WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence began the Trump administration tasked with investigating Donald Trump’s baseless claims that millions of illegally cast ballots cost him the popular vote in 2016.
The “election integrity” commission Pence headed quickly faded from view and disbanded months later after uncovering no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Now, Pence is ending his tenure with an even bigger test of whether to support Trump’s spurious election claims.
Pence's constitutional role of presiding over the Senate includes the obligation of declaring during a joint session of Congress Wednesday that President-elect Joe Biden received more Electoral College votes than Trump.
It will be the biggest break with Trump yet for the ever-loyal Pence.
Trump, who continues to argue without evidence that he won the election, has urged Pence to unilaterally reject state-certified results that show that Biden won the Electoral College, 306-232.
Trump has falsely asserted Pence has the option of blocking Congress from formally accepting the results. However, Pence has informed the president that he intends to carry out his constitutional role and that he does not believe the law gives him the authority to do otherwise, according to reports in the New York Times and Reuters.
“I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” Trump said at a rally in Georgia Monday night. “He’s going to have a lot to say about it.”
The rules also may not matter to Trump’s supporters, some of whom apparently believe Pence can do as he wants.
“We need you to do the right thing Jan. 6!" a Trump supporter yelled at Pence during a rally Monday for the Senate runoff races in Georgia.
The Supreme Court twice refused to take up Trump-endorsed lawsuits that sought to overturn the results of the Nov. 3 election. Federal and state courts dismissed Trump's claims of voter fraud more than 60 times. And recounts in Georgia and Wisconsin upheld Biden's victories in those states.
In addition to prevailing in the Electoral College, Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million votes.
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Breaking with Trump could hurt Pence’s chances of inheriting his mantle to run for president himself in four years.
But Pence – a history major who reveres the Constitution and said he gets "chills" when he visits Independence Hall – also has to be hyper aware of how history will judge his actions.
Even if Pence stays within the law, he will share with Trump the blame and criticism for a manufactured crisis because he did not counter the president’s disinformation campaign about widespread election fraud, said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University.
“It’s not enough to say President Trump has put Vice President Pence in a tough spot,” Naftali said. “I think Vice President Pence has put himself in a tough spot.”
Looking ahead to 2024
Trump’s refusal to concede has divided the Republican Party, including those eyeing a possible bid for the White House in 2024.
“The party is in the process of tearing itself apart,” GOP pollster Frank Luntz said Tuesday on CNBC.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., whom Pence made an extra effort to help elect in 2018, was the first GOP senator to announce he would object to the Electoral College results. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz joined the effort.
Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and other GOP lawmakers denounced such moves as dangerous to democracy.
Pence, as he has throughout the presidency, has tried to strike a balance between remaining loyal to Trump while not parroting his most divisive rhetoric and unfounded claims.
Pence did not support an unsuccessful lawsuit aimed at giving him the authority to decide which states’ Electoral College votes to count. But he “welcomed” the efforts of lawmakers to “use the authority they have under the law to raise objections and bring forward evidence.”
Pence described his actions as making sure all “legal votes” are counted without acknowledging that states and courts have found no widespread irregularities in the election. He hasn't addressed Trump's effort Saturday to strong-arm Georgia officials to overturn his election defeat in that state.
In his only public comments about Wednesday's proceedings, Pence promised Trump supporters on Monday: “We’ll hear the objections. We’ll hear the evidence.”
He stopped short of saying he would do anything other than follow the prescribed rules in doing so.
“The VP’s role under law is purely ministerial,” said Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and outside counsel for the nonpartisan Voter Protection Program. “His responsibility is to open the certificates and call for objections in writing signed by at least one senator and one congressperson.”
Those objections are certain to fail. They require majority support from both the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate.
Will Pence 'do his duty'?
An Indiana Republican who requested anonymity to speak freely said Pence is doing what many other Republicans have done for four years – keeping his head down and hoping that everything will work out.
Though the Republican expects Pence to “do his duty,” he said he would not be surprised if Pence steps off stage for the final vote total announcement.
Pence could hand the gavel to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who would become the presiding officer as the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate.
Vice presidential scholar Joel Goldstein said that “would be pretty miserable behavior” on Pence’s part. Most vice presidents who have announced the results of their own defeat recognized the importance to democracy of gracefully accepting their loss and offering support to the victors, he said.
“To preside but boycott stating the result would make clear that pleasing Trump is more important to Pence than communicating that basic and traditional democratic message,” Goldstein said.
What past VPs have done
Richard Nixon and Al Gore both received standing ovations after declaring their opponents the winner when, as sitting vice presidents, they had to certify their own presidential losses.
Nixon said he could not think of "a more striking and eloquent example of the stability of our constitutional system."
In 2017, when some House Democrats tried to raise complaints about Russian election interference and voter suppression allegations, Biden repeatedly ruled them out of order.
"There is no debate. There is no debate,” Biden said as he wielded the gavel.
Pence’s spokesman Devin O'Malley declined to say whether the vice president intends to oversee all of the vote counting proceedings, including declaring the winner.
Former Rep. Mark Souder said Pence has consistently bent his own record to accommodate Trump but is probably still not considered 100% loyal by Trump’s core supporters. Backing Trump’s claims to the end would probably not be enough to become the most “pro-Trump future candidate,” the Indiana Republican said, and it would end the chance for Pence to expand his potential political base, as well as compromising the basic integrity of the office he has been honored to hold.
“Within these parameters, the vice president has been walking a fine line,” said Souder, a Republican. “Now he will have to choose.”
Pence has limits
Former Indiana Rep. David McIntosh, a close friend of Pence’s, said the vice president wants to do everything he can to support Trump and believes there were irregularities in the election that need to be corrected. But there are limits to how far he’ll go.
“He's going to perform his role and not go beyond that to try to exert power that he doesn't have,” said McIntosh, head of the conservative Club for Growth.
McIntosh tried to relieve some of the pressure Pence faces by running ads to counter those aired by the Lincoln Project. The anti-Trump group trolled the president and vice president by warning that Pence “will put the nail in your political coffin when he presides over the Senate vote to prove Joe Biden won.”
The Club for Growth’s ads proclaimed, “Mike Pence stays true. … Always has. Always will.”
“The main audience was the president,” said McIntosh, who heard that the Lincoln Project ads had gotten to Trump. “We wanted to correct the record.”
As Trump publicly pressured Pence on Monday to ignore the law, he alternated his entreaties with praise for Pence as a smart man who calls it straight.
“Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much,” Trump said before adding, “No, Mike is a great guy.”
Pence's longtime friend Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the relationship that Pence built with Trump is strong enough to withstand Pence’s expected decision to follow the rules Wednesday.
“He has been an indispensable governing partner to this president and his team,” Reed said. “There is a tremendous and deep personal regard for him.”
Reed said Pence’s “overriding priority” will be to “do the right thing and let the verdict of history take care of itself.”
Assuming Pence does not ignore the law Wednesday, his presiding over the congressional certification of Trump’s defeat may not become a big part of his legacy, said Lindsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian and author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”
“But certainly, his acceptance and flirtation and sort of careful cultivation of these ideas that maybe the election was rigged will be a big part of his biography,” she said. “They're trying to overthrow the democracy. And so I think that he will be remembered as participating in that.”