NEW YORK (AP) — As Donald Trump was being arraigned in Washington on yet another round of criminal charges, his running mate-turned-rival Mike Pence hurried to capitalize on the news.
Pence’s campaign unveiled new T-shirts and baseball caps for sale featuring the phrase “Too Honest” in big red letters — a reference to an episode in the indictment in which the former president called Pence to berate him over his refusal to go along with Trump’s scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
“You’re too honest,” Trump allegedly scoffed at his second-in-command on New Year’s Day.
Pence’s decision to seize on the words marks a notable change in tone for a usually cautious candidate who has struggled to break through in a primary dominated by his former boss. Since the release of the indictment in which he plays a central role, Pence has criticized Trump more aggressively, casting himself as the person who stood up to Trump, averting catastrophe.
“The American people deserve to know that President Trump and his advisers didn’t just ask me to pause. They asked me to reject votes, return votes, essentially to overturn the election,” Pence told Fox News Wednesday. Had he listened to Trump and “his gaggle of crackpot lawyers,” Pence said, “literally chaos would have ensued.”
Pence’s response might seem like the expected reaction of a man who had to flee for his life on Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent mob of Trump’s supporters violently stormed the Capitol building, clashing with police and disrupting the joint session of Congress over which Pence was presiding. Trump had convinced legions of his followers that Pence had the unilateral power to undo the election, and Pence, his staff and family spent hours in hiding in a Senate loading dock as rioters chanted, “Hang Mike Pence!” outside.
But Pence’s new words stand out, in part because of just how staunchly he refused to publicly criticize Trump during his four years as vice president, dutifully and deferentially defending his boss, no matter what. His newly tough talk also contrasts with Trump’s other rivals, who have largely shied away from attacking the former president over his mounting legal troubles and efforts to remain in power.
“I think this is the ‘Enough is enough’ Mike Pence. This is the ‘Let’s do this thing,’ ‘Let’s get it done’ Mike Pence,” said his spokesman, Devin O’Malley.
Pence notably had refused to appear before the congressional committee that investigated Jan. 6, criticizing its work as politicized. And he fought a subpoena to appear before the grand jury that heard the election case.
But Pence had never shied away from defending his own actions on Jan. 6.
His advisers had long acknowledged that many of the former president’s followers continue to believe Trump’s lies and blame Pence for failing to keep Trump in power. But they believed that if he addressed the issue head-on and spent time explaining his position to voters, they would come to respect his decision and adherence to the Constitution.
In his campaign launch speech, Pence put his actions at the forefront and directly assailed Trump, saying, “Anyone that puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States” and “Anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again.” The press Wi-Fi password at the event underscored that message: “KeptHisOath!”
When a supportive super PAC first launched, allies said Jan. 6 would be a fundamental part of their messaging. The group’s first ad featured footage from the riot and contrasted the two men’s actions that day.
Since then, however, Pence has spent most of his energy casting himself as the most conservative candidate in the field on economic and social issues, particularly abortion, instead of going after Trump.
He did not issue statements in response to Trump’s first two indictments. When he did react, he focused heavily on charges of a two-tiered system of justice and allegations that the Justice Department had been “weaponized” by the Biden administration. Pence had spent four years as a loyal Trump defender and, even when pressed, seemed unwilling to drop his guard.
But during a senior campaign leadership call Monday, as Washington awaited news of the indictment, Pence and his team discussed the idea of releasing a statement this time given his central role in the day’s events. Some on the call urged Pence to go further than he had before and to deliver a message in line with what he’d said as he launched his campaign and argued Trump was unfit to return to the White House. If we’re running against him, one person urged, let’s run against him.
A draft of the statement was ready by Tuesday morning, before the indictment was unveiled.
“Today’s indictment serves as an important reminder: Anyone who puts himself over the Constitution should never be President of the United States,” it read. “Our country is more important than one man. Our constitution is more important than any one man’s career.”
The next day, Pence continued to drive that message, telling reporters at the Indiana State Fair that “Sadly the president was surrounded by a group of crackpot lawyers that kept telling him what his itching ears wanted to hear.”
On Fox, he argued that “all the other legal issues around the president,” including a possible additional indictment in Georgia, were a distraction.
Pence’s team blasted out clips of the interview via email — “ICYMI: PENCE CHOSE THE CONSTITUTION OVER TRUMP AND ALWAYS WILL” — and another in which Pence clashed with a conservative talk radio host who had characterized Pence’s stance on Jan. 6 as merely his “beliefs.”
The attention sparked by the Trump indictment also brought a cash infusion. The Pence campaign received 7,000 new contributions in the first 24 hours, aides said. While 5,000 of those stemmed from the more than 1 million pieces of direct mail the campaign recently sent to voters, it nonetheless marked a sevenfold increase from the campaign’s usual daily haul and will likely qualify Pence for the first GOP debate in the coming days.
Committed to America, the super PAC supporting Pence’s candidacy, also increased its spending on digital ads amid heightened interest in Pence online.
“This is the first of many moments Pence will have between now and the Iowa caucus,” said Scott Reed, the group’s co-chair.
The attention caught Trump’s notice as well.
“I feel badly for Mike Pence, who is attracting no crowds, enthusiasm, or loyalty from people who, as a member of the Trump Administration, should be loving him,” Trump wrote on his Truth Social network.
Soon after, the Pence campaign decided to move forward with the new merchandising plan.
While some outside allies had long believed that Trump would eventually face charges and that Pence would have to respond more forcefully, Marc Short, who was Pence’s chief of staff on Jan. 6 and was referenced several times in the indictment, said Pence had grown increasingly tired of Trump’s bad-mouthing.
“I just think there’s the reality that for 2 1/2 years, the president has misrepresented the events of that day and grossly distorted what the vice president’s authority was and knowingly presented that in false ways to the American people. And I think that there’s an understandable frustration,” he said.
While Short believes most Republican voters would rather be talking about other issues and focusing on President Joe Biden, he said he always believed Pence’s actions that day would serve as a point of strength.
“I think people respect him for upholding his oath under enormous pressure,” he said.