After President Trump’s crowd chanted “Send her back!” about an immigrant congresswoman last week, Vice President Pence led the charge to get Trump to publicly “disagree” with it.
But even Pence isn’t so sure what that’s worth, as his squirmy interview this weekend betrayed.
CBS News’s Major Garrett tried to pin down Pence on just how firm Trump’s opposition to the sentiment is. Given Trump’s soft, fact-challenged disavowal and then his refusal to repeat it — not to mention his long history of toying with and egging on his crowds’ provocations — Pence was at pains to say Trump would do anything to actually stop a recurrence.
The video is above, and below is the transcript, in which Garrett does yeoman’s work guiding Pence off his talking points:
PENCE: ... No, Major, the president wasn’t pleased about it. Neither was I. The president’s been very clear about that. But what we’re also not pleased about is the fact that there are four members of Congress --
MAJOR GARRETT: Yes, but you know that this president’s --
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: -- who are engaging in the most outrageous statements --
MAJOR GARRETT: -- relationship with his supporters is as close as anyone has ever had in American politics. This could all go away with one simple word or a phrase or something. You have a chance to say it right now --
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: Well --
MAJOR GARRETT: -- don’t do it again.
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: Major --
MAJOR GARRETT: Is that your message?
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: Major, the president was very clear --
MAJOR GARRETT: Was he?
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: -- that he wasn’t happy about it. And that if it happened again he -- he might -- he might make an effort to speak out about it.
MAJOR GARRETT: He will make an effort to speak out about it?
VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: That’s what he’s already said.
“. . . If it happened again he — he might — he might make an effort to speak out about it.”
The interview highlighted something I pointed out Friday when writing about Ivanka Trump’s reported role in all of this. It’s great to find out exactly who was urging Trump to condemn his crowd’s behavior, but what happens when the crowd chants it again?
Trump claimed when he said he “disagreed” with the chant that he started speaking quickly to put a halt to it. Except he didn’t. He seemed to revel in it, in fact, and he actually waited a full 13 seconds until the chant was finished.
There’s also the “Lock her up!” history. When those chants started, Trump also disavowed them, saying that “I didn’t like it” and that “I think it’s a shame that they said it, but a lot of people would say that should happen.” Eventually, he embraced “Lock her up!” and told Hillary Clinton in a debate that, if he were president, she would be “in jail.”
What’s happening today bears stark similarities to both that situation and when Trump vacillated on his response to the murder of a counterprotester by a white supremacist in Charlottesville in 2017. In both cases, Trump was apparently persuaded to condemn the actions, but then reversed himself. Regarding Charlottesville, Trump blamed the violence “on many sides” before offering a more forceful condemnation of the racists in the crowd. But then he returned to his equivocation, citing “very fine people on both sides” of the protests.
According to The Post’s Bob Woodward, Trump regards that middle response — the one in which he did what those around him wanted — as the “worst speech I’ve ever given” and “the biggest fucking mistake I’ve made."
Given all of that, it seems the most likely response from Trump is a muted one. Even if you accept the argument that Trump wasn’t necessarily aiming for this kind of provocation when he first urged Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), an immigrant, and three U.S.-born congresswomen to “go back” to their countries — which is difficult to swallow — his inclination to toy with racial provocations and let his base play its part is just too strong. He also has had Stephen K. Bannon put the fear of God into him when it comes to alienating his base. The most likely outcome would seem to be a somewhat jokey “you guys shouldn’t do that, you’ll get me in trouble” — something that provides him some plausible deniability that he actually tried to shut down the chants, even if he didn’t really.
We’ll see what happens, but Pence clearly doesn’t want to wager his credibility on Trump actually following through on his advice. And if Trump doesn’t, it will make everyone around him who counseled him against this kind of incitement — including Pence and Trump’s own daughter — look pretty inept.
And to be clear, this is Trump’s own vice president not being certain Trump has the desire to repudiate a racist chant. That’s a remarkable lack of faith.