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Mike Pence pushes a post-Trump path for conservatives and GOP

Mike Pence became vice president by bearing witness to Donald Trump — the thrice-married, six-times bankrupt, once “very pro-choice” real estate promoter — as “a good man” who would “make a great president” for religious and conservative voters.

“I’m a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” Pence said at his first appearance with his running mate in New York in 2016, driving home the gravity of his judgment.

Eight years later, Pence is asking the conservatives who followed his lead to turn away from Trump’s policy prescriptions — becoming the most prominent exile of the former president’s inner circle to speak out in an election season.

When Trump suggested he would not push for a federal limit on abortion Monday, Pence called it a “slap in the face to the millions of pro-life Americans who voted for him.” When Trump sent mixed signals on continued Chinese ownership of the social network TikTok, Pence launched a $2 million ad campaign through a nonprofit he founded demanding a Senate vote to force a sale or shutdown of the service.

“Donald Trump is pursuing an agenda that is at odds with the conservative agenda that we governed on during our four years, which is why I cannot in good conscience endorse Donald Trump in this campaign,” Pence said last month.

The move is a test of Pence’s remaining political influence and a direct challenge to the morphing conservative movement he once embodied.

The closest elected adviser to Trump during his presidency — the Republican who has spent more time with Trump than anyone, the Republican who seemingly defended every Trump utterance, the activist who has done more to smooth over Trump’s ideological inconsistencies — has found his new calling. Since dropping out as a 2024 presidential candidate last fall, Pence is again touting his brand of religious, hawkish and fiscal conservatism — pushing for changes to entitlement programs and more funding for Ukraine, among other issues.

His argument, according to advisers, is that Pence knows better than most that Trump will do what he says. At countless moments in the White House, it was Pence who was charged with reminding Trump that he had made conservative commitments on gun regulation, foreign policy, abortion and other issues — helping to pull him back from the policy brink.

Pence’s new worry is that Trump, unlike in 2016, no longer needs conservative activists in the same way and will no longer govern with that part of the GOP coalition base squarely in mind, according to the advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the former vice president’s thinking. Pence also worries Trump will surround himself with personnel in a second term who would encourage some of his worst impulses, they said.

Then there are Trump’s efforts to overturn the electoral college vote after the 2020 election — an attempt that ultimately led to a mob threatening Pence’s life for hours during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, without a word from Trump to stand down. Pence has said Trump’s refusal to follow the Constitution during the episode disqualifies him from returning to the White House.

Pence has told others that he and Trump had several friendly conversations after Jan. 6 — including a notable one on Jan. 11, when he said Trump showed contrition. On the day before the two left the White House, Pence visited Trump to thank him for the opportunity to serve in his administration and offered to pray for him.

In the following months, Trump and Pence talked somewhat frequently, and Trump even invited him to the former president’s Mar-a-Lago Club. But Pence began to realize Trump was hardening on his views of the Jan. 6 attack — he was no longer apologetic — and Trump began attacking Pence again.

The two have not spoken in years.

Many of Pence’s friends and allies in the conservative movement, however, doubt Pence’s judgment in assessing the party under Trump. Where Pence sees a conservative movement flirting with apostasy, they see a movement changing with the times.

“I think Mike is stuck in the Republican Party of the past. I think the party has changed, fundamentally changed, and it is not just about Trump,” said Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a longtime ally who first met Pence when he was an Indiana radio host.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, an advisory board member of Pence’s think tank, Advancing American Freedom, is even more blunt.

“There are a number of Republicans who for a variety of different reasons want to cling to a system which is now basically gone and will be the minority wing of the Republican Party for the foreseeable future,” Gingrich said. “Had he asked me, it is not what I would have advised Mike to do.”

Pence’s own advisers are ready for a fight. “When critics say we don’t know what time it is, we believe there are time-honored conservative principles we should adhere to,” said Marc Short, Pence’s longtime chief of staff. “They believe their principles are flexible, and I’m not really sure what they stand for.”

Others Trump opponents see in Pence’s new focus reason for hope, with one group, Republican Voters Against Trump, organized by former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, taking out swing-state billboards quoting his refusal to endorse the presumptive GOP nominee.

“Is it going to move zillions of voters? No,” Kristol says of Pence’s decision not to endorse. “Will it help with the one or two or three percent of Republicans who may defect from Trump or vote for Biden or stay home? I think so.”

President Biden’s advisers also hope that Pence and former GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, among other Republicans, can encourage some moderate Republicans to vote for Biden — or at least stay at home. If Pence doesn’t endorse the incumbent Democrat but continues to criticize Trump, that’s fine, a Biden adviser said.

“It actually would look more political if he endorsed Biden,” according to this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about campaign thinking. Neither Biden nor his team have talked to Pence or his team, a Pence aide said.

“I think it was hugely significant, both historically and politically,” said Alyssa Farah, a former Pence press secretary. “This has not happened in modern history.”

The Trump campaign dismisses Pence as an insignificant distraction, and Trump has taken to mocking him. In a post on Truth Social on Wednesday, Trump referred to him as “Former Vice President (thank you President Trump!) Mike Pence” and joked that Pence could double his polling support to 2 percent if he got different advisers.

“Bless Mike Pence’s heart since he completely let the MAGA movement down when he was vice president and thus could not get any traction running for president himself,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement. “He has now made himself even more irrelevant.”

Months before announcing his 2024 presidential campaign, Pence traveled to the Heritage Foundation, a group he had called “a flagship of the conservative movement,” for a speech warning against the isolationist drift within the party. He spoke of “Putin apologists” unwilling to stand up against Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and of those being led “astray by the siren song of unprincipled populism.”

Just a few months earlier, the conservative think tank had come out against a 2022 supplemental bill to provide military aide to Ukraine, after flying the Ukrainian flag over their building following the invasion.

Pence’s message was not lost on those in attendance. After the event, one of the senior leaders of Heritage came up to him, he has since told others, according to people familiar with the account. The person did not praise the speech, but merely said that “I hope that accomplished what you wanted to accomplish,” these people said

The group Pence founded after leaving the White House, Americans Advancing Freedom, was initially envisioned as just one more voice in the conservative ecosystem, a platform from which to launch a presidential campaign of his own. He now sees the group as an outsider of sorts. as the populism that drove Trump into office transforms the intellectual foundations of a movement that was long defined by the legacy of former president Ronald Reagan.

During the presidential campaign, Pence and his advisers grew frustrated when leaders of conservative groups would privately tell Pence they supported him — and that he was right about policies and did the right thing on Jan. 6 — but they could not buck Trump because their donors and activists preferred the former president.

The group’s downtown office includes a range of young employees — many wearing vests on a recent morning — working in a bullpen that looks almost like a campaign office. Pence and his senior advisers have glass offices around the bullpen, and Pence’s office includes a raft of memorabilia from his time in the White House. Other offices have stacks of his book, “So Help Me God.”

“We now feel very much like all the groups that we used to be able to rely on to be those anchors have upped anchor and are now floating with the wind,” said Tim Chapman, a senior adviser to the think tank, who previously served in senior roles at the Heritage Foundation and its political arm. “We have an obligation to create a contrast, and that contrast is going to create some real difficulties in the movement.”

Some allies have encouraged the conversation, arguing that the debate might even be a healthy one. Ed Feulner Jr., a co-founder and former president of Heritage who still serves that organization as a trustee, recently agreed to join the board of Pence’s group. He called Pence’s new focus a “clarion call for conservatives.”

The entire Pence presidential campaign was premised on his belief that there remained an appetite inside the Republican Party for this old-line conservative ethos. But as he traveled the country during the early primary states, Pence struggled to break out of single-digits as polls repeatedly showed more Republicans with a negative view of him than a positive one.

He told advisers of a farmer who came up to him after an Iowa event to tell him he would make a great president but voting for Trump was more important. “Well, if they can do that to a former president, and they do that to me, so we just got to handle that,” Pence recalled the farmer telling him in reference to the four criminal cases against Trump, the advisers said. Pence has argued privately that the Republican Party was open to another candidate until Trump was initially hit with 91 criminal charges in federal and state courts.

To make the debate stage, Pence had signed a written pledge to “honor the will of the primary voters and support the Republican presidential nominee to save our country and beat Joe Biden.” At an August debate, Pence raised his hand when asked who would support Trump even if he was convicted of a crime “in a court of law.” It is not clear he ever planned to follow through with either if Trump won the nomination again.

Pence’s team has tried to downplay the significance of this flip-flop. People close to him point out that the written pledge said “support,” not “endorse” like a similar document in 2015. They say he believed at the time he signed it that Trump would not be the nominee. They say he interpreted the debate question as a constitutional one, and there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that bars a president from taking office because of criminal convictions.

Pence’s team now argues that the former vice president’s current path was set in stone during the speech that announced his 2024 candidacy. “Anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again,” Pence had said in a description of Trump. “Our liberties have been bought at too high a price.”

When he announced his non-endorsement of Trump, Pence pledged not to reveal his vote in November, beyond promising that he will never vote for Biden. It was an odd decision for a person trying to reestablish his brand around principle. But the desire to keep one step removed from electoral politics helped to explain why he announced his intentions on a Friday in mid-March. His team teed up the announcement, advisers said, partially so he could get the proverbial elephant out of the room.

But Pence is not done with either electoral politics or with expressing his views of the running mate he stood by for so long.

“However much our Republican nominee or other candidates seek to marginalize the cause of life,” Pence said Monday in a statement, “I know pro-life Americans will never relent.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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