidates who’ve offered gift cards for donors — basically, you get $19 back for a dollar — to get in. Are you ruling out any kind of gimmicks like that?

Pence: Yeah, we’re not doing kickbacks. We’re not doing gift cards. We’re not even giving out soccer tickets. We’re just asking people for support, and it’s rolling in. I will tell you, we’ve averaged, over the last week, over 1,000 contributions a day from all across the country. I’m confident that we’ll meet the qualifications. With the pace we’re going I actually think we may meet the threshold to qualify for the second debate before we arrive at the first one. But, you know, I’m someone that just believes in going out and telling your story, and people around the country have been stepping up. I also recognize that other candidates had significantly more time than we’ve had. We announced on June 7, but we’re confident we’ll be there.


Semafor: Gov. DeSantis is riding on his super PAC’s bus this week. There’s a super PAC supporting you — what’s your level of comfort around coordinating with it? Is the governor flouting the guidelines for separation between a super PAC and a campaign?

Pence: Well, I’m grateful for the work that the Committed to America super PAC is doing, especially here in Iowa. I’m able to read reports after the fact of their efforts on the ground and the results. They’ve been literally talking to hundreds of thousands of caucus goers, and been able to tell our story. Actually, in their contacts, we’re running a solid second place in Iowa. So I’m grateful for that. But we don’t we don’t coordinate with the Committed to America PAC. We’ll get our own bus.

Semafor: If the Jack Smith investigation is not over, and you become president, would you shut it down?

Pence: It’s a hypothetical question. It appears to me that they’re moving much more rapidly than that. And look, the president’s entitled or presumption of innocence. He’s entitled to his day in court, to make his defense. But I am never going to downplay the importance of protecting classified documents. I was pleased that the Justice Department was able to determine that the documents that inadvertently made their way back to my residence was an innocent mistake. But it was a mistake. And I took responsibility for it. And I expect they’ll move forward expeditiously on that.

Semafor: Before this event started, the president released a statement to People Magazine acknowledging that he has a seventh grandchild — Hunter’s daughter with a woman from Arkansas. What’s your reaction to him doing that, and how long it took?

Pence: Well, look, I became a grandfather three times over in the last two years. And for all the difficulties in their family, I can’t help but feel that the President has finally been willing to come to terms and be public with acknowledging all of his grandchildren. I think it’s a welcome step. But it shouldn’t have taken that long.

Semafor: If Hunter Biden’s convicted of a crime, would you pardon him, if you’re president?

Pence: You know, I’ve actually pardoned people. I’ve been a governor. The only thing I can say is, I have a very high bar for pardons, and if there was an application by any American, we’d give it every consideration. But I wouldn’t walk into the White House with an inclination to do that.

Semafor: Do you support the strikes going on in Hollywood — the SAG strike, and the writers’ strike? In both, they’re negotiating against the use of AI.

Pence: Well, look, it’s a free country. And the Screen Actors Guild has every right to engage in collective bargaining. But I will tell you, in a very broad sense, I’m very concerned about AI, particularly when it comes to our national security. I met this week with a leading voice in technology and he told me that he shared the concern. We’ve got to be very careful about the role of AI in compromising intellectual property, and also compromising in the privacy of the American people and, ultimately, our national security. But I’d leave it to the SAG members to figure out their agreement.