The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the remarkable rift between Donald Trump and Mike Pence

President Trump and Vice President Pence talk about the election in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 4.
President Trump and Vice President Pence talk about the election in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 4. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
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Vice President Pence was in hiding from a violent mob of Trump supporters in the Capitol last Wednesday when the presidential tweet attacking him posted.

“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!” President Trump wrote at 2:24 p.m.

Trump never called him that day or in the days following to make sure Pence was okay — or to discuss a governmental response to the deadly riots the president incited.

The remarkable break between the two men — played out over a tense few days as the country convulsed from a riot spurred on by the president — is a startling capstone to a relationship long defined by Pence’s loyalty and subservience. The vice president who once spent hours a day with Trump, defended some of his most incendiary comments and was careful to not speak ill of him — even to his own closest advisers — now seems to be largely estranged from him.

Pence has committed to attending the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, even though Trump is not going. The vice president has begun telling staff goodbye, posing for pictures and having sentimental moments with key aides in his Executive Office suite.

After years of fealty, Pence prepares for a final performance likely to anger Trump

A senior administration official said Trump and Pence finally met in the Oval Office on Monday night and “had a good conversation, discussing the week ahead and reflecting on the last four years of the administration’s work and accomplishments.” Pence is under pressure from Democrats to invoke the 25th Amendment, a process to remove the president from office, but he is not expected to do so, aides said.

Trump’s treatment of Pence has reverberated badly in the White House and among campaign aides, many of whom see it as unseemly and unfair. One senior administration official described it as “unconscionable, even for the president.”

Capitol Police were unable to stop a breach of the Capitol. Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig and a former Senate Sergeant at Arms describe the events. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Reuters/The Washington Post)

“We’re very lucky that Mike Pence is a decent guy and rational and levelheaded,” said Joe Grogan, the former head of the Domestic Policy Council under Trump. “If he had been replaced by someone as nuts as the people who have been surrounding the president as the primary advice-givers for the last few months, we could have had even more of a bloodbath. Imagine what would have happened if Pence was devious and vile and didn’t stand up for the Constitution.”

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, declined to comment on the president’s current views of Pence or why Trump pressured him to such lengths to overturn the election.

“Vice President Pence has been a critical part of this Administration and helped President Trump achieve unprecedented successes on behalf of the American people. We are all grateful for the vice president’s service to the country,” Deere said.

Critics say Pence deserves less credit after standing by the president too long — not forcefully speaking out against child separation at the border, Trump’s calls with Ukraine’s president and his numerous attacks. Many note that he chose to serve Trump for four years and was the head of the administration’s badly mangled coronavirus response, in which more than 370,000 have died.

“Republicans have said for decades that you can’t negotiate with terrorists, and Trump is a terrorist and Pence decided to negotiate with him because he thought it was in his best interest, and this was inevitable,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP consultant and Trump critic. “Mike Pence threw aside everything he said he believed in — everything — I mean, here is a guy who railed against adultery on his radio show, and then teams up with Donald Trump and of course it was going to end this way.”

Pence also faces serious opprobrium from Trump’s supporters, including some who chanted for his hanging during last Wednesday’s siege and yelled in the Capitol, “Where’s Mike Pence?”

Pence and McConnell defy Trump — after years of subservience

“He has no future in the Republican Party,” Stevens said. “When the base of the party is not booing you, but chanting hang you, that’s a bad sign.”

Asked about the chants, Deere did not mention the vice president by name in his response. “We strongly condemn all calls to violence, including those against any member of this administration,” Deere said.

For Pence, it is an uncomfortable and unfamiliar position. One former senior administration official said Pence had previously described his job as doing most anything Trump had asked him to do.

“The president could say, ‘Mike I want you to go fly to Asia,’ and he would do it, or ‘Mike, I want you take over the coronavirus task force,’ and he would do it; never questioned a thing,” said a former senior administration official, who like some others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “Pence would spend hours in the Oval. Pence would come in, he’d get his daily brief and then he’d get word of when the president would be coming into the Oval and then he’d go over there and they’d spend hours together. For them to not speak anymore is a paradigm I just never would have imagined.”

The rupture began Dec. 15, when Trump decided erroneously that Pence was his last resort to block his election loss. The president began telling others to pressure his vice president to object to the final counting of electoral college results by Congress, and the topic came up regularly in conversation between the president and the vice president, officials said.

Those putting pressure included lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani and John Eastman, trade adviser Peter Navarro and conspiracy-minded Trump ally Sidney Powell, officials said, along with other lawyers and outside advisers sent by Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Trump told “almost anyone who called to tell him he could still win to call Pence,” one senior administration official said. Pence at times was in the Oval Office when Trump called people to try to convince the vice president, an official said.

Pence was subjected to repeated phone calls from Trump, including one as late as last Wednesday morning — and to implicit threats from the president that he would attack him if he didn’t object to Biden’s victory, officials said.

“Do the courageous thing, Mike,” Trump said in one meeting, according to a person present.

“It will be bad for you and for the country if you don’t,” Trump said at another time, according to an official describing the meeting.

Some of the arguments were spurious, officials said. One included the certification of the electoral college votes in 1801, when Vice President Thomas Jefferson ruled electors from Georgia as defective. Another was that Pence could disregard some states because they sent in multiple electoral ballots. When the vice president’s team met with the congressional parliamentarian, they learned that people send fake electoral college votes every year, including one sender who signs them “General Magnifico,” a senior administration official said. The 1800 election isn’t applicable to the current election, officials said.

“There was never any sort of convincing case that the president or any of the lawyers around him made,” a senior administration official said. Pence tried to be respectful and listen to everyone but told his team to conduct an independent analysis of the laws around certification.

Pence was uncomfortable with the arguments and asked his team to conduct its own analysis.

Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, began preparing for an inevitable rupture, a person who talked to him said, and never considered that Pence could please the president.

Pence’s team became convinced that Trump was behind a lawsuit against the vice president, and that it was also the work of Powell, two officials said.

The White House declined to comment. Powell did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump grew livid when learning Pence moved to dismiss the suit with the help of Justice Department attorneys — and won, according to administration officials.

Senators regularly told the vice president they didn’t have evidence to support the president’s claims that he won the election. They wanted to be supportive, but they needed evidence, a Pence adviser said. Pence told them he’d pass along the messages, but the White House never provided any evidence to many of the senators, the adviser said.

The day before the certification, Trump was extremely angry, a person present in the Oval Office said, venting at Pence, lawyer Pat Cipollone and others as Pence told him he was planning to certify the results. Pence was not involved in any of the planning of the Ellipse rally and had no idea Trump was planning to incite a mob to storm the Capitol.

Pence met with Trump multiple times before Wednesday to talk him through the dynamic and explain why he couldn’t do what Trump wanted, advisers said. After Wednesday’s final pitch did not go well, Trump went to the Ellipse and gave a fiery, falsehood-laden speech, where, to a bloodthirsty crowd, he repeatedly pressured Pence to overturn the results.

Pence went to the Capitol and prepared to certify the results. Soon, the mob descended, and Trump verbally attacked the vice president.

Pence declined to leave the Capitol after protesters breached the compound, even though his security detail on three occasions suggested it would be a good idea to do so, a senior administration official said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and others left.

While Trump was watching TV and resisting entreaties to tell the mob to go home, Pence repeatedly called military officials and others in the government to expedite the National Guard’s deployment, officials said. He talked with McConnell about reinstating the certification vote that evening and met with Capitol Police officials, even as Trump and lawyers continued to call senators and House members to try to slow down the certification. Neither Trump nor anyone in the White House checked on Pence, although Short eventually called Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to update him on their safety.

Throughout the ordeal, it was Pence, not Trump, who was in close contact with military and congressional leaders about bringing in the National Guard and securing the Capitol.

“Although the Vice President and I were not together during the evacuation, he personally got very involved and stayed in close contact with me as we worked to secure urgently needed resources to thwart the mob and I appreciate those efforts greatly,” McConnell said in a statement to The Washington Post. McConnell told others he was enraged with Trump and planned to never speak to him again.

Pence skipped his speech to the Republican National Committee meeting, scheduled for Thursday, and did not come to the White House. He returned on Friday.

An adviser says Pence feels at peace with what he did. Pence’s aides say he needs to make money in the private sector and may write a book. He is keeping his options open for a potential 2024 presidential bid.

“Pence withstood enormous public and private pressure at an historic moment. He followed the Constitution, upheld the rule of law and treated people on all sides with civility. Those who know him well are not surprised,” said Tim Phillips, who leads Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-affiliated group.

Trump told aides that he wanted to ban Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, from the West Wing, for giving Pence advice to certify and that he was not interested in seeing Pence. But no one enforced the ban, and Short continued to come to work, officials said. He scheduled a going-away event for Pence on Friday.

On Friday evening, Pence came to his office suite with his wife Karen and his daughter, Charlotte, for a farewell ceremony. He told the roomful of aides that he hoped they were proud of what they’d accomplished and encouraged them to continue to work in public service, a person present at the meeting said. He was given a four-minute standing ovation and presented with his Cabinet chair.

He told the room that early Thursday as he left the Capitol, after certifying the results for Biden, he received a text message from his chief of staff.

“2 Timothy 4:7,” the text said. The Bible verse reads: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”