Former Vice President Mike Pence had one of the best views possible of former President Donald Trump’s attempt to reverse the results of the 2020 election. Since leaving office, despite writing a whole memoir about his time serving under Trump, he’s been reticent to present the full, unvarnished tale.
That changed on Thursday, when Pence finally appeared before a federal grand jury to answer questions related to special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Trump’s schemes. It wasn’t easy to get Pence to testify. The likely 2024 presidential candidate has repeatedly implied to Republican voters how little he wants to turn on his former boss, even as he hopes that they support someone else next year. But at this point, it’s in Pence’s best interest to root that Smith’s investigation holds Trump to account.
Like most Republicans, Pence has chosen Trump rather than take the many, many off-ramps available over the years. When Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg handed down an indictment of Trump last month, Pence was quick to join the chorus of GOP officials denouncing it as a “politically charged prosecution.” And despite ostensibly competing against him to win the White House next year, Pence has been reluctant to directly attack the former president.
Pence has done a better job of distancing himself from Trump over the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — understandably so given that he was a focus of the attackers’ ire. But he’s also gone to great lengths to avoid saying anything too critical of Trump’s final days in office. In a 2021 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, he said that there’s “almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.” Last year in a speech to the Federalist Society, he went as far as to say “President Trump is wrong” to believe that the vice president could unilaterally overturn the election or send it back to the states.
But those words are not the same as cooperating in the efforts to investigate just how far Trump was willing to go to remain in office. For example, Pence shot down efforts to have him appear before the House Jan. 6 committee. “I never stood in the way of senior members of my team cooperating with the committee and testifying, but Congress has no right to my testimony,” he told CBS News in November.
And when Smith subpoenaed Pence in February, the former vice president made a great show of trying to avoid testifying. He and his lawyers argued that as president of the Senate during the insurrection, he was protected from being forced to testify under the “speech and debate” clause of the Constitution, a novel use of the vice presidency’s historical weirdness.
Surprisingly, a federal judge agreed with him — in part. Judge James Boasberg ruled that Pence could avoid testifying about his actions as the head of the Senate, but would still have to spill the tea about any potential “illegality” on Trump’s part. “We’ll obey the law, we’ll tell the truth,” Pence told CBS News last week in response, opting to forgo the appeals process. Though Trump’s lawyers filed their own appeal, arguing (yet again) that executive privilege should override the Justice Department’s investigation, a federal appeals court rejected that theory on Wednesday and cleared the way for Pence’s appearance before the grand jury.
In rejecting his and Trump’s arguments, the courts gave Pence exactly what other former lackeys have sought: plausible deniability. When confronted about his cooperation on the campaign trail, the losses in court allow Pence to argue that his hands were tied. “It can’t count as a treachery if a judge has ordered you to speak” is the exact kind of escape hatch that comes in handy regarding Trump and his still rabid support among the GOP base.
We still don’t know exactly what Pence told the grand jury under oath during the hours of questioning from Smith’s team. But it’s doubtful that whatever information he provided or corroborated is exculpatory for Trump. And while there’s no guarantee that an indictment — or even a conviction — from Smith would knock Trump out of the running, Pence has done everything he can to keep from getting blamed if that’s the case.
Immediately before the Jan. 6 attack, Trump lambasted Pence to his followers and did nothing to ensure his safety once the Capitol was breached. Pence, as a devout Christian, would surely deny wanting any sort of revenge for that betrayal if asked. He likely would also want to assure Trump supporters that he’s, at most, neutral about any outcome that Smith reaches. But it’s entirely in Pence’s best interest now to cheer on the Justice Department under his breath.